The most rational temptation that I know of is that of justice. I can always say that there is a reason for why I feel betrayed, misunderstood, used, or merely frustrated. Most likely, if I were to describe such stories, people would agree with me and would acknowledge that I deserve some kind of retribution for what I may have experienced.
If people leave me, we would all agree that they must do something before I would be held responsible for any action toward them. They must first return, show a change of heart, ask for forgiveness, and only then I may decide whether or not I want to accept them. Before that, however, it is just to not care about the state of their souls, to not pay attention to their needs. They have left me, so they are responsible for the situation created.
In such moments of frustration it does not cross my mind that I may have done the same things to others. Come to think of it, where would I be if I were treated justly? Where would I be if my parents did not love me in spite of me, in spite of my actions? Where would I be if people decided that I am no longer worthy of their company unless I somehow pay for the misfortunes I may have caused them?
Nevertheless, I always find justifications to be “just.” And this is because I know, because I know what others deserve, and I am ready to give to each according to his of her worth. The temptation of knowledge mixing itself with the temptation of justice.
But if justice is a temptation, with what can it be replaced? Mercy? St. Isaac of Syria puts it this way:
Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side, neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy, and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it, although it overfills him who deserves good.
Still, my reason tells me that this cannot be sufficient. Love is not blind. Love does not throw you in the path of wolves, letting you die at their mercy just because you are called to bend to all with sympathy. After all, God Himself is just and He separates people between those on the left and those on the right. On the Sunday of judgment, one week before the beginning of the great lent, the Gospel read in churches says,
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-36).
Those on the left hand have not done it. So it is just that they would depart from Him. Those on the right have done it, so it is just for them to inherit the Kingdom.
However, it may well be that, according to justice, the thirsty deserve to be thirsty. The hungry deserve to be hungry. And those in prison deserve to be locked up. They have not nourished their being–so presumably they have not taken care of Christ in them, of the beautiful Lily that needs to be watered and needs to be cared for, so that it can be born in them. They may have lived in lawlessness. Why would I be called to give them water, to give them food, to care for them if they are sick or in prison? What kind of loving justice is this? Isn’t it blind?
It is perhaps here that we find that we are not called to the judgment of justice, but to that of discernment. Christianity is not stupidity, as Fr. Nicolae Steinhardt says in his Jurnalul fericirii (The Diary of Happiness). Taking care of the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned does not mean to not see the evil in which someone else is involved. In fact, being able to visit someone in prison requires discernment: you must be able to see that he is in prison.
“Thousands of devils give me itches when I see how Christianity is confused with stupidity,” Fr. Nicolae Steinhardt says, “with a sort of dull and coward piety […], as if the destiny of Christianity were to leave the world mocked by evil forces, while it would facilitate iniquities because it is doomed to blindness and paraplegia by definition.”
So perhaps mercy requires discernment: the ability to see that my brothers and sisters suffer. The ability to see that my Brother suffers. And the ability to see that He suffers in me.
I am hungry, and I do not give me food, for I do not nourish the beautiful Lily that desires to be born in me. I am thirsty, and I do not give me water, for I do not water the Lily that dies in me. I am a stranger, and I do not take me in, for I do not bring in my house the Lily that awaits at my door. I am naked, and I do not clothe me, for I allow the petals of this Lily to die one by one, leaving It naked. I am sick, and I do not care for me, for I am too blind to “my needs” to be able to see the that the Lily shouts Its desire to live in me. I am in prison, and I do not visit me, for I am His very warden.