07 March 2011

Corporal Works of Mercy Revisited

Today's first reading from Tobit puts before us the corporal work of mercy known as burying the dead. Christians seeking to perform corporal works of mercy may, at times, feel limited by their circumstances if they are unable to go out to visit the sick or imprisoned, etc. Without diminishing the value of performing one of these noble tasks, perhaps there are ways in which we, daily, may perform these acts in a spiritual way. And in doing so, we can keep the fire of devotion -- and desire -- burning in our hearts until we have an opportunity to perform these acts physically.

We may not have direct access to help feed and to give drink to those who need it. We can, however, be attentive to those who are starving for attention and who are parched -- whose spirits are dried up -- in need of a kind word or a loving touch to restore hope to their hearts. We can feed those who are hungry for the things of God with the promise of prayer; we can feed those who are hungry for loving attention with a moment or two of our time as we listen to their troubles or inquire about their day.

Perhaps we are aware of a colleague at work or a classmate at school who is especially vulnerable. Perhaps he does not seem to fit in and appears to be painfully aware of it. We may clothe the nakedness of his vulnerability by going out of our way to include him in conversations or casual gatherings at work. Maybe someone in our parish is naked because rumors -- be they true or false -- have begun to circulate about her personal life. We can clothe her in her nakedness by reaching out and demonstrating by our actions that we are unaffected by the unkind words which have fallen from the nasty bird of gossip.

Few of us are able to open our doors to the homeless and provide the shelter that they need. Many of us may be able to help support agencies which provide these services, but all of us can provide protection from the "bad weather" which comes upon our friends and family members from time to time. Perhaps one of our students is experiencing a painful situation at home; we can listen and offer a loving space in which she can feel safe to talk about it. Maybe a coworker has just been let go; instead of allowing the awkwardness of the situation to keep us apart, we can protect him from the cold night of shame or humiliation by reaching out and offering to help him make contacts and update his resume.

Visiting the sick and imprisoned can be done in person or by a thoughtful greeting sent in the mail, over email or by other means. A spiritual bouquet is a beautiful way to give a gift to someone who is sick or imprisoned. We can also visit those whose prisons are not Lovelace's stone walls and iron bars. Perhaps we have a classmate who is in an abusive relationship or who suffers from addiction. These situations can be as confining and painful as a physical experience of incarceration. We can "visit" those among us who are imprisoned by their circumstances by offering our company, our friendship and our moral support.

It is usually a sad day when we have the opportunity to participate in the corporal work of mercy described in today's first reading. Burying the dead, however, is a gesture of respect for the earthly body that housed an eternal soul. We can show respect to the souls of the deceased by how we speak of them. If someone is bringing to light the shortcomings of a deceased friend or family member, we might find a gentle way to balance the remark or to overshadow it by recalling the virtues of the deceased. In doing so, we protect the reputation of one who is unable to defend himself.

This is not intended to suggest that we may dispense ourselves from seeking opportunities to perform corporal works of mercy. Rather, it is merely an invitation to seek new ways of performing these acts of charity. In addition, we can always unite ourselves to those who are directly engaged in these works by praying for them and those whom they serve. We will never know how many good works go undone or unfinished because there was no one to pray for their success; we can never underestimate the importance of praying for those who perform these corporal works of mercy.

"It is always a work of love to join with others and take part in their good works. And although it may be possible that you can use equally profitable devotions by yourself as in common with others . . . nevertheless God is more glorified when we unite with our brethren and neighbors and join our offering to theirs."
St. Francis de Sales

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