A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Spiritual Works of Mercy

By Victor M Parachin

By Victor M Parachin

Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus,
let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too;
and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which
God can water the earth,
protect all creation
and make justice and peace flourish.

Pope Francis

In those words, Pope Francis calls on Christians to become the hands and heart of Christ, living out the seven spiritual works of mercy.

1. Instruct the ignorant

The word ‘ignorant’ sounds extremely harsh but the etymology suggests something much more positive. It comes from the Latin word ‘ignotus’ -- which means unknown, unrecognised, unfamiliar -- and refers to individuals who lack insight or wisdom. To “instruct the ignorant” means to help a person gain insight into a situation or event.

The spiritual writer, Morton Kelsey, tells of a time when someone helped him in this way. He was complaining to a “wise friend” that he often awakened around 2 am and then couldn’t get back to sleep. These sleepless nights were taking a toll on his mental and physical health. His friend asked “do you really want to know why you awake at 2 am most nights?” When he responded affirmatively, Kelsey says his friend “told me that God wanted to talk with me”. Seeing that Kelsey was disappointed with the answer the friend expanded, saying: “God woke up Samuel in order to talk to him (1 Samuel 3ff). Why do you think that the Holy One won’t speak to you in your darkness? Do you think God has changed”? Those words were eye-opening for Kelsey, and on the following night when he was awakened at 2 am he rose, picked up a pen and a journal, prayed and then paused to listen. “To my utter amazement, something spoke back to me. I recorded both the questions and the answers. A real conversation followed and these conversations have continued many nights during the past forty years”.

2. Counsel the doubtful

Many people live with a lack of confidence about their lives, struggle with faith and find it difficult to be hopeful. That may be the reason why the bible offers this advice: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20, English Standard Version). Counsel the doubtful means helping people regain confidence, faith and hope for their lives and for their futures.

An example of this involves a woman who attended a spiritual retreat. During a time when participants were invited to ask questions of the retreat leader, one young woman lamented that she was unable to have children and then, breaking into tears, asked “what’s the point of my life”? The retreat leader responded by reminding her that “everybody is unique and can offer the world their unique gifts”, and then added, “You may not be able to have a child but there are other ways you can find fulfillment. You have a heart that can love, hands than can cook and caress, a mind that can create. Through your mind, with your heart, you can give life that is so much more than having one baby or two babies come from your womb. Look how many hearts are beating but don’t have a life. So many people’s lives are empty. So even though you didn’t have a baby in your womb, you can bring life to so many people”.

3. Admonish sinners

This third spiritual work of mercy is a call to speak up rather than remain silent when an individual makes offensive comments and engages in objectionable actions. People of faith are to speak out and challenge others when they see bullying behaviour, racist attitudes, sexist comments, ageist discrimination, sexual harassment, and other moral shortcomings.

Pope Francis has courageously practiced this spiritual work of mercy when he challenged diplomats and governments not to turn their backs on refugees. In his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See he again urged them to “overcome the inevitable fears associated with this massive and formidable phenomenon” and asked them to understand the “plea of thousands of people who weep as they flee horrific wars, persecutions and human rights violations, or political or social instability, which often make it impossible for them to live in their native lands … forced to flee in order to escape unspeakable acts of cruelty towards vulnerable persons, such as children and the disabled, or martyrdom on account of their religion”.

4. Bear wrongs patiently

When we are mistreated or when someone is hateful toward us, the temptation to react out of frustration and respond with anger is great. This spiritual work of mercy tells us to pause and simply bear the wrong patiently. It is a reminder to use the injustice for tapping more deeply into our faith reflecting back love, kindness, and compassion rather than lashing out.

Though this is not easy, it can be done, and St Thérèse of Lisieux provides examples on how she performed this work of mercy. In her autobiography, Story of A Soul, she tells of being wrongly blamed. “A small jar, left behind a window, was found broken. No one knew who had put it there, but our Mistress was displeased, and, thinking I was to blame in leaving it about, told me I was very untidy and must be more careful in future. Without answering, I kissed the ground and promised to be more observant. I was so little advanced in virtue that these small sacrifices cost me dearly, and I had to console myself with the thought that at the day of Judgment all would be known”.

ehold the Man, Antonio Ciseri, 1871

In another incident, St Thérèse writes about a time of frustration when a sister’s behaviour was irritating. “For a long time, my place at meditation was near a Sister who fidgeted continually, either with her Rosary, or something else; possibly, as I am very quick of hearing, I alone heard her, but I cannot tell you how much it tried me. I should have liked to turn around, and by looking at the offender, make her stop the noise; but in my heart I knew that I ought to bear it tranquilly, both for the love of God and to avoid giving pain. So, I kept quiet, but the effort cost me so much that sometimes I was bathed in perspiration, and my meditation consisted merely in suffering with patience”.

St Thérèse shows us that bearing a wrong patiently is to show mercy in daily life.

5. Forgive offences willingly

Writing in the fifteenth century, St. Francis of Paola advised: “Pardon one another so that later on you will not remember the injury. The recollection of an injury is in itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sin and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight”.

An inspiring example of someone who forgave an offence willingly is Pierce O’Farrill, who was present in a movie theatre when a gunman opened fire. O’Farrill was shot three times and required several surgeries along with lengthy physical training to regain the use of one arm. Amazingly, O’Farrill says: “I never felt anger at the shooter”. Rather, he found himself wondering what the shooter’s life must have been like: “What would it be like to be so consumed with hatred that you only think about hurting people”? A man of deep faith, O’Farrill believes that God spared him to show others that forgiveness is possible and says: “I believe every single person has a chance at redemption”.

6. Comfort the afflicted

The bible instructs followers to support and help those who are struggling: “Comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:10, New International Version). “Encourage one another and build each other up”, was the teaching of St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:11, NIV).

One way to help the afflicted is through practical aid. For example, when a woman’s husband died unexpectedly and she was left a widow with young children, she benefitted from many kind acts, which encouraged her greatly. “When I picked up my car after maintenance, the mechanic told me someone had paid the bill”, she recalls, and added that a group from her church sent money to help with medical expenses and an anonymous friend sent her prepaid gas cards for several months. Of these practical acts during a time of family affliction, the woman said that each act of kindness restored hope and brought fresh strength.

7. Pray for the living and the dead

This is a reminder that our prayers should not be focused only on ourselves, but also focused upon the needs of others. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of A Code Of Jewish Ethics, suggests that perhaps too many prayers involve self-interest: “health, romantic happiness, family welfare, financial success and employment. Indeed, I suspect that if an analysis was done on the contents of the tens of thousands of notes tucked into the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem each year, these themes would predominate”. Because of this reality, Rabbi Telushkin recommends expanding one’s range of prayer to include “good things for others as much as we want them for ourselves ... before praying for ourselves and our family’s welfare, it is appropriate to offer prayers on behalf of others”. One way of ensuring that this happens is to have a routine of writing down the names of people you know who are in need of prayer support, and recalling the list when you pray. Some examples could include

  someone undergoing separation and divorce;

  someone who is lonely and seeking a partner;

  someone diagnosed with a life-threatening illness;

  someone who is unemployed and searching for work;

  someone who is hospitalised or bed bound at home.

The seven spiritual works of mercy are an important part of the Christian tradition. They serve as guides for us to respond with courage and compassion to help the people God places in our presence.   

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