According to Catholic tradition, the seraphim are the highest order of angels, most proximate to God and endowed with the greatest wisdom and love. Like humans, all angels possess the powers of reason and free will. Unlike humans, however, they live in eternity, not time. Thus from the moment they were created, the choice they made to accept or reject God had immediate and eternal consequences. The angel Lucifer was among the seraphim, and led the rebellion of all angels who rejected the sovereignty of God.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux produced a short work entitled “On Humility and Pride” which documents the folly of this rejection. The logic behind the words he places in Lucifer’s mouth resonates well with the unguarded mind:
“But surely there is no reason to be afraid? It is true that my wickedness cannot please Him because He is good (John 7:12). But would it please Him any better to act badly Himself? I should say that even if I should act wrongly in going against His will, He would act wrongly in taking revenge. He cannot want to avenge Himself for my sin, for He cannot will to lose His good; nor is He able to.”
Lucifer’s desire is to establish himself as a separate dominion co-dominant with God. In this account he misperceives God’s mercy as a permit to proceed with his wicked plans, supposing that God’s retribution would be akin to revenge. Unconsidered is the notion that revenge proceeds from the passion of resentment, while retribution proceeds from the virtue of indignation (J. Budziszewski, “The Line through the Heart”, chapter “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice”). Through the arrogance begotten by his deceitful reasoning, Lucifer is blinded to the truth that mercy is not merciful without justice.
In his outstanding work “Transformation in Christ”, Dietrich von Hildebrand observes that the chief aim of satanic pride is the glorification of the self. The desire to arrogate to oneself unlimited power and “metaphysical grandeur” denies the divine truth, which is that these qualities are irrevocably connected with goodness. Since God alone is good (Luke 18:19), such a prideful undertaking is deluded.
As von Hildebrand points out, he whose attitude is tainted by this form of pride is blinded to value. “While he is aware of that character of compelling sovereignty inherent in values, he fails to see its essential nexus with their self-contained beauty, their objective significance independent of any utilitarian or decorative use in the service of an ego” (chapter “Humility”). Having rejected God, the source of all goodness, the understanding of the order of values is lost, and self-deception seeking glorification of the ego begets greater iniquity.
Creation was itself an act of mercy. There was no need for God to create since He is self-sufficient, yet He desired to share existence with all creation. He also sought to share His love with all rational beings, establishing as the purpose of their lives the reflection of this love. But the love returned would be meaningless if it were not given freely, and this could only be done with the possibility of rejection.
Therefore the choice given to love God or refuse to love Him is also a gift of mercy, since true fulfillment of the self is offered as a choice. As stated above, the choice and its consequences were immediate for the angels, but given in time for humanity. However, in both cases resides the possibility that the grace offered in this choice can be perceived as an opportunity to put oneself before God.
In multiple sermons, St. Alphonsus Liguori noted that many souls are more likely lost through mercy than through justice. The notion that “there is always tomorrow to repent” has led many a soul to perdition. Freedom of choice would be significantly lessened if divine punishment were to immediately follow the sin. In the abundance of freedom afforded by mercy, complacency can take root.
There are only subtle differences in the outward appearances of lives directed for and against God. One soul builds his house on sand, while another builds her house on rock (Matthew 7:26). The consequences of these choices are not immediate. It is very difficult to discern one’s true metaphysical situation in the order of mercy unless one has truly purified one’s soul through a rigorous prayer life or has received a special gift of divine grace.
The crowds that heralded Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are the same ones that called for his crucifixion. The Jewish mob that stoned Stephen (Acts 7:57) was not driven to rage before God’s grace was present, though the seeds were already sown in their hearts. The difference in souls will become apparent only when judgment renders them bare. In the story of the separation of the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:33), Jesus implies that it will be easy to tell the two apart. We pray that we will use this precious mercy to bring our souls to salvation.
“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”