Each year when we send people out to deliver baskets at the conclusion of the Rini Family Christmas Food Drive we make sure that they have directions to the homes of the recipients as well very clear instructions on what to do and not do – e.g., don’t leave the basket unattended on the front porch, don’t give the basket to a neighbor, and don’t expect to be thanked for the basket.
It is that last directive that often takes people by surprise. We are so used to being thanked when presenting people with a gift that to be confronted by indifference or hostility is something that we have trouble processing. Yet what needs to be realized is that the relationship between the people delivering and the people receiving the baskets is not the usual one of reciprocity. The families receiving the Christmas baskets are in no position to offer a gift of their own and their reaction to that situation can take a number of forms, all understandable.
Sometimes our works of mercy, like feeding the hungry, must be done solely because of the compelling nature of the action – we believe that we are called to act – rather than the ‘feel good’ effect that comes with it. There are times when we are thanked or when there is a heartfelt recognition of what the gift means to those who receive it, as when our young men in the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society serve at a funeral, but the mercy comes first, and without any ultimate expectation of a grateful response.
This is most obvious when we look at some of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. These seven – counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; admonish the sinner; comfort the afflicted; forgive offenses willingly; bear wrongs patiently; pray for the living and the dead – are certainly less well known than the Corporal Works of Mercy, yet the Church tells us that they are even more important because ultimately the spiritual is more important than the physical.
As we ponder these Spiritual Works over the next several weeks we will be challenged by Jesus to find ways to bring them to life in our lives and to see them as moments of grace for ourselves and for those with whom we share them. To remember that any work of mercy is a response to the tragedy of human suffering, is to place that act within the context of the love and hope that Jesus brought to those who were most vulnerable.
Any work of mercy is an act of stepping outside of ourselves in a way that can be uncomfortable – knocking on the door of a stranger to whom we are about to give a food basket can be an unsettling event, yet the Spiritual Works of Mercy by their very nature take us to places that are necessarily awkward and difficult. The presenting of a gift basket is such a natural act that it is only the context of the situation that can make it unsettling. But when we are admonishing the sinner or bearing wrongs patiently, then we are involved with the acts of mercy in their unvarnished essence.
Those who wish to be placed with the sheep rather than the goats know how important it is to live out Jesus’ mandatory directives of Matthew 25. Opportunities to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy are a daily occurrence to anyone who has eyes to see, yet because so many suffer in their hearts and souls in ways that we cannot see or comprehend, the need to carry out the Spiritual Works of Mercy is even more acute. This hidden spiritual pain is so pervasive that we never have to go looking for opportunities to practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy – they are hidden in plain sight, able to be seen whenever we look with the eyes of Christ.