“You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
I never imagined that I would ever begin an essay about the Works of Mercy by quoting Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but I also never thought I’d be explaining the word ‘portmanteau’ either.
At the beginning of Through the Looking Glass Alice reads from a ‘looking-glass book’ – a book that must be held up to a mirror in order to read – and comes across a poem, “Jabberwocky,” that includes strange words like slithy and mimsy. Alice asks Humpty Dumpty about these and other words and he explains that they are the verbal equivalent of a traditional French trunk or suitcase that opened into two equal compartments. So, slithy is a combination of lithe and slimy, while mimsy brings together flimsy and miserable.
More common portmanteaus are words like brunch and spork and, sorry to say, Brangelina and Billary. Languages other than English also form and use portmanteaus – including the archetypal French portmanteau: portmanteau, a combination of porter and manteau. In Latin, the word for pity is miserere and the word for heart is cor. When combined, they produce the portmanteau misericordia, and, more importantly, they produce arguably the most important word in all of Catholic theology: mercy.
Imagine the Mass without the word mercy. Ideally, twelve times during each liturgy God’s mercy is petitioned for by the priest and congregation. Specifically in the Introductory Rite during the Kyrie and the Gloria and in the Communion Rite during the Lamb of God we recognize our position as sinners and plead to be treated not as we deserve, but with heart-felt pity.
Also included in the Communion Rite is the Lord’s Prayer, where, without using the actual term, God’s mercy is asked for in the words “forgive us our trespasses.” But by reciting the following line – “as we forgive those who trespass against us” – the petitioners are placing a condition on the mercy of God. And that is why the term mercy is so important.
As followers of Jesus we must be merciful to all, and especially to those who do us harm. This mercy should not come from a place of fear – fear of not being forgiven and condemning ourselves to Hell, but from a place of love – love of God and neighbor. For if love, as St. John tells us, pushes out all fear, then to follow Christ, to live the Gospel, is to have ‘pity from the heart’ for everyone – most especially those towards whom we would rather extract retribution.
This tradition of living merciful lives is not new. The prophetic voices of the Old Testament abound with pleas for mercy, particularly towards those who are the weakest and most marginalized in society – the orphan, the widow and the stranger, known in Hebrew as the anawim (“God’s poor”). The public ministry of Jesus expands this mercy to include all when the Lord demands that His followers “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Given this commission, the early Church began to codify the ways that mercy can take shape as an essential aspect of the Christian life. The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, practiced from the time of the Apostles, were first mentioned in list-form as early as the second century. The more well-known are the Corporal Works, but their Spiritual counterparts are possibly even more essential. As spoken of by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Spiritual Works of Mercy may not always be as urgently needed as the Corporal, but they are more valuable since their locus is the reconciliation of persons with God and each other.
For those two reasons – less known yet more important – this summer we will take a look, week by week, at each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. The hope is that by focusing on these lesser-known acts we can not only know how to strengthen our spiritual lives and those with whom we come into contact, but can act on that knowledge to bring mercy to a world that seems to have never been in more desperate need of it.