Mercy, Mercy!

Imagine my delight! A long-awaited book has finally arrived. I was quite aware of the block-buster frenzy its release made in 2013. But that was in German and I had to await its release in English. Well, it arrived this weekend!

The book is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001-2010. Warning: you will likely be reading more about this book on this blog in the weeks ahead.

Regulars recall my reveling in the linguistic connection between the Hebrew words for mercy and womb. They come from the same root. Those who know Hebrew would immediately catch the connection between God’s mercy and the “womb love” of a mother.

Not having that cognate in English, this understanding and appreciation is lost on many of us. We Anglo-Saxon English-speakers can easily apply juridical connotations when we speak of mercy – unwarranted forgiveness, commutation of punishment due us, sheer gratuity from a just authority. Yes, that’s a part of mercy! But think of how much we miss if translations fail to convey the fullness of meaning.

Well, folks, imagine my delight when the translator’s preface to Kasper’s Mercy makes the very same point – but not in relation to Hebrew but in terms of German. Please bear with a few technicalities… it’s important!

Kasper uses the German words barmherzigkeit and erbarmen to describe God’s “merciful” attitudes and actions.  Here’s the point… the root “barm” implies physical tenderness and concrete action. Erbarmen means literally “to cherish in one’s bosom, press to one’s heart.” A second root in barmherzigkeit is the word for heart, herz. The translator wants the reader to appreciate that this German word suggests that one has his or her heart with those who are poor or in distress.

The translator of Mercy from German into English further emphasizes this critical understanding by drawing the equivalent connection with the Latin, misericordia and the word cor meaning heart.

Womb-love, being cherished in the bosom of another, or a God whose heart is with the distressed and poor is not the first place my thoughts go when the priest says, “Let us call to mind our sins.  Pray for God’s mercy!”

Unfortunately, my old Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic heritage still sends me into a nose-dive of pleading for unwarranted forgiveness, guilty as accused and deserving of punishment by a just authority.

How much more blessed – and accurate – we English speakers would be if the next time we prayed “Lord, have mercy!” we recognized the poverty of our English translation and again got in touch with the richness conveyed in the German, Hebrew and Latin originals.

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