An Ascension Press Article Serving the Spirit of Others: Spiritual Works of Mercy (ascensionpress.com)
By: Allison Ramirez
On the Sunday of Divine Mercy we remembered St. Maria Faustina’s mission for Jesus to tell the whole world of his great mercy for all. We are also reminded not only to trust in Jesus’ inexhaustible mercy for our souls but of the tangible actions we can take in our daily lives to bring about the Lord’s divine mercy to others.
Significance of Seven
The Church has long-affirmed seven “corporal” (pertaining to needs of the body) and seven “spiritual” (pertaining to needs of the soul) works of mercy that Christians can incorporate into their lives as a way to show concern and compassion for the physical and spiritual needs of others. The number seven is significant as it has often been likened in biblical times as a number relating to “perfection” or “completeness”. There are seven days of creation and seven days of the week; in the book of Joshua, the Israelites are told to march around the city and on the seventh day, after they march around the city seven times, the city fell and the Israelites were victorious over the Canaanites during the Battle of Jericho. In the book of Jeremiah, when the Israelites enter captivity, they reside in Babylon for seventy years before their return to their homeland.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy
The physically-oriented, seven corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead. While sheltered in our homes, we cannot as easily partake in the corporal works of mercy, but the spiritual works of mercy are readily available to us regardless of our immediate contact with others.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“The Spiritual Works of Mercy have long been a part of the Christian tradition, appearing in the works of theologians and spiritual writers throughout history. Just as Jesus attended to the spiritual well-being of those he ministered to, these Spiritual Works of Mercy guide us to “help our neighbor in their spiritual needs.”
Unlike the corporal works of mercy which require one to take action to visit someone or provide a physical resource, the spiritual works of mercy have largely to do with our words or internal disposition towards others. The seven spiritual actions of mercy are to admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.
1. Admonishing the Sinner
Another word for “admonish” is to “correct”; in other words, if someone is falling into sin or taking actions that we know are not in the best interest to themselves or others, we have an opportunity to speak truth and kindness to that individual to help them back on the right path. This can be done first for ourselves, as we learn to recognize our own sins and failings, doing what we can to correct our own actions, and then passing what we know on to those in our care and company. A particular example of this might be if two family members get into an argument and start yelling at one another. Another family member might take the opportunity to intervene as an advocate for forgiveness by encouraging the two in conflict to talk through their disagreements so that at the end of the day, we always return to mercy and not to sin and resentment.
2. Instructing the Ignorant
Instructing the ignorant is similar to the above, and yet with an added measure of teaching those who do not know; it is less about correcting actions and more about sharing our faith and experiences with Christ and his church to those around us who either have not experienced faith in their own lives or are simply unaware as to what a life of faith looks like. In our homes, this might mean calling up an old friend or relative we haven’t spoken to in a while, asking how they are doing and sharing with them how our faith is helping us through difficult times and to let them know we are praying for them; this might mean sitting down with our children and leading them through a prayer or Bible reading to continue their nurturing of faith while in the home.
3. Counseling the Doubtful
In a time such as this, counseling the doubtful is a spiritual work of mercy we can perform in abundance. Doubt and uncertainty can often creep up in day-to-day life, but most especially when so much is unknown and many of us are stuck in our homes without the stability of a certain future. During these times, it is especially important to check in with and encourage those within our homes, as well as checking in via phone or email with those living alone, those who are ill, or those particularly down or stressed because of the coronavirus. I myself have received this wonderful act of mercy from family and friends who have assured me of their prayers and encouraged me when I was feeling particularly hopeless, frustrated, or lonely. With counseling also comes advice; if someone we know finds themself in a spiral of sadness, not only expressing our support but also offering tips and suggestions (taking a bath, playing a board game, writing in a journal) on how that person might focus their thoughts on better things both to help alleviate stress and move the mind to more productive ways of coping with difficult emotions or feelings of helplessness.
4. Comforting the Sorrowful
Comforting the sorrowful, like counseling the doubtful, meets others in their time of emotional distress and anxiety. During this time, many are ill and experiencing the loss of loved ones, but others are experiencing the sorrow of unemployment, loss of connection with family members and friends, or loss of education. We can embrace those in our homes, reminding them that they are not alone, and to those outside our homes we can send gifts or flowers as our way of showing that we see those who are suffering and we want to do what we can do show mercy and compassion to them as Christ would.
5. Bearing Wrongs Patiently
Bearing wrongs patiently is a difficult yet ultimately rewarding act of mercy for all involved if practiced regularly. It is easy to grow resentful and bitter, wanting someone or something to blame for the set-backs and situations we face. It is also easy to become frustrated with those living with us in our homes day in and day out, but to seek patience, willingly riding through setbacks and focusing not on wrongs but on rights and reconciliation is much more fruitful in the long run, especially with those we see on a daily basis. Bearing wrongs patiently takes courage and a good starting point is to remind ourselves of the ways Christ has provided for us and forgiven us in the past, and reminding ourselves of this might make it a little easier to do the same for others.
6. Forgiving All Injuries
This leads into the spiritual act of mercy that is forgiving all injuries. Sometimes this forgiveness must be directed toward others, but sometimes it has to be directed toward ourselves. Sometimes others hurt us, intentionally or not, and we have the decision to hold a grudge or to let that hurt go and seek to move forward. Other times, we have to make the choice to forgive ourselves, especially for things that are out of our control (like a virus, job loss, education loss, and so on). Especially, for those like myself who long to have everything under control, we must learn to forgive ourselves and understand that there are times when we have fallen short through our fault or even through no fault of our own. And if we cannot find it on our heart to forgive at a particular time, we can at least implore God to forgive all that has been done wrong to us, to others, and to him, asking for the strength to one day forgive as well.
7. Praying for the Living and the Dead
Last, but not least, praying for both the living and the dead is an act of mercy that takes no special circumstance or condition. We can simply call to mind all those we know and all those who have passed on from the virus, or other circumstances, and pray for the acceptance of those who have died by God and their admittance into the kingdom of heaven. For the living, we might pray for whatever we are feeling at the moment, whatever we observe in the world or in the lives of those we know. I like to keep a prayer journal where I record and keep track of prayer intentions either for a particular need or person and refer to the journal at night.
Celebrating Divine Mercy
St. Maria Faustina tells us in her diary of divine mercy that the voice of the Lord spoke to her this message:
“Gather all sinners from the entire world and immerse them in the abyss of my mercy. I want to give myself to souls; I yearn for souls. My daughter, on the day of the feast of mercy, you will go through the whole world and bring fainting souls to the spring of my mercy. I shall heal and strengthen them.” 108
This invitation is to all of us to embrace the flood of mercy and compassion the Lord seeks to pour out on each one of us and to offer that unfathomable mercy to those around us, in big or small ways, through the spiritual acts of mercy.