Comfort the Sorrowful – A Consideration of the Fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy

Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.
Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.

The fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy is to “comfort the sorrowful.” Sometimes it is listed as to “comfort the afflicted.” This description broadens the work just a bit and also fits more with the original notion of the word “comfort,” as we shall consider in a moment.

But of all the spiritual works of mercy, comforting the sorrowful requires the greatest patience, sensitivity, and also silence. This is because sorrow (or grief) often has a life and logic of its own; often it must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes there is not a lot a person can say or do when grief is present. Grief is something we can rarely get around; we must simply go through it. Thus, comforting or consoling the sorrowful and grieving people in our life often involves a kind of silent and understanding accompaniment more so than words or actions. To listen and give understanding attention often provides the greatest value.

St. Augustine once observed that sighs and tears in prayer often accomplish more than words. And so it is that when people are sorrowful, their grief and tears are their prayer and we do well to honor that, rather than to say, “Don’t be sad” or “Cheer up.” A largely silent and respectful silence can be a way of honoring grief and signaling a true camaraderie. St. Paul says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Strange though it may seem, a dog often presents a good model, teaching us that when someone is having a bad day, the best thing to do is to just sit close by and nuzzle them gently.

If one notices a person getting “stuck” in his grief, not making the progress of moving through it in stages, more will be needed—but not right away. People need time and room to grieve. Some take longer than others, and there is no single “right” way to grieve. To comfort and console requires a sensitivity on our part that seeks to discover what the person needs, on his terms, not ours.  If there are signs of true depression, or a serious lack of progress, this may be an indication that we should become more active in our comforting and consoling, perhaps getting the person out for activities or even recommending professional help.

In terms of caring for the sorrowful, we rightly think of giving comfort in the modern, English sense of the term. However, the word “comfort” in terms of its older, root meaning, involves something more vigorous than merely giving comfort.  The Latin roots are cum (with) + fortis (strong, or strength). Thus to comfort someone, in its older etymological roots, means to strengthen him.

In this sense, the word comfort is better paired with the other traditional rendering of this spiritual work of mercy: “comfort the afflicted.” Here, too, “afflicted” in its Latin roots means to be struck down, weakened, or injured. And thus the spiritual work, “comfort the afflicted,” becomes more vigorous. Here is a person who has been struck down, weakened, or ridiculed; to comfort him means in the more literal sense to restore him to strength, to enable him to persevere, to summon him to the courage that strongly resists those who would seek to render him weak or ineffective. This, then, is the vigorous understanding of the fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy, “comfort the sorrowful” or “comfort the afflicted.”

But in either sense, the tender comforting of those who are sorrowful and grief-stricken, or the more vigorous sense of strengthening the afflicted, this is a work of mercy that is restorative of a brother or sister to the normal Christian state of being joyful, confident, and strong.

This song says,

Since we are summoned to a silent place;
Struggling to find the words to fill the space.
Christ be beside us as we grieve;
Daring to doubt or to believe.

Counsel the Doubtful – A Meditation on the Third Spiritual Work of Mercy

050515At first glance, counseling the doubtful may seem rather similar to instructing the ignorant. However, teaching has learning as its goal while counseling aims to assist with decisions. Certainly giving counsel often includes some aspects of teaching, such as providing information and perspective, but its primary purpose is to assist a person in coming to a decision. This distinction is contained in the root meanings of the words “counsel” and “doubtful.”

The English word “counsel” comes from the Latin consilium (con (with) + silium (a decision)). So to counsel means to assist someone in the act of deciding, not just to give vague or generic advice.

As such, counsel is connected to the virtue of prudence. Prudence is that virtue which directs particular human acts toward a good end.  In modern usage, prudence (and by extension, counsel) has often been equated with caution. But prudence is not caution per se; it is a virtue that sees the best way forward given the goals in mind. It is true that both prudence and counsel would avoid rash decisions until things have been properly considered. But of itself, the “prudent” response to a situation is not always the cautious one. Sometimes the prudent thing to do involves a bold or zealous response. Aristotle and classical philosophy defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Prudence and counsel seek the best way forward toward a goal based on the situation and the available options.

However, since we are speaking here of counseling the doubtful as a spiritual work of mercy, the goal in this case refers to that which is moral and rooted in our final end of holiness and salvation. Thus while “counsel” in the general sense could include helping a person decide the best way to repair a car, when speaking of the spiritual work of mercy, such worldly issues are not our focus. Rather, the spiritual work of mercy to “Counsel the doubtful” is concerned with holiness and our goal of dwelling with God in Heaven forever. Finding a “good” way (recta ratio) forward is not mere expedience; it is what is moral, upright, and holy.

The work of giving counsel here is directed to the “doubtful.” Here, too, we need to rescue the word a bit from modern notions, which often associate doubt with skepticism. While a doubtful person may be skeptical of certain truths, “doubt” here is understood in a way that emphasizes the need to make a decision.

The word “doubt” comes from the Latin word dubius meaning “uncertain.” However, even more deeply, the word has roots in the Latin word duo (two). The Latin word dubium is a choice between two things. Even in English there is that strange (silent) “b” in the word “doubt.” This points to another related English word, “double,” which comes from the same Latin root (dubius). And thus the doubtful are the undecided, those of two minds on a certain matter, or, more pejoratively, the “double-minded.”

So we have come to a more precise description of the spiritual work of mercy we call “Giving counsel to the doubtful.” It is that work which helps the undecided (or those of two minds on something) to come to a good and upright decision rooted in the call to holiness and the goal of attaining Heaven by God’s grace.

Counsel of this sort is an integral part of prudence. According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica II-IIae 47-48), an act of prudence involves three things: taking counsel (looking about for the means suited in the particular case to reach the goal of moral virtue), judging soundly the fitness of the means suggested, and commanding its employment.

What a beautiful work of mercy it is to help better orient others toward their heavenly goal by assisting them in choosing the most virtuous and holiest way forward in a difficult or puzzling situation! Clearly, though, if we are to be equipped to provide this beautiful work of mercy, we must first be docile to the will and mind of God. We must be well instructed in heavenly wisdom, which is often paradoxical to the worldly-minded. The capacity to give spiritual counsel grows out of a deep prayer life, the study of Scripture, and the experience (and suffering) of living as a faithful Christian in the world.

Though in rare cases the gift to give counsel can be infused (i.e., poured into the soul by God), in most cases the gift deepens over time, assuming one is prayerful and attentive and docile to divine teaching. And thus our prayer, study, and life experiences are not only for our own sake, but for that of others as well.

St. Paul gives some wise counsel to those of us who would strive to accomplish this spiritual work of mercy:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness ... (2 Tim 3:14-16)

Similarly, St. Paul exhorts Titus to show forth the fruit of such devoted learning:

And as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. … In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach (Titus 2:1, 7-8).

And thus we are equipped to counsel the doubtful, to assist them (and ourselves) to become more deeply rooted in the decision to follow Jesus, to choose the Lord and the things awaiting in Heaven, to leave behind double-minded ways and duplicity, to decide for what is right, good, noble, and holy.

This is a great and wonderful work of mercy.

More Precious than Silver or Gold – A Meditation on the Spiritual Work of Mercy to Instruct the Ignorant

 "Jesus blessing little children”  oil on canvas by William Brassey Hole This file is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
“Jesus blessing little children” oil on canvas by William Brassey Hole
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

To instruct comes from the Latin in + struere, which means to build up or (even more literally) to pile up. In English, there is also the notion of strewing something. For example, to strew hay or to say that the seed has been strewn. Thus, to instruct means to disperse knowledge or build someone up in what is learned.

These days, the word “ignorant” is most often used in a negative or pejorative sense. And thus to say that someone is ignorant usually means (in modern English) that he is stupid or foolish. But more literally and less pejoratively, the word simply refers to someone who does not know something. And while some ignorance can be said to be inexcusable (in that a person should know better), it can also be more innocent: one simply does not happen to know something and can benefit from instruction in the matter.

And this is what is meant by the spiritual work of mercy “Instruct the Ignorant.” All of us can benefit from proper instruction by those who know more about a certain subject or issue than we do. And it is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to instruct us. It is an even greater work of mercy when the knowledge conferred is something essential or saving for us.

Can any of us ever really be grateful enough for all those who took the time to teach us down through the years, whether it was as young children in school, or as we grew through maturity and into a career, or even today as we learn new technologies or new issues and things that are on the scene? A patient and generous teacher is a great gift. And indeed the knowledge we gain is so enormously valuable as to be literally invaluable.

Yes, to instruct the ignorant is a great great work of mercy, and knowledge is one of our most precious gifts.

In speaking of instructing the ignorant as a spiritual work of mercy, at least two things are meant. First, because the intellect is a faculty of the soul, our human spirit is nourished by all instruction.

Second, however (and more particularly), the Church has in mind the kind of instruction that most benefits the soul: instruction in religious truth rooted in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition of the teachings of the Church. If secular instruction can benefit us unto worldly ends, how much greater the benefits of religion instruction that has heavenly and eternal rewards.

The goal of religious instruction is always to place one into a saving relationship with God. And thus the goal is not to simply help people know about the Lord, but to know the Lord, and by that relationship with Him in the truth, to be saved.  What an enormous boon, what a wealth and treasure it is to know the sacred truths of God!

Psalm 119, the longest in the Bible, goes on for 176 verses praising the glory of God’s truth, which is more precious than gold many times refined. The book of Baruch says, Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us! (Baruch 4:4)  Yes, how I love your law, O Lord.

The second and more particular sense of instructing the ignorant, however, seems to have been largely lost. Many otherwise good and conscientious parents place a low priority on the religious instruction of their children. Math and science classes must be passed; if trouble emerges a tutor needs to be secured! School attendance is essential, for indeed the child’s future very much depends on success in academic subjects. But there seems to be little concern if children do not grasp religious truths or balk at attending Mass.

Even more than understanding worldly truths, laying hold of sacred doctrine is essential for children’s eternal salvation. But too few parents have any sense of urgency about conveying these truths.

Part of the problem is theological, since many today have a diminished sense of the possibility of Hell, erroneously thinking little of the Day of Judgment for which we should have a holy fear and sobriety, not to mention a careful preparation.

Sociologically, however, the problem seems to have its roots in the last two centuries, when the religious instruction of youth was largely consigned to priests and religious. The idea of parents as the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith was largely eclipsed by a ceding of this authority to a professional class. And thus the Catholic school system, one of our greatest strengths and assets, also has had unfortunate and unintended consequences at the family level.

Today there is a greater emphasis from the Church on the need for parents to be equipped for their role as the primary educators of their children. But effective programs are still hard to come by. In my own parish, I have made the instruction of parents the most critical pillar in our Sunday school program. While the children are in the classroom, I am in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents. Nothing is more essential for parents than to hand on the saving truths of the faith to their children. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov 22:6). 

Instructing the ignorant: a great and wonderful spiritual work of mercy whereby  souls are saved; the wonderful, astonishing, and inestimable gift of knowledge, given like food for the soul and light for the mind.

Be extravagant in teaching your own soul by frequent recourse to Holy Scripture and all sources of good knowledge and holy wisdom. Be extravagant in sharing what you have learned with others.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies …
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
Your statutes are wonderful;
therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple (Psalm 119).

Admonish the Sinner – A Reflection on the First Spiritual Work of Mercy

“CautionTape” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I wrote last week asking, Whatever happened to the spiritual works of mercy? I also indicated an intent to write on each of them. Here is the first installment: Admonishing the Sinner.

The word “admonish” comes from the Latin verb monere meaning to warn, advise, or alert someone to a threat or danger. As such, its purpose is the good of another; it is an act of love and concern. To admonish the sinner is not to belittle or humiliate him, but rather to alert him to the danger of a sinful course of action. It is rooted in love, not pride. And thus St. Thomas enumerates fraternal correction among the acts of charity.

In our culture, sadly, admonishing the sinner has fallen out of favor for numerous reasons. Philosophically and sociologically, many have relegated much of morality to the realm of private opinion. Admonishing is seen by many as an attempt by the admonisher to impose his or her values on others, or as some sort of unfair or arbitrary judgment.

From a psychological standpoint, we live in times of heightened sensitivity, times in which many take critiques of their behavior very personally and have difficulty distinguishing between concerns for behavior and disrespect for the person. The emergence of identity politics has done a lot to further this blurring of distinctions.

  1. If one voices concerns about single motherhood, it is often declared that this is giving personal offense to the poor, minority groups, women, etc. Never mind that many grave social ills come from children not living in a home with both their father and mother. Today, any critique of this obviously problematic behavior is taken very personally by many.
  2. The same is largely true with abortion. Those who warn against it are often said to offend women.
  3. And we need hardly describe the anger and outrage generated when one admonishes against homosexual behavior. So deep is identity politics with this behavior that in some countries it is illegal to speak of homosexual acts as sinful let alone admonish those who engage in or approve of them.

These are only the more obvious examples of a problem that has become deeply rooted in our culture. People do not like being corrected (and probably never have), but today they often take correction very, very personally. Over at The Divine Mercy site Dr. Robert Stackpole observes: The problem is that we live in a society dominated by people who have not made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence. Thus, they stumble through life with an adolescent understanding of love. To be “loved,” to them, means to be affirmed in everything they want to do…

Still, the obligation remains for us believers both to admonish sinners and to accept admonishment ourselves. We must remember that the goal is not to tell others how terrible they are; this is, after all, a work of mercy. Neither is the goal to win an argument or to feel superior. Rather, the goal is to win the sinner back from a destructive path, to announce the forgiveness of sins available to all who repent. The goal is salvation. As such, to admonish sinners is to call lovingly to those in danger and draw them back from the edge of the abyss.

Admonishing the sinner is not simply a nice thing to get around to if we have time. It is an essential work of grace and love, and it is commanded of us. Here are some relevant passages from Scripture:

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:15-18). Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon him or her to repentance. If private rebuke does not work, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task (assuming the matter is serious). Finally, the Church should be informed. If the person will not listen even to the Church, then he or she should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of “medicine” that will inform the sinner of the gravity of the situation. Sadly, this medicine is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
  2. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2). Notice that we are called to recognize when a person has been overtaken by sin and to correct him. Note, too, that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness; otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction; this is no way to correct; gentle and humble, but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for, since we must bear the burdens of one another’s sin. We bear this burden in two ways. First, we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Second, we bear the obligation of helping others to know their sin and to repent.
  3. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19). The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but that is good, since it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
  4. You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead, we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  5. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).  Notice again that the medicine of rebuke, even to the point of refusing fellowship, is commanded (in serious matters). But note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. 
  6. A similar text (2 Thess 3:6) says,  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). Again, to admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when that becomes necessary.
  8. A similar text (2 Tim 3:16) says, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good workReproof and correction is thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  9. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Here, fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging, and helpful. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.
  10. It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among youSo the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge”  the evildoer. In this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice that the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will “beat him up” enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There are immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgments are required of us.

With all this in mind, how can we say we love others if we see them running toward the edge of a moral and eschatological cliff and fail to cry out in warning? And why do we fail to cry out? Usually because we want our own lives to be more pleasant; we cannot bear the backlash that sometimes comes when we warn people who do not want to be warned. But if we yield to this fear, we are showing that we love ourselves too much and do not love God and others enough. I want to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am to my parents and others who endured my backtalk, admonishing me anyway.

Lord, give me the courage and humility to admonish sinners and the grace to do it in love. As well, help me to have the courage and humility to accept correction myself, and grant me the grace to see it as an act of love, even if it is not always artfully done.

What Ever Happened to the Spiritual Works of Mercy?

041615During daily Mass we are currently reading through chapter six of John’s Gospel. There is of course a glorious focus on the Lord’s true presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

However, there is also another important teaching given at a critical moment in chapter six that is important for us to lay hold of today. It is a call to recover a greater awareness of the importance of the spiritual works of mercy. I will list what they are in a moment, but for now consider that despite living in rather secular times, the corporal works of mercy are still widely appreciated and accepted as both necessary and virtuous. There is little dispute today that we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, or bury the dead (the seven corporal works of mercy).

There are at times disputes about how this should best be accomplished, whether by large government, private charities, and/or personal works.  There is also disagreement about how exactly each work should be understood. For example, some think that taking care of the dying can include euthanasia. And we have recently discussed on the blog some odd practices related to burying the (cremated) dead.

However the overall point remains: I cannot think of a single individual I know of, religious or not, who thinks that the corporal works of mercy can or should be neglected if within our power to accomplish. This is a great tribute to Christian culture and one of the few of its pillars that remain in the post-Christian West.

But it is a different matter today with the spiritual works of mercy. Even in the Church they are seldom mentioned. Very few even reasonably catechized Catholics could list all seven of them and many might not even be able to come up with more than one or two.   For the record, the spiritual works of mercy are these:

  • Admonish the sinner
  • Instruct the ignorant
  • Counsel the doubtful
  • Comfort the sorrowful
  • Bear wrongs patiently
  • Forgive all injuries
  • Pray for the living and the dead

Here is a great gap in the thinking of many. We tend to reduce charity to caring for people’s bodies, forgetting the needs of their souls. Indeed this oversight often proves self-defeating, since many of the corporal works of mercy become necessary because of defects of the soul. Some (not all) are imprisoned, poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, and so forth as a result of deep spiritual issues in their lives or in the wider culture. Yet so easily we overlook these spiritual issues.

One might excuse the secular, materialistic world for this oversight, but for us who are believers there’s really no excuse. Sadly, we often consider that our care for the poor has been accomplished by having provided clothing, shelter, or food. It is astonishing that we almost never even ask them to come to church or to listen to a sermon. In the old days at the old gospel mission downtown, or the Salvation Army soup kitchen, or the Catholic cafeteria and shelter, the poor who filed in were often expected to listen to a sermon, receive some Christian instruction, and surely to pray before the distribution of the meal or before bed at the shelter. This is rarely true today and most Catholic outreaches to the poor are almost indistinguishable from those of the government or nonbelievers. I pray you know of exceptions and will inform me of them, but the general pattern is very secular and corporal in its focus.

Do the poor not have souls, which also need care? Do they never need encouragement and instruction or rebuke and correction? Why is this so seldom included in our outreach to the poor? It is difficult to say, but we seem to have taken to imitating the practices of government agencies rather than our own tradition.

We think we are done when we have handed out the Christmas baskets. But where will most of the poor, whom we have blessed with this food and these toys, be going to church for the Christmas feast?  Most of them, I can tell you from experience, are not going anywhere; they don’t belong to any church. And this is often part of the problem. Quite simply, many of them are disconnected from the wider community including the Church. Resources in times of crisis and longer-term solutions like jobs and personal reform usually arise from relationships that are healthy and encouraging of virtue, thrift, industry, and other good habits. Being part of the Church community can connect the poor to material resources as well as to people who will help them grow in personal accountability. The fact that so many of the poor are in broken families and live in dysfunctional neighborhoods makes their membership in a (hopefully) healthy church community even more critical.

And yet we who should be part of their lives and should invite them to become part of ours seem content merely to hand them the Christmas basket, say “Merry Christmas,” and go on our way. This is not really so different from what I do for our alley cats as I place food on the back porch. But these are human beings with souls! Where is the invitation? Where is the care for their souls? Where are the spiritual works of mercy that should anchor our corporal works of mercy?

Now of course it is not merely the poor who are in need of the spiritual works of mercy. All of us are blind beggars before God. It is even more important, then, that the spiritual works of mercy be more widely known and actively practiced, since the need for them is universal. Further, though one’s body may suffer for lack of provisions, one’s soul may be lost for all eternity for want of the spiritual works. Hence the need is not only wider but deeper, and eternal in its consequences.

So, what ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?

This leads us to a critical moment in John 6. Jesus has just fed the multitudes by multiplying the loaves and fishes, a miraculous corporal work of mercy! But of course prior to this he had taught them at great length. Let’s just say that Jesus had them listen to a sermon before the food was distributed, just as in the old days at the Catholic shelter or the gospel mission.

That evening Jesus withdrew and sent the disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee. Some in the crowd seemed to like the idea of a free meal wanted still more. Here is where we pick up the story:

So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (Jn 6:24-27).

In other words, Jesus admonishes them (and us) not to be concerned only about food for the belly but also food for the soul (i.e., Himself in the Eucharist), which He really wants to give us so that we make it to eternal life. But as you may recall, the people persist in asking for the merely natural, belly-filling bread. “Give us this bread always … like Moses once did,” they cry out. Almost in exasperation Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life!” (John 6:35)

You can see that there is in them a dismissal of the needs of the soul and an emphasis on the needs of the body. The corporal works of mercy are all they seem to care about, less so the spiritual works. They prefer the food that perishes to the food that nourishes unto eternal life.

Thus the Lord admonishes them and us: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (John 6:27).

And so the question remains, “What ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?” Why do we esteem the corporal more than the spiritual works of mercy? How does Jesus’ admonishment apply to you and me, to the Church, and to the world?

Should we practice the corporal works of mercy? Certainly! But we ought not neglect the spiritual works of mercy, as we so often do. If we neglect them, the rebuke of the Lord is on us just as it was on the people at the lakeside.

Over the next few weeks I would like to focus a bit more on the spiritual works of mercy through occasional blog posts until I have covered all seven. As believers, we ought to be more spiritual than we are without neglecting the corporal.