Part 3: The spiritual works of mercy

Illustration by Ellen Bollard Illustration by Ellen Bollard

Third in a three-part series marking the Year of Mercy

We approach the works of mercy by asking ourselves, “Do I truly desire the good of the other person?”

It is essential to remember that works of mercy have as their goal an encounter with Christ. This is especially true for the spiritual works of mercy, because they deal with delicate and deeply personal matters.

The spiritual works of mercy require the prudence and discretion that come only from the Holy Spirit. As we consider them, we ask for the grace never to be condescending or judgmental. Otherwise we approach others with the intention to “fix” them. That is a far cry from gently leading them to an encounter with Jesus. Only he can heal and save. Perhaps we simply make the introduction — but he will do the rest.

Instructing the ignorant. Every Christian is an apostle sent to give witness to the good news. But before we can do so we make sure we know the good news, that we have steeped ourselves in it, and that we do our best to practice it. This deed of mercy is not about debate or winning arguments. It is about the enlightenment that God desires for everyone when they meet the truth in his Son. Gently and respectfully, we speak the truth and introduce others to Jesus.

Advising the doubtful. Everyone occasionally struggles with doubt, and it can lead to anxiety and confusion. Often the anxiety is more disturbing than the doubt. Encouraging others when they are plagued with doubt, helping them see the presence of God in their lives, and patiently explaining that God does not walk away from us when we struggle with faith are ways of offering spiritual comfort. It helps to remember that even when one doubts God’s existence or his love, he still exists and he still loves us!

Converting the sinner. First it must be said that the grace of conversion comes from God alone. We do not approach others with the intention to fix them; we might turn them away. Instead we explain God’s mercy and encourage them to seek him. In a certain situation, we might be called to point out the error of someone’s ways, but we do so humbly, and only after prayer, as fellow sinners who rely on God’s mercy ourselves.

Comforting the sorrowful. As with the corporal works of mercy, we are called to console the grieving. There is sorrow of many kinds, however, and attentiveness to the varied pains of others offers us the opportunity to lend an ear and be a companion on the path of recovery. We might detect another’s need for professional help and assist him with the proper contacts. By performing unexpected acts of kindness for friends and co-workers we lift the veil of sorrow that others have been bearing alone. Finally, there is so much sorrow in the world that we must be careful not to add to it by unkindness, sarcasm, gossip or greed.

Forgiving injuries. Anger is a prison, and until we forgive we remain in its grasp. Even though vengeance might seem justified or even encouraged by others, it never helps. To the contrary, it feeds the cycle of anger and violence. When we have been wronged, the place to begin is by praying for the persons who have wronged us. If we find it difficult to forgive them, we ask God to help us put his forgiveness into practice. Sadly, much of life at every level is manipulated by anger and lack of forgiveness. Jesus broke the cycle of anger by forgiving us. He has embraced us in his mercy so that we, too, may be merciful.

Bearing wrongs patiently. No one is called to be a doormat, and we certainly have the right to stand up for ourselves. However, if we constantly seek to prove ourselves right, to blame others, and to whine about every misfortune that befalls us, we will fail to learn a crucial lesson Jesus taught: to turn the other cheek and rely on God alone. Fighting every battle might mean that we simply hone our fighting skills, push others around in the process, and perpetuate the cycle of violence — but never learn the meekness that characterized Jesus and his mercy.

Praying for the living and the dead. Intercessory prayer is a daily part of Christian life, for it both expresses and nourishes our communion in faith. Jesus is always interceding for us, and we join our prayers to his. It is helpful to remember that it is not just we who pray for the dead; they also pray for us.

On a final note, it is important to remember that the works of mercy are never undertaken for public recognition.

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. … When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

My acts of mercy are actually not “my” good works. It is Christ, alive in me, who acts through me. As I allow him to direct me by his grace, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy become “second nature” to me — and draw me closer to my Lord.

This is the English translation of Archbishop Sartain's column "Las obras espirituales de misericordia" that appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of NORTHWEST CATHOLIC.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.