Living the Spiritual Works of Mercy
May 31, 2016
By Sister Grace Agate
“We strive to witness to mercy when we reverence the dignity of each person, create a spirit of hospitality and pursue integrity in word and deed in our lives.”
These words taken from the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy have taken on new meaning as I have reflected on the Spiritual Works of Mercy during this Jubilee Year. Both the Corporal and Spiritual Works are intertwined, for we cannot attend to the spiritual needs of people if they are not receiving the basic necessities to live. To do the works of mercy is to gaze upon our neighbor with the eyes of Jesus, knowing we, too, are in need of mercy. The Spiritual Works ask the following of us: to counsel the doubtful, to instruct the ignorant, to admonish sinners, to comfort the afflicted, to forgive offenses, to bear wrongs patiently, and to pray for the living and the dead. I have come to understand these works in the following ways.
Counsel the Doubtful – Being loved so to love.
In the world in which we live, most people do not have a healthy, holy sense of being loved. They feel that they are loveable, or they do not know the experience of being loved unconditionally. Before we are able to truly counsel the doubtful, we must have some sense of knowing we are unconditionally loved by God, as well as knowing all our brothers and sisters are also loved unconditionally by God.
Instruct the Ignorant – Seeing each other as God’s work of art.
We are all ignorant in some fashion, and we are all able to learn from one another. The society in which we live does not honor diversified listening; rather, it is the one who shouts the loudest who seems to have the final say, whether it is truth or fiction. We learn from people who are young and old, from refugees and immigrants, from those of different religious and political beliefs, from peacemakers and terrorists. We do not need to agree, but we can listen with respect and learn from differing perspectives.
Admonish the Sinner – It’s all about style.
Truth must be spoken so it can be heard. Think of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10). This detested tax collector is singled out by Jesus because he wants to eat with him. What a shock for all those self-righteous folks. Jesus dines with Zacchaeus at his home. Think of home not as a literal space, but as Zacchaeus’s heart. Jesus simply dines with Zacchaeus and accepts him. He does not reprimand Zacchaeus for the wrong he has done. Zacchaeus is changed. The gentle presence of Jesus causes the conversion of Zacchaeus. He confesses all he has done and states that he is going to take actions of repentance. Now this is a style in which one can hear the truth.
Comfort the Afflicted – Listen deeply.
To comfort another is to soothe someone in pain. To be able to comfort, one must listen to the the afflicted one with the ear of one’s heart. The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the word “listen.” We know how countercultural such action is in the times in which we live. To deeply listen we need put aside our own perceptions, judgments and feelings, for we do not know what it is to walk in another’s shoes.
Forgive Offenses – Freedom.
Each morning when I read of the violent crimes in the newspaper, I wonder if I would be able to forgive if the victims were people I loved. I hope I can remember the person I profess to be if it were to ever happen. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is not for the faint of heart. This is extremely difficult, as we pray to be forgiven in the manner in which we forgive. The act of living into forgiveness is acknowledging we have been hurt by another’s actions. We have a choice to stay in the pain, or turn it over to God—not once, but over and over.
Bear Wrongs Patiently – Kindness and peace.
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin comes to mind. The cardinal was accused of sexual misconduct by a former seminarian. At a press conference he acknowledged the accusation, stating that he was innocent of the charges. He never says anything negative about his accuser and carries the burden quietly. Eventually his accuser recants and is reconciled with Bernardin on his deathbed.
Pray for the Living and the Dead – There is a wideness in God’s mercy.
Who of us does not pray for the living and the dead? We pray for our families, friends, associates and victims of violence. But what of those who cause the violence? The pastor of the parish where I worship prays, “At the Master’s command we pray for those who cause the violence and killing.” Much of the horror we see and hear on the nightly news can be numbing, but we know it is real people, on all sides, who are suffering. Am I able to pray for those who cause such senseless horror? If we believe that prayer has the power to change us—and by us, I mean all people—how can we not pray for those who cause such horror?
The Spiritual Works of Mercy call us to ever-widening perspectives, ever-widening hearts; we must make these works the business of our lives.