Monday, October 15, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 41, “Justice and That Which Surpasses It”

Dear friend, *

Instant Karma. Karma Chameleon. A bumper sticker reading “My karma ran over your dogma.” Sometime in the late 1960s, when we were in school together, my old friend, this Eastern “law” of cause and effect, this mystical sense of “what goes around comes around” landed, plop, in the mainstream of Western thinking, though history probably says it was been adopted by the beats before us hippies. Karma was and remains one of those easily swallowed, insufficiently little words that we Westerners have been quick to add to the prismatic crazy-glass lenses through which we see the world.

You gotta love the bumper sticker. In one pithy, dismissive play on words, the driver uses the Eastern to crush the Western, laughing at two thousand years of Christian culture (what else is meant by dogma?) for a buzzword that means . . . what?

Not even those from the East agree on what karma means. But if I had to translate it into a single Western word—and not a phrase, like the law of cause and effect, I would settle for justice. Karma conveys a sense that my present actions are the cause of my future results. Some in the East (and West now) believe in reincarnation, that the effects extend themselves in a revolving-door existence; that my crimes in this life will make me a dog in the next, and so on. However you fine-tune karma it seems to imply the existence of a cold, immutable lawfulness about the universe.

Which leaves no room for the parable of the prodigal son, or that of the vineyard owner who pays the last-hired laborer the same as the first-hired. Karma leaves no room for mercy.

Mercy is the subject of this chapter in The Lord. Mercy is “that which surpasses” justice in the chapter title. Mercy makes no sense, at least not if you see a world ruled by justice, or karma. How could the father have favored the prodigal son? His elder son had stayed faithfully home all those years while the younger prodigal lived a slovenly life! Unfair! How could the owner of the vineyard pay the same wage to the man recruited at thirty minutes before quitting time as he did to the fellow who had been toiling since sun-up? Unjust!

Karma is a concept for an impersonal universe, a world without a loving divine presence, world that makes no sense of a doting father who will welcome his child no matter what, just so long as that child comes home. Mercy is something else entirely.

I am not particularly merciful myself. I resent injustice sooner than I forgive it. But I have known mercy in my life.

First was my own father, who saw me give up everything he held dear. Accepted at one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the nation, I walked away. Accepted at Harvard Business School, I didn’t go. Yet when the time came and I was ready to come home, my father held the door for me. He became my best friend in the last ten years of his life. The golf we played! The stories we told! And all because my father did not live by the law of karma or justice, but by mercy. My father was a merciful man.

And so the Catholic Church too. I stayed away from Christian worship for forty years. I laughed at Evangelicals. I studied Eastern thought and dreamed of reincarnation and chuckled at ironic bumper stickers. But when something moved me to walk back in through the door in 2007, the year before my father died, I found the door open. The following year I was “received into” the Church, while my earthly father watched.

I did not deserve any of that, not by karma. I did not earn my day’s wage, but I received it anyway. That’s mercy, which surpasses justice, and any common understanding.

Be well, my friend,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 42.

* This post continues a series of meditation on The Lord by Romano Guardini framed as open letters to a real and beloved friend from my daysin boarding school and college.

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