My sons and I have been trying for a while to memorize the classic Catholic lists while we milk cows every day.  Commandments, Beatitudes, Virtues, etc.  Things like that.  Lately we’re reviewing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, and they are quite the challenge, not because they’re esoteric and undoable, but because they are eminently practical.

Somehow things like those acts of mercy lists get discarded as some sort of outdated CliffsNotes of real charity.  They may have been good for filling catechetical timeslots in the some scenic 1950’s parish, but they’re really just cold and lifeless factoids easily read and easily forgotten, like a bad PowerPoint presentation.

I wish that were true.

They’re amazingly actionable and to the point.  Here’s a review of the Corporal Acts of Mercy

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To shelter the homeless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To visit the prisoner;
  • To bury the dead.
  • The spiritual works of mercy are:
  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

As we memorize these simple and potent lists one can’t help but see opportunities to do just these things.  When you encounter someone in need of clothing, you give them some.  When someone is obviously without food – feed him.

In an age of tight schedules and hearts, we can often pray pious sounding things like, “God use me today to [insert holy sounding accomplishment].”  We might even Google ways to serve Him.  Perhaps even if we read those lists we’ll try to schedule or engineer them into our lives.  We shall accomplish mercy!  It does seem, however, they what we seek is already there.  God says love your neighbor.  Our world is populated with men and women suffering the effects of sin, and God has placed us where we are with a clear expectation that we act like Christians, meaning we love them because we love Him.

Are we seeing our neighbors?  Most likely enacting these acts of mercy are is not in the technique or effort, but in the willingness and openness to see as God sees.  When we see someone outside of our devout tribes, do we see Jesus inviting us to “do unto Him,” or do we see someone that doesn’t measure up?  Those works of mercy are annoying because they’re so practical, if we have eyes to see them.  They aren’t in comment boxes.  They’re close.  The needs are real, and God has so ordained this world that He acts through us to answer those needs.  We usually don’t have to go find them, but need to be ready to recognize them.

For me, I have a neighbor in obvious need.  I know, because when I don’t go see him, he comes to get me.  I have no attraction to being his friend or companion, yet I know I’m supposed to love him as those acts of mercy lay out.  There’re few things on the list that don’t seem to be needed in this man.  They say St. Louis de Monfort busted in the door of his residence with other clergy, dragging with him a beggar, calling out, “Jesus is here!”  I can’t say I see Him that clearly when I see this old man near me, but I know I should.  The practicality and proximity of this obvious need is an annoyance to my comfort and constructs of the ways I want to serve God.  Jesus can be that way.

Advent, a season of penance, calls us to almsgiving and prayer.  Don’t overcomplicate that.  You likely won’t have to look far to find those in need of your merciful presence, bringing God with you.  (Perhaps you could say He is bringing you along.)  In fact, these lists have become annoying, because they show me Jesus is so close to me.