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Simcha Fisher: What counts as a work of mercy?

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Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favourite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

“one person’s bare minimum could be another person’s heroic maximum, and God sees the difference”

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

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I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

The first error is the idea that, when we do something because we must, we deserve no credit for it. There is some truth here. Everyone has some obligation in life, and we shouldn’t go begging for applause every time we do what we have to do.

But the spiritual and corporal works of mercy aren’t about getting applause, or racking up points, or earning extra credit; so it’s not relevant whether or not some work we do counts as “extra”. The works of mercy are about allowing or inviting the Holy Spirit to imbue with grace the things that all humans are obligated to do. They are about echoing, in human terms, the things that God has done for us.

It is about seeing a human need and alleviating it. It doesn’t have to be sparkly. Giving drink to the thirsty could be something as dramatic as going on a mission trip and helping to drill a well for an impoverished village, but it could be (and usually is) about filling a sippy cup with juice and handing it to your toddler. There is a certain holy simplicity in doing what we must, simply because it is what God has asked us to do. Christ values humble obedience very highly, which is why he modeled it in his life on earth.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes it takes heroic effort to do what could be considered the bare minimum. I remember clearly being so severely sleep deprived and emotionally depleted that dealing with a thirsty child felt monumentally difficult; but I did it, because obviously my child needed to drink. Sometimes I even did it with gentleness and patience. So one person’s bare minimum could be another person’s heroic maximum, and God sees the difference even if a well-rested person doesn’t.

The second error is the belief that doing things for your own family is less spiritually burnished than doing things for other people. (This is an error that more liberal people are especially prone to.) This error is related to the first, because it stems from the idea that doing things for our own families is the bare minimum and therefore less significant. The idea is that of course you will do things for your own family, but once you’ve gotten that obligation out of the way, then you have the obligation to look further and see how else you can be helpful.

This sounds right. But what I have noticed is that, when I am out in the world Making a Difference and Serving the Poor and Bettering Humanity, I forget to take care of my family. I really do. Or else I know they need me, but it’s a heck of a lot more emotionally rewarding to organise and host a well-publicised fundraiser for strangers than it is to stay home and make meatloaf.

The truth is that it’s very hard to be an amazingly generous person to strangers and also take good care of your family. The family usually suffers, and when you think of them as a mere obligation, you begin thinking of them as expendable, because where else are they gonna go?

So while it’s not right to simply hunker down and only care for our tiny little circle of immediate relatives, it’s also not right to behave as if there’s nothing special about caring for them. The family exists, ideally, so that we will all be taken care of; and, ideally, cared-for people will be more able and willing to bring that security to others they meet.

When we have the opportunity to care for people outside our families, we do this by expanding our family’s scope, not by leapfrogging over the people close to us in favour of people more far removed. (Of course I am using a broad brush, here. Sometimes we cannot or should not spend too much time with the people we happen to be related to! But this is the exception, for difficult circumstances, not the norm.)

The third error the dad made is thinking that the corporal works of mercy are intrinsically second rate, and less important then the spiritual works of mercy. This error is one more conservative people are especially prone to: the idea that truly good Catholics really lean into the spiritual works of mercy and have a sort of majestic contempt for the body and its needs.

This simply isn’t what the Church teaches. One is not more important than the other. We are called upon to make sacrifices with our own bodies, in various ways; but it’s a very different thing — a sin, in fact — to require other people to make sacrifices with their bodies, and saying we’re doing it because we’re just so spiritual.

I know I’m wading into deep waters here, but James 2 spells this out pretty clearly:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

The story of Abraham and Isaac is a pretty heavy hitter, and James knew it. This is what the Church teaches about the things we do with our bodies: They matter. We can’t just wave our hands and say “I’m spiritual, instead”. Do the thing with the hands God made for you. That’s how you show you’re spiritual.

So if you are stuck in the corporal trenches and feel like your soul is being neglected while every bit of energy goes into the works of your hands, try to take heart. This is the real deal. This doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to a break, when you can rest your body and refresh your mind with less corporeal thoughts; but it does mean you’re doing what you’re supposed to do for your spiritual life right now, and there’s nothing second rate or shabby about your work. It is pleasing to God.

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Author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning

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