Mercy. The word is almost irradiated by our projections and longings. To be granted mercy, to be accepted and included again after being judged, rejected, and hurt, is one of our greatest desires in a long list of things we may secretly believe we don’t deserve. For acts large and small, when we misspeak, over-react, have a bad day; when we abuse, abandon, and kill — all of us need mercy like we need water.

But to grant mercy — there’s the rub.

Recently I was hurt by a friend who I felt had manipulated me into a false position, with the result that I ended up losing something that I had greatly wished for. I withdrew for several days, telling myself that I was trying to calm down. But angry thoughts churned. Hourly, it became easier to see myself as a victim, as devalued in our friendship.

Mercy is a hard act. It is the nature of transgressions that we shift into well-established interior story lines. Beneath the “You’re Okay, I’m Okay” moral relativism, we each carry a code of moral conduct that, when targeted, triggers a self-protective fight instinct. Offense can feel tantamount to death — a big or a little death. We rush to shore up our egos by pointing fingers, blaming — whatever it takes.

Blame and victim, or judge and jury, these story lines justify and reinforce our position, demonize the “other,” and can become a vicious cycle that goes on for months, even years, growing ever more rigid and closed to new perspective. I know whereof I speak: I had a grandmother who went 20 years without speaking to one of her sisters, to the chagrin and pain of the rest of us.

With the Pope’s announcement yesterday, a radical movement of mercy has been released into the world. Women who went against the Church’s teaching on abortions and had them, subsequently suffering in the shadowlands of guilt and grief for years, can be granted absolution and spiritual healing by any priest — not just bishops — beginning on the feast of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8.

Mercy is so hard — and so beautiful — because it cannot exist outside of an absolutely inviolable dynamic of mutuality. Mercy cannot be said to be “granted” without being received, and it cannot be received without contrition. A hardened heart that just goes through the motions cannot soften in the cool tide of mercy. On the other hand, that same tide cannot advance without a large swell of empathy.

Only when we step back from passionately held intellectual stances and ego positions are we able to try to understand another’s position. Mercy is contemplative; it always puts the state of the other before ours. Only in this way are we able to touch the suffering heart that has acted out of its suffering in ways that, had the suffering not existed, it would never have acted.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” the pope said of women who had abortions. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

These are words of mercy. They have wings; they fly from one heart to another, transforming antagonists into people who can have a deep and meaningful conversation about excruciatingly difficult matters.

Eventually I reached out to my friend. I didn’t ignore the cause of my hurt, because it touched the fundamental issue of honesty. But I had come to understand that she’d felt she had no choice but to lie to me, because her own life was too stressed to allow her to stick with her original intentions. For her, this was the lesser of several evils, and the only choice she could see.

I think of mercy as more capacious than forgiveness, but at the same time, is its threshold. Only when we touch the heart of suffering can we generate mercy. When we do, we have the power to truly and deeply heal.