I saw a lot of articles in these couple of days about Pope Francis’ reflection of his style, influences and priorities as pope in the recent interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit journal in Rome.

In this interview, the words of Thomas Merton – “Mercy within mercy within mercy," was quoted, which appears in his book, “The Sign of Jonas” as follows:

"I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy."

I understand it’s hard for non-Christian like me fully understand the meaning (Actually one of writers wrapped up his article by confessing he neither understand exact meaning of this phrase). But I would like to know at least basic implications of this phrase.

What does ‘within’ before ‘mercy’ represent for? If ‘within’ is replaced with ‘and’ with an aim at emphasizing, does it totally miss the point?

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    [on hold] general reference because, under a grammatical perspective, "Mercy within mercy within mercy" can only mean "Mercy within mercy within mercy". Otherwise [on hold] because off-topic here and migrating on Christianity.SE for teological meaning.
    – user51029
    Commented Sep 21, 2013 at 22:43
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    @Atsuo Nagatomi. I don't think it’s either self-explanatory or off-topic. I’d like to quote NYT co-ed columnist, Ed Bruni’s words in today's (September 22) article titled ‘Pope’s radical whisper" for you in response to your comment: “(Pope’s) personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words (containing Mercy within mercy within mercy). Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.” You know NYT is read not only by many Americans but world-wide. Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 22:08
  • Cont'd. Consider this question got 6 up-votes and a single down-vote, which could be from someone like you, and 125 viewers in a day. Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 22:09
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    Nagatomo-san.I don’t want play numbers with you. Certainly 125 views a day isn’t any significant number as compared with your 2k views a day and some of my questions gaining over 20k, 30k views and 8 gold budges so far, though I don’t want to boast of any of these numbers. What I’m saying is there were at least 125 viewers who are interested in this question against your comment of my question being irrelevant to English. I’m asking the meaning of an English phrase of recent topic, not of Greek and Japanese. Period. Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 23:30
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    Yoichi, thanks for asking yet another academic question that caused me to furrow my eyebrows in thought, and ponder the meaning of another curious phrase extracted from a mainstream news publication. Seeing how mercy is something abstract rather than concrete, it was not immediately obvious to me how mercy could work like nesting dolls. As for whether one could "compound" mercy by using 'and' in place of 'within', perhaps that would be possible, although I think 'upon' might be a better substitute, as in: mercy upon mercy upon mercy. I'll go ponder this some more.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 23:58

2 Answers 2


It's describing God (I assume, judging from the capitalised Me), and using the analogy of an onion's layers.

If you take away the outer layer showing mercy, expecting to find cruelty underneath as the true nature, you don't: you find mercy. And if you scratch at that layer to get underneath, you find mercy again. He is mercy all the way through.

In this case, beauty is more than skin deep: it is the entire being.

  • +1, but what do you mean with 'entire being', i.e., 'entire' somewhat includes God, too?
    – user51029
    Commented Sep 21, 2013 at 22:47
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    @AtsutoNagatomo As much as God is personified in Merton's book, yes: the entire person. There is nothing but mercy.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 21, 2013 at 22:53
  • Andrew, but I read that Merton's pre-monastic conduct, as the complete truth indicates, was reprehensible at best, and downright despicable at worst, plus some of his book had been censored.
    – user51029
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 22:29
  • Andrew Leach. Thanks. The analogy of your ‘onion’s skin’ and J.R.’s ‘Russian matryoshka doll’, and rephrasing ‘mercy upon mercy upon mercy, are interesting and all helpful for me to understand the meaning of Thomas Merton’s maxim Pope Francis quoted in his intervew. Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 3:43

The statement is similar to Turtles all the way Down. Basically the speaker is saying he is all mercy, without a bit of cruelty. Not something you'd normally say about oneself, but for someone else, you might describe him as "without a cruel bone in his body".

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