I squeezed in my post about The Corporal Works of Mercy two days prior to the close of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. I’m a few days late in following up with its sister post about the Spiritual Works of Mercy, but, just because the Year of Mercy came to an end, doesn’t mean we have to stop learning about mercy and being merciful.
Spiritual Works of Mercy: Meeting the spiritual needs of others
“Fill your empty neighbor from your fullness, so that your emptiness may be filled from God’s fullness.” – St. Augustine, Sermon 56, 9.
Just as it was when St. Augustine wrote these words in the early fifth century, many men and women today are spiritually lost and barely surviving in today’s cultures of individualism, hedonism, minimalism and relativism. They are hurting inside and, although they may not admit it, they are searching for truth. As Christians, we are called to lead others to the real truth and light of Jesus Christ. We can do this by practicing the spiritual works of mercy: instructing the ignorant; counseling the doubtful; admonishing the sinner; bearing wrongs patiently; forgiving offenses willingly; comforting the afflicted; and praying for the living and the dead.
Instruct the ignorant
“Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” – Hebrews 13:7 (NAB)
Instructing the ignorant essentially means bringing knowledge of the love of God through Jesus Christ to those who have not had the opportunity to get to know God. We do this first and foremost by living the Gospel – being witnesses to Christ – in our daily lives. We have to live our lives as examples by radiating love; being charitable and forgiving; living our lives with gratitude; and letting others see the peace and joy we experience of being “in Christ”. We don’t even have to open our mouths – just let our actions speak for themselves.
Sometimes, however, we are called to speak. We don’t preach from street corners, rather, we gently evangelize – communicate the love of God to everyone we meet – by helping them find meaning and a sense of place in this world. We can try to convince all day long but until others experience God’s love with their own senses, we can’t expect them to “get it”. It means we may have to testify and let others know how it feels to us to live in faith and receive Christ’s love. Ultimately, our job is to lead them to a rendezvous with the Holy Spirit.
Counsel the doubtful
“On those who waver, have mercy.” – Jude 1:22 (NAB)
It can be difficult to give counsel to people whose faith is wavering, or to those who fear the transformation that will take place if they give their life to Christ. It takes study to deeply learn our faith and have the strength to be able to practice this work of mercy. We can’t be half-baked Catholics and expect to effectively counsel the doubtful. It takes conviction based on knowledge and a love for Christ that lets our counsel come straight from our hearts.
Many Catholics fall away from their faith because of doubt when they don’t feel the presence of God in their lives. When we counsel, we need to intimately understand their relationship with God. We have to be patient and accepting. And, they have to know our love for them. The act of counseling means inspiring people to believe they can have a relationship with God. Then, we let the Holy Spirit take over.
Admonish the sinner
“We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NAB)
We would have to be hermits to not observe other people sinning. And, to everyone else, we are the other people. So, as we think about how to apply this work of mercy, we ought to consider how we would like to be admonished for our own sins.
We should remember the adage, “Hate the sin, not the sinner”, and not judge a person for his or her sins. Our admonishment should be a result of our love for the person, a love that wants to make them aware of the hurt or damage that their sins created to themselves and to others. Our admonishment has to be made with humility and an awareness of our own shortcomings, and a belief that none of us are perfect. Our job is to gently and respectfully call the person to conversion, not beat them up. But, there is a catch: to not be hypocritical about the particular sin being admonished, we have to ourselves be virtuous with respect to that sin or we have to be a witness to the difficulty of conversion and ask for reciprocal help and prayers.
Bear wrongs patiently
“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Luke 6:27-28 (NAB)
We have all been wronged by another person in some way. Often, our response is anger and a desire for vengeance, to give what we received no matter how unkind or unfair. But, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and most importantly, to forgive them. Fair enough. So, what does patience have to do with it?
This patience requires internal strength to wait and hope for improvement or a discontinuation of the wrong that is being done; or a conversion of the other person by giving them a chance to get it right. Then, there is a second form of patience – forbearance – which we have to practice when it comes to the wrongs we commit ourselves. After repenting of our own sins, we have to make the effort to not sin again, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. We are wise to be patient with ourselves knowing that we might not get it right the first time but, through forbearance and the grace of God, we eventually will.
Forgive offenses willingly
“All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. – Ephesians 4:31-32 (NAB)
This is probably the most difficult act of mercy because it means turning loose of our hurt feelings caused by others. It means putting an emphasis on the word, “willingly”, and understanding that forgiveness can’t be forced. We have to want to forgive for it to be true forgiveness. It’s not easy. We will probably have to pray for the grace and strength to forgive.
Forgiveness boils down to love. It means shedding the feeling of being a “victim” and looking beyond the hurt we have experienced. We have to accept that we are worth loving, not only by others but by ourselves. It means loving the person we are forgiving. We don’t have to necessarily like or want to associate with them, but, Jesus commanded us to love them. This means we wish them well and set them free from their guilt. We must remember the words that we pray, “….Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….”
Comfort the Afflicted
“Do not let your heart be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” – John 14:1 (NAB)
Many people are overwhelmed with stress or a battle raging within; or full of emotional pain from bruised and broken relationships. It doesn’t matter if their pain is a result of hurt caused by someone else or from their own decisions in life. It’s still pain. Unfortunately, many have no one to whom they can turn to help relieve their suffering.
One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Jason Gray, describes in a few compassionate words what comforting the afflicted is all about in his song, If You Want to Love Someone:
“If you want to love someone/Search their heart for where it’s broken/Find the cracks and pour your heart in/If you want to love someone.”
Comforting the afflicted is about showing up. It’s being a shoulder on which a person in need can lean; it’s giving advice, if asked; it’s listening to their story and helping them feel they matter; and offering a needed hug. It’s about our Christian Community being attentive and actively looking for our neighbors who need help.
Pray for the Living and the Dead
“In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison…” – 1 Peter 3:19 (NAB)
In our Mass, we reserve a special moment at the end of the Liturgy of the Word for prayer intentions. We have prayer chains in which we request prayers for, and offer prayers to, the living sick and afflicted. We believe that Jesus hears and answers our prayers, as well as the intercessory prayers we ask of the saints in heaven, especially those from the Blessed Virgin Mary. We sacrifice and offer up our own afflictions as a form of prayer for others. The power of prayer is not only phenomenal, but a miracle!
Unfortunately, we aren’t able to see the effectiveness of our prayers for those who have already departed this life. But, our faith tells us they are heard. As Catholics, we believe the soul of a person receives purification in purgatory before passing on to heaven and that our prayers will help “cleanse” the souls (“Nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven]”-Revelations 21:27) of those awaiting entrance to heaven. As we pray for the dead, we can imagine the day when we, too, find ourselves there and hear the gratitude from those whom our prayers assisted. That will be our special reward for this work of mercy.
As we come to the end of this first week of Advent – the season in which we prepare to give our hearts to God not only for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of His Son, but also in anticipation of His second coming and, ultimately, our judgment day – I’d like to leave you with a quote I heard from Fr. Larry Richards at a Catholic Men’s Conference two Saturdays ago:
“Mercy is love incarnate. It is giving something good to someone who doesn’t deserve it. We have to give mercy to receive mercy. Thus, we need to become instruments of mercy.”
“Holy Trinity, fill my heart with Your love and open my eyes to see opportunities to mercifully share Your love with those who need it most. Amen.”
(The Jubilee Year of Mercy – Spiritual Works of Mercy was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)
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