Surprised by Mercy
Robert Frost, America’s grand old man of poetry in the twentieth century, occasionally explored God and faith in his earlier poems. Then, entering his seventies after a decade of great personal loss—his wife’s death, the death of one of his daughters shortly after childbirth, and the suicide of another—Frost wrote two poetic dramas filled with references to God. The first, A Masque of Reason, is based on Job’s story of suffering and comes across as rather inconclusive. But the second, A Masque of Mercy, has Jonah as the main character and wraps up in a more aesthetically pleasing way. In creative uniqueness it tackles the conflict in Jonah’s thinking, as it “explores the ancient riddle of how God can be just and also be merciful.” It also pulls Jonah toward Christ and the cross.
The brief play is set late on a stormy night inside a modern bookstore run by someone named Keeper, a pagan skeptic who’ll later say, “I’d rather be lost in the woods than found in church.” His alcohol-loving wife, Jesse Bel, is more openly searching for faith and sees that longing in others around her as well: “The world seems crying out for a Messiah,” she’ll say.
The play begins with Keeper and Jesse Bel locking their shop’s door for the evening, leaving inside a customer named Paul (as it turns out, it’s the Paul—the apostle). But someone bangs at the locked door. As they reluctantly let him in, the harried stranger exclaims, “God’s after me!”
“You mean the Devil is,” Jesse Bel remarks.
“I never heard of such a thing,” she protests.
The fugitive answers, “Haven’t you heard of Thompson’s ‘Hound of Heaven’?”
Paul at once interjects by quoting the familiar opening lines: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years.”
But Keeper grumbles at the fugitive: “This is a bookstore—not a sanctuary.”
From this strange and amusing start, the play proceeds to an extended conversation that keeps coming back to God.
“Why is God after you?” Keeper asks. “To save your soul?”
“No,” the fugitive replies. He tells them he’s a prophet, and his name is Jonah. He’s been sent seven times “to prophesy against the city evil.”
“What have you got against the city?” Keeper asks.
“He knows,” Jonah answers. God knows.
Jonah identifies himself further (though Paul has already caught on): “I’m in the Bible, all done out in story.” Then he complains, “I can’t trust God to be unmerciful.”
Paul responds, “There you have the beginning of all wisdom.”
Jonah tells them about his earlier flight from God, and the storm, and the boat, and the crew—and the whale.
Jesse Bel sympathizes: “You poor, poor swallowable little man.”
But Paul recognizes a man who needs rescue. He goes up to Jonah and crosses his forearms—to illustrate the cross.
“What good is that?” Jonah asks.
Jonah tells these three that he would like to announce an earthquake to destroy “the city evil,” but he’s sure God wouldn’t send it. “Nothing would happen,” he says—but suddenly a tremor sends books crashing from the store’s shelves. Meanwhile, Jonah keeps hearing noises that he suspects are from God in pursuit of him.
Paul asks Jonah what he wants to see in God, if not mercy.
Justice is Jonah’s answer; justice “before all else.”
Getting God Wrong
Throughout Frost’s play, Jonah wrestles with how God doesn’t seem to live up to justice. Jonah has been taught that people should be “strong, careful, thrifty, diligent,” and he’s upset by God’s “modern tendency” not to punish those who fail to measure up to those ideals.
The conversation inside the bookshop bounces around in history, philosophy, and theology, and finally returns to mercy. Paul directs everyone’s attention to the Sermon on the Mount and the “beautiful impossibility” it portrays:
An end you can’t by any means achieve,
And yet can’t turn your back on or ignore,
That is the mystery you must accept.
It throws us by necessity onto mercy. “Mercy is only to the undeserving,” Paul says, which includes all of us, in God’s sight:
Here we all fail together, dwarfed and poor.
Failure is failure, but success is failure.
There is no better way of having it.
A door opens on its own to the store’s cellar. Paul, who has had a cross painted on the cellar’s ceiling, encourages Jonah to go down into its dark depths: “You must make your descent like everyone.” It will require Jonah’s abandonment and submission, essentially a yielding of self.
Jonah is hesitant. Finally he steps to the threshold, but the door slams in his face, knocking him to the floor. Lying there, collapsed and fading out, he confesses, “I think I may have got God wrong entirely.” His own sense of justice, he says, “was about all there ever was to me.” His last words are these: “Mercy on me for having thought I knew.”
Kneeling over him, Paul speaks his own concluding words, affirming that “the best we have to offer” isn’t enough. “Our very best, our lives laid down like Jonah’s . . . may not be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.”
The play closes with words from Keeper, who admits, “My failure is no different from Jonah’s.” He says they should lift Jonah’s body and lay him “before the cross,” just as Paul wanted. As the curtain falls, Keeper moves toward the prostrate Jonah and offers the play’s final line:
Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.
Or as the New Testament says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).