Category Archives: Works of Mercy

Mercy & laughter?

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” -Is 55:8-9


-by Br Hyacinth Grubb, OP

“How does the world react to true mercy? Sometimes it laughs.

I recently saw the film Silence, (spoiler alert) about two Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a time of terrible persecution, and it features one particularly striking character named Kichijiro. He was a Japanese Christian who, when the persecutions came, abandoned his faith and watched his wife and daughters be martyred. Years later, under the guidance of the missionaries, he begs forgiveness in an emotional scene. He seeks the sacrament of confession, he is absolved and forgiven, and he promises to reform his life.

Yet Kichijiro’s story isn’t over. When the persecution returns he apostatizes again, abandoning God and his fellow Christians. What’s worse, he turns around and betrays the missionaries for 300 silver pieces, 10 times what Judas received. With time he is consumed with sorrow for his sin, and again seeks confession from the now imprisoned priest, Fr. Rodrigues. Being a priest, Fr. Rodrigues shows him the mercy of Christ which holds no grudges. Yet at the first threat Kichijiro apostatizes again. And again he repents, again he seeks mercy, again he apostatizes.

Four times he abandons God, four times he sorrows for his sin, and four times he receives mercy in confession. Four times! This drama only ends when the Jesuit missionary himself apostasizes. The priest, in a further act of betrayal to God and to Kichijiro, refuses to hear his confession and denies Kichijiro’s plea for mercy.

Kichijiro is a pitiful character. He is cowardly, unreliable, and unfaithful; a failure as a man, and a failure as a Christian. Above all else, he is one who needs mercy.

Mercy is a response to misery and that misery is very real and very wretched. Mercy is not for the righteous, but for sinners (Lk 5:32). It is given not only once, or only four times, but “seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22). Mercy has no conditions, and it never changes; it is recklessly generous. It is not an exchange for reformed behavior, and it is not withdrawn when the promise of reform is broken. Mercy is messy; after all we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, not in spring water! We see all of this each time Kichijiro is absolved, and it is beautiful.

As I sat in the movie theater and watched Kichijiro fall and be raised and fall again, do you know what I heard? I heard the audience around me laugh. Each time Kichijiro came with contrition to receive mercy they laughed louder. Did they find it funny, or absurd? Were they unable to see the difference between weakness and hypocrisy? Or was it nervous laughter to relieve the intensity of a film they didn’t understand? I’m not sure exactly what motivated their amusement, but what is certain is that when faced with a depiction of mercy given freely again and again, there was mockery.

Worldly men and women do not understand mercy. They do not recognize what they thirst for, and so they laugh, because to them it seems senseless and incoherent. Pope Benedict XVI once gave a homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in which he compared the Catholic Church to the building’s stained glass windows. You can only see their radiant beauty and the rich colors from the inside with the light shining upon you. From the outside they appear to be cold and dreary, lifeless. Mercy is the same way. Its beauty and appeal are only apparent to those open to it. You can only understand the mercy of God if you’ve experienced it, either from Him directly or in the actions of faithful Christians. (This is why the works of mercy are so important for evangelization).

Without a knowledge of Christ, without at least an indirect knowledge seen reflected in the lives of Christians, worldly men and women will be mistaken about mercy. They will call profoundly un-merciful acts merciful: acts such as ending a suffering life, refusing the life of a child with a disability, encouraging men and women in their harmful fantasies, and even hating Love Himself in apostasy. And at the same time they will call merciful acts irrational: such as forgiving with reckless generosity, loving the worst of enemies, and bearing great wrongs silently and patiently. Worse, they will even call merciful acts harsh and rigorous: such as refusing to aid in sin, admonishing the sinner, cherishing and protecting the marriage bond, and preaching the hard but beautifully necessary truths.

Our role within this drama and this conflict between the world’s false idea of mercy and God’s true mercy is simple: cling to God. It is easy to accept the world’s ideas. It is easy to listen to the lies shouted at us day in and day out. Cling to God. Withdraw from the world and stay with Jesus. Stand alone with mercy incarnate, and mercy will reveal Himself to you, for He has said, “as the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9).”

Love, & always in desperate need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Bury the dead & Pray for the living and the dead

earth_on_coffin

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“Burying the dead is the only of the Corporal Work of Mercy not named in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It comes from the book of Tobit: “If I saw any of my nation dead, or cast around the walls of Nineveh, I buried him” (Tobit 1:17).

On a glance, this work looks to be the strangest and perhaps least merciful of the the seven corporal works of mercy. What benefit is it to a dead man how his remains are interred? We recognize that during the general resurrection, the body will be restored and reunited to the soul whole and entire. The Church taught this unequivocally in one of her ecumenical councils, stating, “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess,” and the teaching has been a part of our Faith since the Church’s beginning [1]. In other words, our resurrected bodies may be renewed and glorified, but they are not otherwise “new” bodies, but are in fact our “old” bodies, the ones we have in this life.

Therefore, a proper burial has no particular effect on the resurrected body, nor does cremation (etc.). “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is a statement of fact, yet not one which nullifies the possibility of being re-formed and resurrected from the dust on the Last Day. What does burying the dead accomplish as an act of mercy, then?

For one thing, this work is in fact arguably the most practical of the works of mercy:

The last of the corporal works of mercy is, on some level, the most logical of them. There is little direct tangible benefit towards visiting a prisoner or welcoming a stranger. But dead bodies smell bad after a couple days, rotting and spreading disease. It only makes sense to get corpses into the ground and out of the way as soon as possible.

But this corporal work of mercy is not only logical; it is merciful as well. For we could just dump bodies in the ground, and solve our problem of disease control with far less pomp and ceremony.

But burying the dead is an act of honor, symbolizing the return of a Christian’s temple of the Holy Spirit to God. Through Christian burial, we celebrate the life of an individual and his/her (presumed) return to God.

So there are three ways (at least) that burying the dead is a work of mercy, in that there are three sets of people to whom it is merciful:

  1. The community as a whole benefits, in that there are not rotting, stinking, and disease-festering corpses piled up.
  2. The beloved of the deceased, in that the memory of the man and his life are laid to rest and the bereaved are given a sense of closure and a chance to say final farewells.
  3. The deceased himself, and to some extent God, in that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, and in that it is the matter of which the soul is the form. Moreover, the man’s memory is honored among the living.

If burying a man’s body honors his life, praying for his souls actually aides him, both in this life and (assuming that he passes through purgatory) in the next. In the second book of Maccabees, we read that after a particular battle during the Maccabeen revolution, after several of the Jews, it was discovered that they had fallen into idol worship. Judas Maccabeas orders that the living should pray for (and make sacrifices on behalf of) the dead:

“On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (Maccabees 12:39-45).

So the Bible rather clearly teaches that prayers for the dead are good and holy works [2], and by implication that they are efficacious. But the dead are not the only ones we should pray for. We must also pray for the living (which includes ourselves, incidentally). “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Recall that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If we believe the words of Jesus, both concerning this commandment and concerning the efficacy of prayer, then it follows that we should pray for ourselves and for one another. We should ask for the big things, but also the seemingly little things. If I cannot do any of the other works of mercy, I can at the least do this one, I can pray that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, and the naked clothed; or that the afflicted be given comfort and the ignorant instruction (which leads from knowledge to love) and that the sinner will repent.

Concerning at least the spiritual works of mercy, though the action be undertaken by my fellow men, the results must ultimately be brought about by God, at least in that His grace is a necessary cause of the effects. The admonished sinner must choose between repentance and umbrage, but God’s grace enable him to make that choice; the ignorant man must choose between docility and impertinent boorishness, but again God’s grace underlies that choice. Prayer is thus to this extent the most important of all the works of mercy, even if it must also at times be accompanied by action.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Thomas Aquinas even addresses several seemingly difficult objections to the resurrection of the body in his Summa Contra Gentiles. Saint Augustine does the same 8 centuries earlier in his City of God. The relevant passages from Saint Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles are quoted here.

[2] Indeed, it is passages like this one which caused Martin Luther to several the 7 Deuterocannonicals from his canon. It’s difficult to make a break from the Church on the pretext of wanting to do away with the concept of purgatory and prayers for the dead when the Bible rather clearly backs these doctrines and practices.”

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Ransom Captives & Admonish Sinners

ransom_captive

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy, 3/27/15

“Ransoming captives may seem the strangest, the least necessary of the works of mercy today. Oh, it was surely necessary historically (and Christ does specifically mention it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). There are indeed two different religious orders which were established to do this work historically. Both the Trinitarians and the Order of Our Lady of Ransom specifically had as their mission the rescuing of Christian captives from the hands of the infidels (which largely meant, Muhammedans). Members of the Order of Our Lady of Ransom took a fourth vow, which was to substitute themselves for other captives held by infidels, thereby ransoming those captives by becoming themselves captives: a very Christ-like approach to the problem of captivity.

But how can we do this particular work of mercy today? Hostage situations seem more a problem for the FBI and the police than for the average citizen. POWs are traded between warring governments, and the occasional ship taken by pirates is more likely to be rescued by SEALs than by concerned Samaritans.

Sometimes this work of mercy is interpreted as the simpler “visit the imprisoned,” and that is indeed a part of this work. Not all captives can be ransomed, nor really should all prisoners be set free: there is often a good reason why they are imprisoned, and letting them free is neither merciful to their victims nor to their own souls. But in the US at least, virtually any prisoner can receive visitors, and many of them greatly appreciate the visits. Many parishes run some sort of prison ministry, which might involve Bible studies or even Communion services, both of which can be invaluable to any prisoner. It may be too late for the hardened criminal to walk free under the sun or stars, but there is yet time for him to repent so that he finds himself in Paradise rather than perdition after his death [1].

Captivity goes beyond the bars of a prison or the demands of a hostage situation. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that sickness refers to distress due to an “internal cause” (e.g. lack of health, but any internal cause of distress), and captivity is distress due to an “external cause” (e.g. imprisonment, but any other external cause of distress):

“If the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have ‘to visit the sick,’ or it results from an external cause, and then we have ‘to ransom the captive.’…All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2 Answer and Reply 2).

Therefore, ransoming captives includes many works of mercy beyond visiting the imprisoned and freeing hostages. The fireman who pulls a woman from a burning building is ransoming the captive, as is the teacher who breaks up a fight in the schoolyard.

A more serious problem in our society is sex-trafficking. The USCCB (council of US bishops) has a program which attempts to fight sex trafficking, which is the modern day equivalent of slavery. The American abolitionist historically worked to ransom the captive by freeing slaves, and now their successors work against the modern slaves, those victims of human trafficking.  (Ed. Captives of sexual slavery may not be held by others against their own wills, but by themselves, and the evil forces which promote this form of slavery.  These captives are in our homes, our schools, our places of work and worship.  They are our colleagues and loved ones, our fellow Catholics and Christians.  The devil is hard at work.  Lord, save me from my temptations and sin.  Lord, save all those so imprisoned.  Save us, holy Lord.  Deliver us, merciful Lord.  Only You can.  Come and save us now.)

There are worse situations against which the Church has been leading the fight. Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, parental surrogacy, artificial insemination (arguably) and in vitro fertilization (definitely) are all forms of captivity. Many of them—embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (in practice at least), and abortion—result in the death (often very painful) of the captive, in this case a tiny human being in the earliest stages of his development. Ransoming the captive here aims to put a stop to these evil practices, and where possible to save the lives of their victims. Abortion destroys at least two lives—the child’s and the mother’s—and rescuing a woman and her child from abortion most certainly is a form of ransoming the captive which can be engaged in directly or indirectly (by prayer) by us as lay Catholics.

Moreover, certain sins, especially those pertaining to addictions, require the presence and availability of the thing to which a person is addicted. Thus, an alcoholic sins when he over-imbibes. Whereas his addiction to alcohol is a sort of sickness, the actual presence of alcohol to tempt him is a sort of captivity, and so to remove this temptation is a sort of ransoming. Thus, another form of ransoming the captive is to remove external aides to sin, such as alcohol from an alcoholic, drugs from a drug addict, or weapons from a man who might be tempted to murder.  (Ed. pornography from the sexually tempted or addicted.)

While we are removing those external aids to sin, we might go a step further and consider the internal ones. If there are many people who are put in external danger, bodily damage, corporal captivity, then it is also true that all of us face a greater internal threat from sin. We are all to some extent enslaved, ensnared, and beshackled by sin. Thus, a fitting spiritual compliment to the corporal work of mercy ransoming captives would be ransoming sinners. However, we cannot ransom sinners and remove them from their captivity in sin: that’s a thing that only God can do. However, we can do a slightly less glamorous task which may be the first step in this process, which is the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read:

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear Me say anything, you shall warn them for Me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

This is addressed by God to His prophet, meaning ultimately to all His prophets. This includes us, since we are also prophets by our baptisms. According to our Lord, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (and among the first of the New), yet those who will be part of the Kingdom of God are greater still.

Since we are all called to be prophets by our baptisms, we are also called to take up the mantle of the prophets as “watchmen” against sin. Therefore, we are in fact called to admonish sinners. It does not seem that this was ever an “easy” task, in that admonishing sinners always carries with it a certain risk.  (Ed. the risk of hypocrisy is ever present and may be ever real.) In past ages where sin was taken more seriously, admonishing a particularly powerful sinner might bring with it certain social consequences, and worse. Nobody likes to be reminded that he is a sinner; the more humble accept the correction without bitterness; the more haughty see the rebuke as a personal attack and look to exact revenge.

That is still true today [2]. Admonishing the sinner still carries a number of social (and physical, for that matter) risks, whether the sinner is a powerful stranger or a close friend. Try telling one of your “gay” friends that homosexual acts are immoral (as per Catholic moral teaching and the Natural Law tradition), and you will see how strong the friendship is [3]. Ditto for your “straight,” Christian friends who are divorced and remarried.

However, there is an added twist in today’s society. There is a Bible verse which has been twisted and then placed on the lips of the collective culture, and used as a bludgeon against the work of admonishing sinners. After all, we read in both the Gospel of St Matthew (7:1-5) and the Gospel of St Luke (6:37-42) Christ’s own words: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Even the Gospel of St Mark echoes this point, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).

So we are warned sternly against judging others.

However, these passages have been twisted from their intent. For one thing, we are being told not to judge falsely (hence Christ’s use of the word “hypocrite” [4]). We are not to condemn others, either, and this is what judging as Christ uses it here boiled down to. We do not know the inner movements of the hearts or the inner thoughts of the minds of others: we cannot gaze into each others’ souls to see fully our motives, struggles, desires, thoughts, beliefs, etc.

We can, however, see actions, and call them what they are. Therefore, we cannot judge a person—this is the real warning which Christ is giving here—and call ourselves better than him for not committing all of his sins. For that matter, we can’t call ourselves worse simply because he does not seem to commit all of ours. What we can do, and what this work of mercy requires of us, is to call a sin a sin. This can be done publicly where the sin is public (what we sometimes call a “scandal” [5]); it can be done generally where the sin is widespread (e.g. abortion, contraception, usury, pornography, etc.). But in its most potent (and most merciful) form it is done tactfully, privately, and done with the intention to helping the other person to give up his sin.  (Ed. to call upon the Almighty for His Grace to say “no” to sin, and “YES!” to Jesus.)

Lest we get hung up on the “judge not” passage, Christ also tells us about fraternal correction, and admonishes us to use it rather than pretending that the sin does not exist and that it causes no harm:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Admonishing the sinner is in fact a work of mercy, and one which Christ Himself enjoins us to do. We are to do it tactfully, lovingly, without boasting, and without condemning. That is a tall order, but it is a far cry different from not doing this at all. When we do not admonish the sinner, we risk losing our own souls, whatever else may be the outcome.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Dismas, often known as “the good thief,” is an excellent example of this.

[2] Mary Stachowicz is a name we may hear more often in the future. She died a martyr for the Faith, murdered by a homosexual man for telling him that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

[3] Not to mention that we have created a socio-political-economic climate in which the wrong remarks about the wrong classes of people can lead to losing one’s job. Personal conversations and private actions increasingly have public consequences, usually not for the better.

[4] Hypocrite means something very different in the Gospels than its common use today. Now it merely means not practicing what one preaches. This is not at all the meaning of the words as used by Jesus, since it would make anybody who preached a consistent moral code into a hypocrite. Since He tells us that we must “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we merely echo His own words we would be hypocrites by today’s (mis-) use of the word.

The word then meant something akin to wearing a mask, putting on a false show like an actor. It would mean, in other words, that we ourselves do not believe in the moral standard which we are preaching, that we don’t hold ourselves to the moral standard to which we hold everyone else. We have one (easy) moral standard for ourselves, and another (harder) one for everyone else. “Hypocrisy” is, in other words, more rightly translated by the phrase “double standard,” and so “judging” means holding others to this double standard to which we do not hold ourselves. God is not fooled, and if we do this, then we will ultimately be held to the higher/harder standard by God.

[5] Another words whose meaning has changed. “Scandal” once meant something—an action, some words, etc—which caused others to lose their faith or to doubt. As Christ Himself says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Visit the Sick & Comfort the Afflicted

visit_the_sick

I have the distinct privilege of being associated as a Third Order Dominican with other men who make it their practice to visit the sick in hospitals in the Madison area and to be on call 24/7 to be present when someone is dying, regardless of creed or lack thereof, so that no one may have to die alone. Breathtaking.

I also volunteer with a secular divorced fathers group. I don’t do much. I am, as the founders call me, just one more relatively stable presence at the table. We have Chinese buffet once a month. My “official” duty or role is to be a PEO – Positive Emotional Outlet. That means that if anyone needs to primal scream at the top of their lungs, I volunteer to be the one they scream at. It is better than some of the negative behaviors these fathers deprived of their children may be tempted to indulge in. I am happy to offer. 🙂

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“When we hear of “the sick,” we probably think immediately of those who are in the care of hospitals or hospices. Perhaps we think of our own families while they suffer through cold and flu season, or allergy season. This is, of course, sickness in the conventional sense of the word, and those who suffer it need our assistance and our care.

The elderly infirm also fall into this category, and so visitations to the nursing home also are a way of fulfilling this work of mercy. Since loneliness is often rampant in the nursing homes and retirement centers, the elderly in particular often appreciate visitors.

Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that the sick include both the elderly infirm and those who are permanently disabled:

“The purpose of giving alms is to relieve our neighbor’s need. Now there are many needs of human life other than those mentioned above, for instance, a blind man needs a leader, a lame man needs someone to lean on…

All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives. And the wealth with which we relieve the poor is sought merely for the purpose of relieving the aforesaid needs [hunger, thirst, clothing, shelter]: hence there was no reason for special mention of this particular need” (ST II-II.Q32.A2. Obj2 and Reply).

Thus, “the sick” is a broad term. It encompasses those who are injured; those who are physically ill (whether temporary, chronic, or acute); those who are elderly infirm; those who are disabled (blind, maimed, lame, paralyzed); those who are mentally ill; and those who are ill from addiction (through substance abuse, for example).

Visiting the sick can be a simple act of kindness, such as sending a “get-well soon” sympathy card; or helping a blind man to cross a busy intersection safely. It can be a little more involved still, as when we prepare a meal or care for the children or property (e.g. pets) for somebody who is near-bedridden (if only temporarily) with sickness. This work can be even more involved to the point of feeling like it is all we are able to do, as any parent who has stayed up all night with throwing-up sick children will attest. And it gets even harder, as anyone who has suffered through the last days of a loved one’s cancer or other slowly fatal illness can attest.

I should add another thing here before considering the spiritual work of mercy which complements visiting the sick. Illnesses have alway been around, but they haven’t always been this safe. “The sick” also included lepers, which were not merely ill but fatally so; and the disease was a scary one, so that lepers were often banned from inhabited areas [1]. Yet, Saint Francis of Assisi ministered to one such leper despite his great fears of the disease, and Saint Damien Molokai eventually died from the leprosy which he contracted ministering to a leper colony on the Hawaiian island whose name he bears. There were many instances of Catholic orders setting up hospitals (as discussed previously), which eventually would care for victims of the plagues (and in particular the Black Death). And Catholic priests and sisters and lay persons have been chaplains, nurses, and doctors to the soldiers in the various wars throughout history, often risking their lives to minister to the wounded (or even to the fearful fit before a battle).

We may not all be called to take such risks in mercy, though of course we can read in the Bible that “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We may not have to fear leprosy or the bubonic plague (for now), but there are other diseases of both mind and body. AIDS is somewhat prevalent in America, but it is a pandemic in Africa, with as many as one in three people being infected in some countries. It may not be contagious in the way that the plague or leprosy was, but there is always some small risk of coming into contact with infected fluid.  (Ebola)

Nearer to home, there is a different sort of sickness which we might confront. I would call it mental illness, but that is not quite accurate: call it mental imbalance, especially as caused by substance abuse. There are some men whose drug-addled brains leave them unpredictable at best, dangerous at worst. Yet these, too, are “sick,” these too need to be visited, though their visitations may take the form of counseling or admonishing as well as merely visiting and comforting.

Still, to comfort is the first purpose of visiting the sick, and any aide offered to the sick is surely meant in part to do that. This then is the spiritual complement to visiting the sick: comforting the afflicted. This work of mercy is often also referred to as consoling the sorrowful and occasionally as succoring the suffering. It perhaps most directly describes what we intend to do when visiting the sick (in the literal sense of visiting a person who is physically ill).

Or, to return to a previous example, it is even more so what we do for the family of the terminally ill and the surviving next of kin to the recently departed. Anyone who has suffered through the last days of a dying relative knows second-hand the suffering of the relative, but first-hand their own suffering through sympathy and a sense of loss.  (Thy will be done, Thy Kingdom come!)

The person who comes to visit the sick might also do as much to relieve their suffering as to relieve the dying person’s, if the visit is done in a spirit of charity and goodwill. The same might be said of those who engage in the corporal work of burying the dead, as their honoring of the memory of the departed might also offer comfort to the living folks dear to him.

The afflicted, the sorrowing, the grieving, the miserable: these words all pertain to an interior state more than an exterior one. Certainly, some of these states may be confused with depression, whether from a chemical imbalance (which would make it a more physical sickness) or a metaphysical state. There are correspondingly some forms of affliction which we might attempt to comfort, and some which are left to the “professionals,” by which I mean the ordained priests. I can help alleviate the physical or mental suffering of a friend or family member of spending time with him, or by kind works or kind deeds, or by a thoughtful gift or even a warm embrace.

However, some kinds of affliction are metaphysical, spiritual. We see these everyday, and are to some extent powerless against them. We can offer consolation and comfort, but some afflictions can be removed only by exorcism. This is a job for a trained priest, lest we bring the afflicting spirit upon our own heads. These kinds of affliction fall under a different work of mercy.

In the meantime, comforting the afflicted involves any true act (or words) of true kindness. Unfortunately, all-too-many people mistake comforting the afflicted with enabling the affliction. The man addicted to drugs who suffers withdrawal pains does not need to be given more drugs, but rather needs counseling and rehabilitation. Similarly, many people today are “afflicted” by their sins, and their perceived wronging at the hands of society over those sins. This is true of any addictive sin or sinful temptation, whether drug addiction, kleptomania, viewing pornography, eating disorders (gluttony), gossip [2], or any of a variety of sexual temptations and disorders, etc.

All-too-often the response is to excuse the sin as being the natural satisfaction of a very real (and often physical/physiological) temptation. It is always easier to say, “You were born this way, and there is nothing wrong (disordered) about that temptation or acting upon it” than it is to recognize that to varying extents and degrees we are all born into sin. (…And, God-do-not-forbid, acknowledging free will, God-do-not-forbid, that great gift we all cherish, and take such pride in, another deadly sin, until we are called to accountability for exercising that great gift we all take such pride in.  Until. Gal 6:7.  Thereby, NEVER having to be accountable.  HOW convenient.  How.)  We all suffer the curse of Adam, the concupiscence of our parents; to some extent, we all live in the double darkness of sin and ignorance, and we all struggle with some particular sin or set of sins. We are all afflicted in this way.

It is no comfort to pretend that a sin is not a sin for the sake of gaining physical or psychological satisfaction. It may appear to be comforting the afflicted, and may appear to be treating the “physical symptoms” of the affliction; so would be giving drugs to an addict in withdrawal pains. Doing this may alleviate the physical pains and craving for a time, but in the meantime it places the soul more firmly in the grasp of that temptation, so that the afflictions will return with a vengeance. It trades physical comfort for spiritual affliction. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

There is another kind of affliction which is spiritual, and which is of the opposite sort than this. If our society inflicts spiritual afflictions in the name of physical comforts and consolation, our consciences might at times inflict spiritual agony in greater proportion that our sins warrant. C.S. Lewis puts this idea into his children’s stories, in particular during an exchange between two characters in his Prince Caspian. Near the end of that book (spoiler!), the title character is crowned King of Narnia, and holds a brief dialogue with Aslan (Narnia’s manifestation of Christ). Aslan explains to Caspian that he is descended from pirates who had blundered into the world of Narnia, eliciting a disappointed remark from Caspian about wishing that he had descended from “more honorable lineage,” to which Aslan responds:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve..that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

We have a tendency to beat ourselves up over little things, which can then at times cause us to lose focus on the bigger things.  (AMEN!!!!  REMEMBER HIS INFINITE LOVE & MERCY!!!!) Scrupulosity over small sins can lead us to miss bigger ones, which is nearly as great a spiritual danger to us as listening to the world when it tells us to ignore our sins entirely.  (AMEN!!!!  Honesty, the TRUTH, is the HARDEST THING TO DO!!!!  With ourselves, gently & charitably with others, for them, mostly, but also for us, gently & charitably.  The lie is always easier, always.)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).  (Now, we haven’t seen this in our own time, have we? 😉  (The Gospel is constantly fulfilled.  IT KEEPS COMING TRUE!!!!  And, so it will be, until the end.)

The problem of the Pharisees, as Jesus explains earlier in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is that they had failed to comfort the afflicted, and had indeed added to their affliction:  (Lord, have mercy!)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:2-4).

The Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ Judgment seat—Moses of course was the one to whom God gave the Old Law, the Ten Commandments as it were. Thus the Scribes and Pharisees were correctly interpreting the moral law, but were not correctly applying it. What underlies morality is love, and the “rules” of morality are rules of “right living” (and ultimately, of “right loving”), which have a threefold purpose: inner harmony, social harmony, and harmony between society and God. The first is harmony within one’s soul, that is, right relationship to oneself. The second is harmony with one’s neighbors (and between all members of the human race), right relationship with others. The last is harmony between the soul and God, that is, right relationship to God.

The Pharisees for their part were not being excoriated for insisting on the moral rules, nor even for their interpretations of the moral rules. The moral rules still apply insofar as they were moral rules, as Christ notes:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

The problem is not that the Pharisees were going too far in their moral pronouncements: rather, they were not going far enough. They made the pronouncements, but then did not help others to live up to those pronouncements, and then judged and condemned those others when they failed. We look to Christ as the ultimate comforter of the afflicted, Who says “I do not condemn you for your sins: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11), but also “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). He comforts all the afflicted by taking on the cause of all our afflictions, and with it much of the suffering. herein lies the true difficulty of comforting the afflicted, which is the risk of taking on some of the suffering and some of the affliction ourselves. If we will be true disciples we must, because He did.”

—Footnotes—
[1] According to Old Testament Jewish Law, lepers must be banned from civilized areas and must further warn away any travelers whom they might encounter.

[2] Gossip can be addicting, sort of; if not gossip itself then at least the attention which comes from it.

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Shelter the Homeless/Welcome the Stranger & Forgive Wrongs Willingly

world

nicene_guy

-by Nicene Guy

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).

Harboring the Harborless is sometimes referred to as “welcoming the stranger,” and indeed it is referred to in this way by Christ Himself in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As our communities—even at times parish communities—break down we all become anonymous strangers to each other. The simplest form of harboring the harborless is therefore to welcome a stranger, if not actually befriending him:

We can start in much simpler ways by welcoming the stranger – be he literally homeless or merely “checking out the parish to see if it would be a good Church home.” In my experience, that’s where we lay Catholics can be of huge assistance to the Body of Christ. Homelessness in one’s own parish is an endemic problem in Catholic America. My family attended a parish for three years and, by the time we left, were just as anonymous to our fellow parishioners as when we first came. (Ed. I had a Lutheran roommate when I first moved to Chicago.  His name was Bruce.  We were both new to the area.  He asked if he could come to church with me.  He didn’t feel like running the small Lutheran church gauntlet of interrogation.  He wanted to be anonymous.  I said, “We’re ALL about anonymous!!!!)

The stories of aching loneliness I hear from average Catholics (and just people, in general, Catholic or not.  Soooooo many people, soooo much loneliness.  “Hi!!  My name is Matt.”  Don’t cost nothin’.  ) sitting as strangers in pews all over the United States are painfully familiar and painfully common. (Ed.  Catholic parishes, most, are not universally known for their hospitality.  Do your thing.  Leave.  Sometimes, even downright hostility to the unchurched.  We could do better here.  We could.  And, we should.  If we’re SOOOOO excited about this Jesus fellow, why not?  We are excited, aren’t we?  We’re not just going through the motions, are we?  I mean, eternal life, the forgiveness of my sins, the adoption as a son or daughter of God, that’s not a bad deal, right?  Got a better one?)  “Nobody knows my name. We have no friends here. I come to get my sacrament card punched each Sunday (Ed.  …and my receipt, the parish bulletin, that I attended Mass!  Gotta get your receipt!!!) but I have no living connection to this parish.” These are things heard again and again in parishes around the country. It’s the reason ex-Catholics are ex-Catholics. They don’t leave the Church because they read “Call no man Father” and realized to their horror that priests were called “Father.” That’s the theological excuse that gets layered on later.

The real reason is, “I was desperately lonely and this Evangelical guy invited me to his church, and they welcomed me and gave me a place and knew my name and loved me.”

Of course, harboring the harborless does go beyond welcoming strangers. I have already hinted at providing shelter in discussing clothing the naked. To some extent, this is what harboring the haborless means: housing the homeless. This work of mercy has in some way had the greatest impact on western civilization, because many religious orders took it seriously as a commandment to provide hospitality. The result was that monasteries often provided housing and care for road-weary travelers—many still do today. From these were developed hospitals (note the root) which in addition provided the work of visiting (caring for) the sick.

Others operate more or less as retreat houses, which provide a different kind of shelter: peace and tranquility in the midst of a noisy world. They give a chance to take shelter form the demands of everyday life and to reconnect with God (and for that matter with family). I do not know anybody who has come back from a monastic retreat complaining about the experience.  Ps 46:10.

And, to the extent that we have an extra bed (or couch) or even an extra guest room (or house), we have the opportunity to offer shelter to the shelterless. We might even go a step further by literally providing home space for a homeless person, though this takes a certain amount of trust that we may or may not have (and which may or may not be warranted).  (Ed. Mt 10:16.  Plain English:  DON’T be stupid!!!  Even while well intentioned.  The road to ”    ” is paved with good intentions!!!  I had a friend Lynne, murdered for her good intentions.  I speak from experience.)

Harboring the harborless (or welcoming the stranger) goes beyond “merely” providing a roof over someone’s head, whether for a single cold night or for a longer period while they get their feet under them. It can mean sheltering the refugee (or the immigrant), which might even put one at odds with one’s government [1]. It extends especially to those refugees who come seeking safety and asylum, as those who fled Cuba for Florida or Cambodia for California, or the Jews who fled Germany during the Third Reich. Most recently, it includes aiding those who are fleeing persecution from Mohammedan militant groups like ISIS or Boko Haram.

This brings up another important example of harboring the harborless—and providing asylum, albeit not political asylum. Battered women/children shelters provide a different kind of shelter, that against an abusive domestic situation. And Crisis Maternity Homes provide an especially important work of mercy, harboring a mother experiencing a so-called “crisis pregnancy.” Such women are often unwed teens (or occasionally young twenties) whose families pressure them to murder their unborn children. Some of these young women have been thrown out of their homes by their own parents for choosing life, others have been forced to run away from home to protect their unborn children—whether from abortion-minded parents or abusive live-in boyfriends.  (Ed. or gay teens thrown from their parental homes…etc.)

Again, this work of mercy is sometimes referred to as “welcoming the stranger,” and to some extent it is just that, even in the face of ingratitude from them. To again quote Mr Shea:

‘Just because somebody is a victim doesn’t mean he can’t be a bad person, too. Hitler, after all, was a homeless person. It’s easy, in the flush of excitement over conversion, to leap into a sort of Franciscan zeal for the leper, only to discover that the leper is a major jerk. That homeless guy you want to help may be homeless not because he’s one of the wretched of the earth whom fate dealt a bad hand, but because he’s a violent, unstable parasite who bites the hand that feeds him.  (Ed. …or on drug, or has serious mental illness and really needs professional help, not yours.) Sometimes, the bum suffers not from bum luck but from sitting on his sinful bum. Sometimes, it really is better for professionals to handle things than to assume that your sanctity will melt the heart of the guy who, if you but knew it, is wanted for rape in three states.’

Yet, all that said, we are still commanded to harbor the harborless. And there are ways to do it – even ways to do it via personal involvement and not merely by writing a check. For instance, some 20 years ago, a small non-denominational church in the north end of Seattle took it upon itself to start sponsoring refugees into the United States. I remember it well because it happened to be my church. Our pastor, working with a relief agency in the area, arranged to bring a refugee and his two children from Vietnam. They had walked through Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the children had seen bodies stacked like cord wood. They came here in the early 1980s and subsequently brought their mother and sibling here when they got established. We also sponsored two men from Ceaucescu’s Romania (and then their families) and a family from Communist Poland.

This means that harboring the harborless does in fact tie into some of the spiritual works of mercy: bearing wrongs patiently, which I have already discussed, and forgiving offenses willingly. Whereas bearing wrongs patiently means to tolerate offenses committed against us for the sake of the other person, to forgive those wrongs means to not hold them against that other person. This we are implicitly commanded to do; that is, we specifically pray that we will do this every time we utter the prayer taught us by the LORD: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The converse of this prayer would simply be, “Do not forgive us our trespasses as we fail to forgive others theirs against us.” The Lord makes this even more explicit when He tells us that if we forgive others, then God will also forgive us (Matthew 6:14). Moreover, “For our sake, He made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a momentous thing, that Christ took on human flesh and human nature (…in ALL things, but sin) in order to conquer sin and death—and that by so doing, He freed us from them. This freedom is such that we could be forgiven by God, but also by each other; in other words, because we are free from the final effects of sin, we can therefore also forgive (…and free) one another, and this forgiveness becomes more than a dead and empty gesture.

One distinction can be made here. We can extend forgiveness, but it must be accepted, too. Forgiving another’s trespasses against us heals us of the need to hold on to these offenses, but the other person must accept that forgiveness to move on himself. He must repent of his sins to be truly released from them, otherwise they will retain their grip on his soul.  (…for all eternity.  Recall, you Dickensonians, Jacob Marley, and his chains and coffers!!!)

We are not our sins. (There is a saying:  “The Devil knows our name, but calls us by our sins.  The Lord knows our sins, but calls us by name.)  The Catholic convert from atheism Leah Libresco writes that:

‘To forgive someone is not to sanction or endorse the previous transgression. And it’s not a prerequisite that the person forgiven have acted in good faith or in the service of some competing good. The pope could just as easily forgive an assassin (as, indeed, he did), but his act of charity wouldn’t leave us saying that the whole attempted assassination was morally negligible.’

Otherwise, we’re selling forgiveness short. We’re saying it can only be extended to the people who aren’t really bad at all; it’s more like the perfunctory “Sorry!” “’Sokay” when you bump into someone on the subway…

When we forgive someone, we acknowledge sin as sin without essentializing it. The forgiveness the pope would offer would be removing the Homeric epithet of “the oathbreaker Cardinal” or “the assassin Mehmet Ali Aǧca” and restoring us as “the child of God, who broke an oath.”

Sin is something we do, not something we should give up and say we are. (God don’t make no junk!)  Seeking forgiveness begins when we recognize and detest our sins (…and THAT is NOT always easy to do!!!!!  I LOVE my sin!!!!!!!  I really do!!!!  What?  I’m sinful, not insane!!!!  Where’s the attraction, the temptation, if not?  I have to pray and pray and pray and pray and pray and study and read and read and reread the Church’s teaching on the matter to see my actions for what they truly are, I do, ALL the time! I am VERY keen to deceive myself.  The truth HURTS!!!!  But, that is not an excuse from the truth!!!!  Ask any Jesuit.  They can smell it, sense it, Jesuit mystique, on me before I enter the room.  And, then come out the spiritual dental tools!!!!  YUCK!!!!  Damn!  Damn!  Damn!  Damn!  Praise Him!!!!  I believe in grace!!!  And, the power of grace!!!  THANK YOU, Jesuit Fathers, for NOT allowing me to shirk the TRUTH!!!!  THANK YOU!!!! Keep up the good, holy work!!!!  The world, and I, NEED YOU desperately!!!!  THANK YOU!!!!  Did you ever try to bargain or negotiate morality with Jesuit????!!!!  NOT an ez sell!!!!  NOT ez!!!!  Can’t blame a sinner for trying???!!!  YES, YOU CAN.), and is extended when a friend agrees with us, and shows us that it’s possible to loathe them (our sins) and love us.

Thus, an essential part of forgiving sins, the part which makes it truly an act of mercy (and of sacrifice) is that we recognize the person as distinct from his sins. The sins we must hate, for they are hateful in God’s sight, but the sinners who commit them are fellow men like us: these we must love, because as men we too are sinners. Then all sins can be forgiven (if repented), or at least borne with when not.

—Footnotes—
[1] As Mark Shea notes, the Church and the government are not necessarily always called to do the same thing. The Church must harbor the harborless, even as the government must at times set immigration policy which leads to the deportation of those same “harborless.” I would add that the Church should then co-operate in this deportation process even while otherwise harboring an illegal, unless there is a very good reason to not cooperate (meaning the person risks persecution or death or unjust imprisonment etc. if deported; in short, if deportation means destroying a family or if the refugee has legitimate claims to asylum).

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Dec 8, 2015 – Our Final Judgment – Mt 25:31-46

basilica_national_shrine_immaculate_conception_washington_dc_dreamstime_m_3968604_ilb4lf
-dome of the basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Habit #2 of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is “Begin with the end in mind.” Sound advice. Sage advice. Today Advent and the Jubilliee of Mercy converge.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” -Pr 9:10

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

“Advent (Adventus) means arrival. Arrivals can be wonderful and joyous, but they can also scare the life out of us. They can be terrifying for something breaks in to upset and re-arrange the current state of affairs.

Jesus speaks of such an arrival and says to His disciples, “The coming of the Son of Man will repeat what happened in Noah’s time” (Mt 24:37). Those are not very reassuring words. Then He adds that people were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, right up to the time of the flood, and then, when it came, they were destroyed with shocking suddenness. The end of an old world had arrived, but the inhabitants of that world were clueless. A new world was coming, but its prospective citizens had no idea how to prepare for it.

What would that look like in our day? Well, imagine a huge comet crashing into the earth. Scientists tell us this would destroy civilization and life as we know it. But what if we knew that a comet was coming and we did nothing about it? We didn’t adjust in any way to it? This was the situation of those in Noah’s time and, Jesus suggests, those in His own time.

Jesus breaks into our sinful world like a cleansing fire or like a wild storm –or like a comet–and He brings a revolution. That’s the way He arrives.”
-Bishop Robert Barron

Fellow sinners!  Let us repent!  And, believe in the Gospel!!!

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Clothe the Naked & Bear Wrongs Patiently

works-of-mercy-clothe-the-naked
-Sperindio Cagnola, Works of Mercy (Clothe the naked), fresco, 1514 -24, Paruzzaro, San Marcello Church

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“A couple of years ago, there was a kerfuffle over the popular clothing maker Abercrombie and Fitch when some remarks made by their CEO in a then seven-year-old interview surfaced:

The article dredged up a seven-year-old interview with Mike Jeffries, the sixty-eight-year-old, eccentric C.E.O. of Abercrombie & Fitch, rehearsing the principles that made Abercrombie one of the most successful—and most hated—brands in retail history. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries observed. “We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

One response to this interview was a campaign called “Fitch the Homeless,” in which a man searched second-hand stores for Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, bought them, and then videotaped himself distributing them to homeless people. Was the man behind the campaign acting mercifully by clothing the naked?

Clothing serves a practical purpose as well as a moral one. The practical purpose is the protection of the body from the immediate environment, which includes keeping the body warm in the cold of winter and keeping out the biting and stinging bugs of the summer. The moral purpose is to remind onlookers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and that it is the visible matter of the soul. Another moral purpose of clothing is that it further helps a person to act with modesty and decorum, though these things are both rooted in human dignity (of others and one’s own, respectively) which might be made visible with proper clothing.

These purposes of clothing should make clear a few points about clothing the naked:

The clothing should be in decent condition. “Hand-me-downs” are of course perfectly acceptable, provided that they are in good condition: they are little different from clothing obtained at a second hand store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army or Savers, all of which often sport some very dignified garments.

The clothing should be modest and decorous. This means again that it is in good shape, but also that it fits well and is “presentable.” A part of being presentable is that it it is not overly flashy nor overly big on images etc. Modest means more than just “being covered,” and decorum often goes out the window when the shirt says something offensive or lewd.

Actually, more often that not designer t-shirts lack modesty, decorum, or both; so, for that matter, do the ever-popular jeans with holes torn in them. These may be expensive clothing, but they are not performing the moral (and, for the matter, many of the practical) functions of clothing.

There is a sense in which clothing is also shelter. This is especially true to the survivalist, who will often note that clothing choice is among the most important decisions to make when preparing for a disaster. Providing a nice rain-coat or a warm blanket straddles the line between clothing the naked and harboring the harborless.

Among other things, it should be clear from this list that the “Fitching the Homeless” campaign was not exactly merciful to the homeless. Instead, it was about using the poor to score publicity points against Abercrombie and Fitch. It hinged on the idea that the poor were somehow less dignified, that the clothing “brand” would suffer by being seen on homeless folks—which to be fair was a problem with the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch more so than with the fellow undertaking the campaign. In short, it accepted the premise of the CEO that the poor are somehow “lesser” than the rest of us. As one commentator at the time put it,

“This stunt is based on the exact same premise offered by Jeffries: that some people are ‘unworthy’ to wear A&F clothes. The hipster doofus handing out A&F clothing to people on the street is doing it because he accepts the notion that they’re somehow lesser than “the rest of us.” His stunt has no bite without this assumption.

And the guy in the video is just passing out clothes to random people, without any sense of whether or not the clothes are wanted or even fit. He gives something to a decidedly plus-sized woman when we already know A&F doesn’t make plus sized clothing. These people are just being used as props.”

While this stunt involved giving clothing to the poor, it left them in truth more naked than before.

An often-misunderstood passage—and there are unfortunately all too-many of these—has our LORD telling us, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). Here we see a link between clothing the naked and bearing wrongs patiently.

And many sins are of a nature as to leave the sinner “spiritually naked,” they may be an embarrassment to him, may impair his sense of decorum or may be against modesty. A drunkard feels ashamed that he gets drunk as often as he does: so he remedies this shame by getting drunk. Bearing wrongs willingly means being patient with someone whose sins are often as frustrating to them as they are to you. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that

“In respect of the result of the inordinate act, on account of which the sinner is an annoyance to those who live with him, even beside his intention; in which case the remedy is applied by ‘bearing with him,’ especially with regard to those who sin out of weakness, according to Romans 15:1: ‘We that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak,’ and not only as regards their being infirm and consequently troublesome on account of their unruly actions, but also by bearing any other burdens of theirs with them, according to Galatians 6:2: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens.’”

To bear another’s wrongs patiently is to develop a sympathy for them: that is, a sympathy for the person suffering, for the person who experiences temptations to sin. We are all tempted by something, after all, whether that something obviously and directly hurts others or whether the harm is more hidden and secretive. There are, in the final scheme of things, no merely “private” sins and no harmless evils, since every sin damages our relationship to God and to His Church.

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). These are not merely passive measures of nonviolence being counseled by the good shepherd. As one commentator has noted, these are in fact rater “edgy” statements given the time and place they were made:

In Roman Palestine, incidentally, a person of superior rank who slapped you in the face would expect you to respond by crawling in the dust and grovelling before him. (Or, her.) To remain standing, instead, and turn the other cheek, was a little more edgy than we may nowadays appreciate. Similarly, a Roman soldier could lawfully require you to carry his gear for one Roman mile, but not farther. This was a tax in kind, a short-term enslavement. By carrying it for two miles, you were turning the tables. You were now portering in friendship as a free man — and showing him how to do his job. This, too, was edgy. Similarly with him that commandeered thy cloak: give him the coat also, as the charitable act of a free man. Jesus was not counselling passivity, let alone gestures that are “holier than thou.” He was proposing quite practical — and edgy — stratagems for the slave to free himself from the bondage of this world.

In bearing wrongs willingly, we neither retaliate nor grovel, but instead show forth our own sense of dignity, acting with a sense of modesty and decorum: we may in turn inspire others to do the same. There is a certain bondage which comes from holding a grudge: by bearing others wrongs willingly, we free ourselves from that bondage, at least in part. We throw off the shackles of this world, and in return may inspire those who wrong us to do the same. We then take a few faltering steps as free men, as people who are more able to cooperate with God’s grace to overcome our own sins, or perhaps to inspire or help others to overcome theirs.

In acting with decorum and modesty, we become momentary windows for a world which has forgotten what these things are. Perhaps as such we will inspire them to act in accordance with their own dignity as men bearing the image and likeness of God. We need more men of virtue, more women of grace–but we must first become such people.”

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Giving Drink to the Thirsty & Instructing the Ignorant

drink

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“Hunger may be among the worst forms of physical suffering by sheer magnitude, for many people go hungry. On the other hand, thirst is perhaps nearly so common, for many lack access to water. The homeless unemployed perhaps wants for food, water, shelters and at times, clothes. Nor was thirst unknown in ancient times. Much of what I said about hunger applies here, too.

Giving drink to the thirsty is an act which often is even more appreciated than feeding the hungry, in particular during the hot summer months. Those that have the space in their car (or truck, minivan, etc) could consider buying one of those 24- or 36-count packages of water bottles and stowing them on the floor of the vehicle to hand out to the homeless. These folks generally appreciate it, and it is fulfilling one (or, if you add a small snack, two) works of mercy which can literally be done as a part of a normal commute by handing out the bottles while waiting at stoplights.

In the Psalms we read that “From Thy lofty abode Thou waterest the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Thy work” (Psalm 104:13, or Psalm 103:13 depending on numbering). Water too is a gift from God, and one which is meant for the benefit of us all. On the other hand, this verse became the subject of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ inaugural address when he became master of the sacred page (theologian) at the University of Paris. In that address, he stated that God’s watering the mountains (or hilltops) was an allegory for His pouring forth knowledge and understanding on the wise [1]. God waters the mountains, which in turn fertilized the plains and fields—God gives His knowledge and understanding and wisdom to some, who in turn share it with others who are ignorant.

“Soaking” up knowledge like a sponge, or “thirsting for knowledge,” or “drinking” in knowledge: all of these are rather natural expressions. If our spiritual hunger is for righteousness—which is opposed to sin—we might be said also to have a spiritual thirst is for knowledge and understanding and wisdom. In fact, the Beatitude actually says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but righteousness means both right acts and right desires: so that we must know what to believe and what to desire and how to live to be truly righteous. Unfortunately, we are born in a “double darkness,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas notes, “of sin and ignorance.”

Thus, to instruct the ignorant is to help lift this darkness. As with counsel, a part of this instruction may take the form of discussing what is good and what is evil; what is of God and what is of the world. Good spiritual instruction therefore pertains to one (or more) of three things: what we ought to believe (creed, faith), what we ought to desire (worship, hope), and how we ought to live (morality, charity).

In my own experience, there are three things pertaining to our faith about which people are ignorant and thus in need of instruction:

There is a lot of ignorance (or confusion) about what the Church really teaches in a given doctrine or dogma, and by extension what the Church does not teach as doctrine or dogma. As Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, most people do not hate the Church (or her teachings), but rather hate what they misunderstand the Church to be (or to teach).

There is much ignorance (or, again, confusion) about what the Bible really says (and really means), in particular what Christ says an means whenever He speaks in the Gospels. We are all at times in the place of the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts, asking “How can I [understand the Scriptures], unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30).

There is widespread ignorance about the relationship between morality and love, between worship and hope, and between faith and the creeds. Morality is frequently treated as only “a list of do’s and don’t” rather than the demands of love. Communal worship and the liturgy are often equated with rote rituals and dead motions and empty words rather than right reverence and the nearest we get to heaven on earth. And the creed and its associated dogmas become extra distraction to hinder us from forming a relationship with Christ (like so many barnacles on a ship, as one person put it) rather than clarifications about Who God has revealed Himself to be.

Some of these things are nuanced and some contain many layers of meaning and levels of complexity. Others are more straightforward, but have been given nuances which they are not meant to contain [2]. Moreover, one cannot effectively teach what he does not know, so to instruct the ignorant requires the sacrifice of time spent in studying as well as that in teaching. And on the other hand, because knowledge of Truth comes from God, prayer is an active part of this particular work of mercy.”  Amen.  Amen.  Amen.   Prayer & Study.  Study & Prayer.  Holy study and prayer are work, to the glory of God.  

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, Who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

—Footnotes—
[1] Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are three gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, between the first two spiritual works of mercy we have also encountered four gifts of the Holy Spirit.

[2] This is common with any verse containing moral teachings, and historically also has happened to verses with theological meanings. Both still happen today, though the former is more common than the latter. More often still, they contain the straightforward literal meaning and the nuanced (metaphorical, allegorical, etc) meaning, but the latter is called upon to make the former disappear. Thus a clear and consistent proscription against sodomy becomes merely a teaching about “hospitality.” And, to be fair, attempting to sodomize a person is certainly less-than-hospitable.”

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry & Counselling the Doubtful

Print

I have the privilege of volunteering at the St Vincent de Paul food pantry here in Madison. I enjoy working with our clients to help them shop according to their allocated needs. A first lesson in obedience was accepting my assignment to St John’s Social Service Center in Cincinnatti when I was a Dominican novice. I thought the prison was much cooler!!! A good lesson. Appears, I now have a “thing” for food pantries, in all their diversity. 🙂

nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy

“Hunger is one of the greatest causes of sorrow in this world, though not the greatest. And the hungry are everywhere, and in all times: there seldom need to seek them out to find them. “The poor you will always have,” we are promised (Mark 14:7). We should pity their plight, whether it’s merely economic or whether the problem goes deeper.

Alleviating hunger is a simple task, but it is not easier for being this. Moral problems seldom are. We need not get caught up in idle speculation as to why any given person is in his situation (and with the economy being as bad as it is, there are surely more people who honestly can’t find work than are merely “lazy”). They are our sisters and brothers in need, parts of our human family who are “down on their luck.”

To feed them is an act of mercy.

On the other hand, it is also an act of justice. It is justice towards them, as it recognizes their dignity as human being. Still more is is justice towards God, obedience to the Old Law. We read in Leviticus that “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of your grain. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien. I, the LORD, am your God” (Leviticus 23:22). In Deuteronomy, we read even more instructions of this sort:

“When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf there, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the alien, the orphan or the widow, that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the alien, the orphan and the widow. When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time; let what remains be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. For remember that you were once slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to observe this rule” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).

If this is not explicitly a commandment to actively go forth and feed the hungry—poor, orphan, widow, and foreigner—as in the Discourse on the Judgment of the Nations, it is at the least a commandment to leave them the means to feed themselves.

Moreover, it is a commandment tied to the remembrance of who the Israelites are: you were once slaves in Egypt. And before that, they were foreigners in Egypt (this during a time of famine). In bringing this to mind with the commandment, God reminds the Israelites that they were once poor and hungry, and that this was so until He rescued them from their slavery.

That these commandments were given during the 40 years wandering in the desert, then the the message becomes clearer still. Only by God’s provenance would the Israelites survive; He would provide their daily food, and so they must depend on Him for it. The same of course is true after they entered and claimed the Promised Land, and for that matter the same is true for us now, in a time of advanced farming techniques which yield immense crops.

And the hungry we still have.

Hunger is not only for food, however. I mentioned before that physical hunger is among the worst forms of suffering which is common in the world, but there are worse. After His baptism, Christ entered the desert, where He was tempted by the devil: the first temptation was against His hunger after forty days’ fasting:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4)

Our spiritual hunger is for “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and above all for the Word which comes forth from God: Jesus Christ, God the Son. This is so much so that He told us that we must “gnaw” His flesh and “guzzle” His blood (John 6:53) to have life within us, a moment which foreshadowed the institution of the Eucharist and presaged the Passion.

We know (or “see”) these things through the eyes of faith, and so faith is what helps feed the “spiritual” hunger. But faith is undermined by doubt: thus, counseling the doubtful is spiritually akin to feeding the physically hungry. For its own part, counsel is on of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-2), and is sometimes called “right judgment.” With the gift of counsel, we know what is right and what is wrong, and choose to do what is right.

At a glance, this may seem to fit with others of the spiritual works of mercy—admonishing sinners, instructing the ignorant—which are indeed related to counseling the doubtful [1]. On the other hand, venerable bishop Fulton Sheen once stated that “Atheism, nine times out of ten, is born from the womb of a bad conscience. Disbelief is born of sin, not of reason.” In short, many a man who does says “I do not believe in God” means “I am sleeping with my neighbor’s wife.”

To return to the connection between physical and spiritual hunger, and the feeding of both, we would notice that there is often a second (seeming) reason for the loss of faith, that is, for “hunger.” It is a variation on the problem of evil: “Many Christians are bad people, therefore Christianity is false.” These days the argument is sometimes recast as, “Priest sex abuse scandal. Therefore, Catholicism is false.” From a strictly intellectual standpoint, both versions of the argument are laughable. That some Christians behave badly, and that some subset of those are priests, does not prove or disprove the veracity of the creeds.

People do not, however, operate on a purely intellectual plane, and so these sins become the cause of doubts [2]. In a sense, we all “hunger for righteousness,” and many turn elsewhere when they perceive that they have not found it in religion. The problem is that righteousness is not found merely in religion, but specifically in God; we look for righteousness in men and catch glimpses of it, while missing it in God where it is perfected.

To counsel the doubtful then requires that we return them to God, from Whom comes faith, from whose mouth (and side) comes our spiritual nourishment, our “daily bread.” Thus, while we may counsel directly and physically, we might also apply to God by prayers for counsel—whether for ourselves or for another.”                 -AMEN!!!  AMEN!!! AMEN!!!  Save me, Lord!!!  SAVE ME!!!! -MPM

—Footnotes—
[1] Indeed, counseling and instructing are both related to the intellect: the former to the “practical” intellect, the latter to the “speculative” intellect.

[2] Doubts? Perhaps. On the other hand, these “doubts” often take the original form, again modified: “I am mad that priests have abused children” often and easily becomes cover for “Therefore, why shouldn’t I be allowed to commit my (supposedly minor) sin of choice?””

Love and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Acts of Love & Service

Hands_of_Mercy

nicene_guy

-by Nicene Guy

“One of the pillars of Lent is almsgiving (and by extension, almsdeeds). On the surface, almsgiving and almsdeeds mean only to give away money or goods to those in need. However, almsdeeds go beyond this: they are the works of mercy. I will be posting about the works of mercy each week during Lent, pairing one spiritual work of mercy with one corporal work of mercy and then offering my thoughts on the pair. I will begin these reflections with an introductory essay about the nature of mercy.

Preliminary Remarks: On Justice, Mercy, and Salvation

Justice means to give to another that which is his due. It is not always comforting to us, in that it sometimes requires some sacrifice on our part: it may cost us something sometimes, but the cost is something which we owe to another.

Mercy goes beyond this. It is sorrow over another’s distress and an attempt to alleviate or relieve that distress. It is a fruit of charity, and can be related to sympathy, which is the sorrow for another’s sorrow which makes the other’s sorrow one’s own. Whereas justice sometimes comes with a cost, and while that cost is owed to the other, mercy always comes at a price, albeit a price which does not need to be paid in the sense of being owed from one person to another. We always run the risk of joining the other in his suffering, or even of taking that suffering from him by taking it on ourselves, in which way we follow the example of our Lord.

It should be noted, on the other hand, that sometimes an act of mercy is also an act of justice. Thus, for example, all people have the right to life and to the basic necessities of food and water and clothing. However, to provide these things for another is an act of mercy on the part of the provider which does justice to the recipient. It might be added that what counts as mercy towards man is at the same time justice to God: “Make mercy your sacrifice…” Indeed, our very creation is but an act of mercy and an act of justice–we need not exist, so God is merciful to create us at all; but since He has made such things as intellect and will parts of our nature as human beings, there is an act of justice involved in creating each individual human person with these aspects [1].

Further, showing mercy to others is what in the end results in our obtaining mercy for ourselves: “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs” (Matthew 5:7). Indeed, this is what we will be judged on, as Christ warns us in his parable of the sheeps and the goats (also called His Discourse on the Judgment of the Nations).

We see in this passages several explicit works of mercy which pertain primarily to our bodily needs, and (reading more deeply) some explicit works which pertain more to the needs of the soul or spirit.

Two Types of Mercy

Most of the Corporal Works of Mercy are a bit more obvious (see the parable of the sheep and the goats).

There is mercy towards the body, and mercy towards the soul. The former are more obviously merciful, and often relates to our survival in this life. The latter are less obvious, and less obviously important for our survival, but in the long run are the more important because they pertain to good living in this life and to our survival in the next life. There are seven acts of mercy which pertain to the body (The Corporal Works of Mercy) and seven which pertain to the soul (The Spiritual Works of Mercy).

It is worth quoting the Baltimore Catechism here, which tells that that “We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness…To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart” (BC2 Q8-9). Charity towards God includes charity towards our neighbors; this charity takes the form of the works of mercy.

There are seven each of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy:

The Corporal Works of Mercy:

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.

The 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.

While Christ specifically names the corporal works of mercy (minus burial of the dead) during his Judgment of the Nations account, the spiritual works of mercy are generally more important still. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that:

“There are two ways of comparing these almsdeeds. First, simply; and in this respect, spiritual almsdeeds hold the first place, for three reasons. First, because the offering is more excellent, since it is a spiritual gift, which surpasses a corporal gift, according to Proverbs 4:2: ‘I will give you a good gift, forsake not My Law.’ Secondly, on account of the object succored, because the spirit is more excellent than the body, wherefore, even as a man in looking after himself, ought to look to his soul more than to his body, so ought he in looking after his neighbor, whom he ought to love as himself. Thirdly, as regards the acts themselves by which our neighbor is succored, because spiritual acts are more excellent than corporal acts, which are, in a fashion, servile.

Secondly, we may compare them with regard to some particular case, when some corporal alms excels some spiritual alms: for instance, a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed, and as the Philosopher observes (Topic. iii, 2), for a needy man ‘money is better than philosophy,’ although the latter is better simply” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2).

As it turns out, the Spiritual Works of Mercy are metaphorically implied in the enumeration of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

In the next seven posts in this series, I will discuss each of the works briefly in turn. It turns out that each of the Corporal Works of Mercy pairs somewhat naturally (and metaphorically) with one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. I will therefore go in order of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and then discuss the paired Spiritual Work of Mercy, which means that I will have to re-order the Spiritual Works of Mercy slightly.

—Footnotes—

[1] For that matter, Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection are collectively a work of mercy towards mankind, and at the same time are acts which satisfy the sometimes harsh demands of justice.

Love & always in need of His mercy,
Matthew