During daily masses at this time we are beginning to read through John Chapter 6. There of course is a glorious focus and teaching of the Lords true presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

However, there is also another important teaching given at a critical moment in chapter 6 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. We will list what they are in the moment, but for now, consider that, despite living in rather secular times, the glorious Christian tradition of 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; shleter the homeless, visit the sick; visit the imprisoned or bury the dead.

There are a times disputes about how this should best be accomplished, whether by large government, private charities and/or personal works etc.  There are also some disputes about how exactly each work should be understood. For example, some think that taking care of the dying can include euthanizing them, and we have discussed recent 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 completely non-religious, who thinks that the corporal works of mercy can or should be neglected if it is in our power to accomplish them. This is a great tribute to Christian culture, and one of the few pillars of it still remaining in the post-Christian West.

But it is a different matter with the spiritual works of mercy. Even in the Church they are seldom mentioned today. Very few even reasonably catechized Catholics could list all seven of them, and might not even get 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, but are usually forgetful of the needs of their souls. Indeed, our oversight is often 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 the deeper spiritual issues.

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

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 usually we do not and have taken to imitating the practices of government agencies more than our own tradition.

We think we are done when we have handed out the Christmas baskets. But where will most of the poor that we have blessed with these foods and 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 their problem. Quite simply many of them are disconnected from the wider community including the Church. But resources in times of crisis, and longer-term solutions like jobs and personal reform usually come from relationships that are healthy and encouraging of virtue  thrift, industry, and many other good habits. Being part of the Church community can also connect people to resources, human and material, and help to hold people accountable. The fact that so many of the poor are in broken families, and live and often 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 invite them to become part of ours, seem content merely to hand them the Christmas basket, say “Merry Christmas” and send them home. 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’s the invitation? where is the care for their soul? Where are the spiritual works of mercy that should really anchor our corporal works of mercy?

Now of course it is not merely the poor who need the spiritual works of mercy, for all of us are blind beggars before God. Even more then that the spiritual works of mercy should be more known and actively practiced since the need is universal. Further, though one’s body may  suffer for lack of provisions, one’s soul may be lost for all eternity by lack 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?

And this leads us to a critical moment in John 6. Jesus has just fed the multitudes by multiply the loaves and fishes. And miraculous and 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 given, like the old days at the Catholic shelter or the Gospel Mission.

But that evening he withdrew and sent the disciples in the boat across the Sea of Galilee. and some in the crowd who seemed to like the idea of a free meal wanted 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 solicitous only for food for our bellies, but also food for our souls (i.e. he Himself in the Eucharist) which he really wants to give us so we make it to eternal life. But as you may recall they 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!” (v. 35)

You see that there is in them a dismissal of the needs of the soul and an emphasis on mere bread for 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.

And so the question remains, “What ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?” Why do we esteem them 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? Surely! But we ought not neglect the spiritual works of mercy as we often do. If so the rebuke of the Lord is on us as it was on them at the lakeside.

Over the next few weeks I would like to focus a bit more on the spiritual works of mercy by occasional articles until we have reached all seven. We ought, as believers to be more spiritual than we are, without neglecting the corporal.