Spiritual Works of Mercy — What you can do

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

by Bill Scholl

The corporal works of mercy are ably done by most Christians. The spiritual works of mercy, however, require more discernment and humility.

There’s a saying that goes, “In the spiritual life, you can’t give what you don’t have.”

In order to do four of the spiritual works, in other words — to admonish, instruct, counsel and comfort — it is important to ensure you are equipped. That’s why, as Catholics, we are lifelong learners of the faith — so we are able to be agents of God’s spiritual mercy.

But in some instances you may not be the agent to admonish or instruct. This task may fall to another.

However, the three remaining works — pray, forgive and bear wrongs — belong in the daily life of all the baptized.

Bear wrongs patiently

Whether it be the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the jerk at work or a hurtful loved one, we all endure wrongs. Bearing wrongs patiently is the work that enables us to sanctify these injuries into opportunities for communion with God.

“Offer it up!” as Grandma used to say, is not an admonishment to be tough, but rather a path to communion with God in our suffering.  God is in charge and “all things work for the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

So, change the things you can and accept the things you can’t by bearing wrongs patiently.

Ideas: Overlook minor flaws, pray for those who hurt you, work at being less critical.

Pray for the living and the dead

Christ, in his humanity, prays for us and so we imitate him when we pray for others. Mary models Jesus in that she intercedes for others through prayer. It is no accident that Our Lord began his ministry with an intercession from Mary (who images the church) at the wedding feast at Cana. Mary had real concern for the married couple and she gave mercy by turning to Christ for help.

We, too, should be first to pray when we want to help others. As well, we should pray for the dead, those souls in purgatory who are being purified of sinful attachment by their suffering.  They are helpless and cannot pray for themselves. When we want to accomplish mercy, we should remember what Alfred Lord Tennyson observed: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Ideas: Offer to pray for people and then really do it.  Make a list of the dead that you know and pray the rosary.

Admonish sinners

In this life, if you don’t achieve salvation, you have failed. And there’s hell to pay. The greatest obstacle to salvation is sin. So, helping someone stop or avoid sin is a great mercy.

You can find the first sinner to admonish in the mirror. By admonishing yourself, you learn humility needed to help others. It is difficult to strike the balance between loving the sinner and hating the sin. It requires prudence to stand for what’s right in a world that no longer believes in sin. But you’ll never learn if you don’t practice. Parents, especially, need to be strong in correcting their children in love.

Ideas: Be courageously compassionate in calling institutions to be faithful to Gospel values. Pray to the Holy Spirit when in situations of correction.

Counsel the doubtful

Helping others with the negative thoughts that hinder Christ’s peace is the goal of this work. As St. Elizabeth Ann Seton asks, “Who can hold back the soul that God sets free?”

The emotional demons of discouragement, self-pity, apathy, fear and despair can hold one back from the serenity and spiritual growth Christ wants for us. So, make yourself available to listen and affirm people in ways that help them to see that they are a good gift. Members of the body of Christ need to encourage one another.

Ideas: Make time to spend with friends and be present. Consider getting training to be a spiritual mentor.

Instruct the Ignorant

Ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge. However, as with any profession, there are basic things to know. As we profess our faith at Mass, we need to understand fully what we believe. Just as the plumber who doesn’t know how to sweat pipe needs more training, so does the Catholic who doesn’t understand the creed. It is important to engage our friends in religious dialogue.

Ideas: Study apologetics. Keep copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to give away. Listen to Catholic Radio.

Forgive offenses

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In teaching us how to pray, Our Lord teaches us how to live. We get mercy to the measure we are willing to give mercy.

Forgiveness is hard when others don’t apologize. Yet, forgiveness frees us, for often we suffer from over-sensitivity, pride and an ego that seeks vengeance. You can’t be happy and wrathful at the same time. Take St. Paul’s advice: “Repay no one evil for evil. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:17a; 21).

Remember that the best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend, for that is what Christ is trying to do with you.

Ideas: Pray for the ones who hurt you. Let go of grudges. Seek forgiveness from others.

Comfort the Afflicted

For the Christian, this world is a place of transition. While we are made to seek happiness, we know the world can never satisfy and that life will have sadness and setbacks.  As St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless till they rest in God.”

Illness, death and loss all cause profound grief. Yet, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he saves those whose spirit is crushed” (Ps 34:19). God wants to give consolation, and he calls upon us to help.  Just listening and expressing empathy can be an avenue of grace.

In grief, people go one of two ways: closer to God or further away. As a Christian, you can be the midwife that helps the griever birth a deeper relationship with Christ.

Ideas:  Volunteer with Catholic Community Hospice, help with a grief ministry.

For more ideas, visit the website at: www.archkck.org/mercy.

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