In all the recent reflection on marriage, what has been strikingly missing is a reflection on the works of mercy: that time-tested guide to enacting veritable justice as love in contentious and morally ambivalent times. So for anyone of good will, here is a return to basics, and some first thoughts on seven ways we can live fully that Christian form of higher love we call Agape: charity — the unconditional love which is divine love.
There are seven corporal works of mercy explicitly mentioned by Christ. These are implicit commandments, oriented by Christ himself to be holy works, aligned with the promise of Paradise:
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
– Gospel of St. Matthew, 25. 44-36
From these words we get the classic list of what seem humanitarian actions aimed at alleviating the suffering of the body:
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To harbour the harbourless
To visit the sick
To ransom the captive
To bury the dead.
Corresponding to these, and attesting to the greater and indispensable goal of the salvation of souls to which all good humanitarian works are oriented, the Church presents seven spiritual works of mercy:
To instruct the ignorant
To counsel the doubtful
To admonish sinners
To bear wrongs patiently
To forgive offences willingly
To comfort the afflicted
To pray for the living and the dead.
The tendency is to separate the spiritual and the corporal into distinct areas of commitment. When we think of the poor and suffering, we immediately realize whether they need food, shelter, or clothing – material needs for material lacks. These external needs are real, but alleviating them is not sufficient. The poverty of the spirit affects rich and poor alike; it does not differentiate along socioeconomic lines. Realizing this, we see that the truly Christian charity we are called to is in fact a greater love than that which supplies merely material goods. It is a love that aims to give the world the Truth it so desperately needs — a love that gives more than we can truly give ourselves, for it is a love that relies firstly on the superabundance of God for its giving, thereby aiming higher, and in the end offering far more than can be hoped for.
On closer look then, the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy are layered on each other — there is a unity in their multiplicity. If the physical body suffers, so does the soul when it languishes in trials of a supernatural nature: the person suffers fully – he or she suffers in body and soul.
The parallels and the consequent interplay between spiritual and corporal mercies are striking. Ignorance of the truth paralyzes our capacity to choose what is good for us and fails to satisfy a spiritual hunger. Doubting what is true and good traps us in spirals of indecision and keeps us in a state of weary confusion, thirsting for the right way forward. Living in error — the choice to do what is not good or true — strains and separates us from the love of God, leaving us exposed in spiritual nakedness. Impatience when we are wronged places us at the center of the storms of human division as aliens, strangers, unable to anchor at the harbor of peace. An unforgiving spirit makes those who are awaiting mercy weaker, as we hold back the healing visit of true pardon. Offering consolation to the afflicted frees them from the captivity of anguish, pouring light into the prison cells of the greatest human sorrows. Praying for the living and the dead helps us to help them bury their former selves and “put on Christ (cf. Rom 13.14)”, that they might enjoy the glory which first marked them at Baptism, and robed in the shrouds of grace, enter into the joys prepared “from the beginning of the world” for those whose lives have been truly a work of mercy.
This interplay of spiritual and corporal mercies is the most instructive response to the moral struggles of our day. At the heart of all moral debates and disagreements is the perennial question of happiness. It is not a far leap to see that happiness is the antidote to poverty, both in the supernatural and natural orders of reality. We seek happiness in ways that are most emotionally familiar to us. Our passions drive us to lives of superficial enjoyments, to relationships that temporarily assuage that eternal and irrepressible need for true love and real goodness. In a paradox as old as time, we who are spiritually poor try to become materially rich. We tend to learn the hard way that neither pride nor lust, nor greed or anger, attain for us what we truly desire. However we rebel against reality and the truth it is built on, however much we rely on ourselves for happiness, one thing is certain: true happiness will remain elusive.
At this crossroads we can look at the great moral questions of our time, questions on the dignity of life and marriage, of poverty, hatred and injustice, and see that the one way forward is to build up the kingdom of God on earth, here and now, so as to come nearer to that place where love will never disappoint: where beatitude wins over present discontent.
Our role then, is to make clear distinctions between what is illusory pleasure and true happiness, between what is good and what is evil, what is finite and what is infinite. Our work is to unite the human with the divine, into an Incarnate vision of truth which raises the full scale of human anguish onto the altars of redemption. This is a salvific work, and it is our task in Baptism to effect it with God’s grace.
There is, indeed, a hierarchy of goods, and salvation is primary among them. On the scales of happiness, life as we are living it does not balance out: it turns out a loss. Real compassion demands both corporal charity and spiritual charity. This standard is not easy to act on because it requires a prior confidence in the “Truth that sets us free”, and without Whom we rely on our meager resources as we subsist in fear. For love to win, truly win, in ourselves and in the world, we must invite others to know and love what is truly good for them, proposing an alternate way. This other way is the One who is The Way: Christ Himself — a person, whom we can love personally. St. Augustine presents this clearly when he writes
“It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love. In this way, we fulfill the commandments on which depend the whole Law and the Prophets: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind’; and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ For, in order that a man might learn how to love himself, a standard was set to regulate all his actions on which his happiness depends. For, to love one’s own self is nothing but to wish to be happy, and the standard is union with God. When, therefore, a person who knows how to love himself is bidden to love his neighbor as himself, is he not, in effect, commanded to persuade others, as far as he can, to love God?”
—St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God
Salvation is not a given, and “Faith without works is dead (cf. 2 James 2.17)”. If we take this seriously, we see the interplay of faith and works: a faith which is anchored in the saving mysteries of redemption, and works that proceed from them to flood the world with that justice which is no less than Mercy itself, abounding with life and joy.
The seven works of corporal and spiritual mercy are the seven ways Love triumphs. If all we want is human passions to win, if all we hope for is the thrill of Eros without the friendship of Philia and the glory of Agape — that charity which is the unconditional, fruitful, pure love of God himself — then what we are actually saying is that we want very little — and receiving little, we are bound to be deluded.
But triumph is often hard won. No victor has not first paid a price. The triumph of Truth depends on the right use of our freedom for the good, against evil. We must instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive willingly, comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead. The Resurrection came about when all of these had taken place in Christ’s life. He triumphed over death itself in these specific ways. There was bloodshed, and agony, and still there is glory. Such is the Christian witness — ever ancient and ever new.
What we should desire, and yet often rebel against, is this full triumph of Truth, which makes even great moral setbacks bearable in hope. It is not enough for love to win. For it to triumph it should ride the victory of Christ himself into the gates of sacrifice and self-offering, so as to unlock the city of gladness, the heavenly Jerusalem for those desperate to rest there. The alleluias of human pride do not satisfy the spiritually hungry, naked, thirsty, wayfaring, sick, captive, dying soul. In an empire of sorrows, only Calvary can do that, and that Fountain of living water and crimson grace that still floods the world and quenches its fierce desire and despair.
Here, truly, Love triumphs, and all human love finds its safe harbour at last in a sea of Love and Mercy.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com