Sister Carolyn Sur

Mercy versus compassion

Mercy first caught my attention in my first year English class when we were asked to memorize a few lines of Portia’s soliloquies from the Merchant of Venice, IV, I. In the exclusive language of Shakespeare’s time it reads:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him [sic] that giveth and him that receiveth. 

In the early 1980s, Sister Carolyn Sur (front center) was teaching at Vincent Gray, an alternative high school for students whose lives were complicated due to being born into disadvantage. They “taught me why only God can judge. The rest of us need mercy!”

It was a more sophisticated way of getting a teenager’s attention than the well-worn biblical citations, “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to you.” Or, “Give, and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.”

For my young sense of fairness resisting altruism, Portia’s approach with the metaphor of “gentle rain,” stirred my poetic heart. “Go ahead,” my tit for tat way of thinking cautioned the fleeting moments of generosity. “Give mercy away. You’ll get it back.”

Later, after all those gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit were memorized for catechism class, I looked for simplicity and clarity. Probably in a homily or in a theology class, I heard/read a clear distinction between mercy and compassion. “Compassion is a movement of the heart. Mercy is compassion in action.”

I offer a companion’s supper time story of feeling compassion and practicing mercy when she reported someone pushing a grocery cart on the sidewalk during rush hour. Just then it began to rain. Jean pulled over, shifted her car, and tossed an extra umbrella into the woman’s cart. Portia’s, “Gentle rain.”

– Sister Carolyn Sur, SSND