The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2447 summarises: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”
The corporal works include:
1) To feed the hungry.
2) To give water to the thirsty.
3) To clothe the naked.
4) To shelter the homeless.
5) To visit the sick.
6) To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
7) To bury the dead.
The spiritual works include:
1) To instruct the ignorant.
2) To counsel the doubtful.
3) To admonish the sinners.
4) To bear patiently those who wrong us.
5) To forgive offenses.
6) To comfort the afflicted.
7) To pray for the living and the dead.
During the current pandemic moment we are living, health authorities all over the world seem to suggest that these Works of Mercy be suspended for our own benefit! Health authorities strongly demand that we come into contact with other people the least possible, and in consequence, leave the Works aside for the time being, if not exclusively virtually. What we have to do physically, we are urged to do with extreme caution and extraordinary precautions.
Works of Mercy have been suspended! If not, we risk asking others to practise the seventh in the Spiritual Works of Mercy: Pray for the Dead!
Corporal and spiritual
The very fact that there are two sets – the corporal and the spiritual – shows how the Church considers the person as a whole being, body and soul. Suspension of these works seems to be suspension of the whole of humanity on its own.
Jesus himself showed that his salvific mission had the whole person as its focus. For example, of all the miracles he performed – some 33 or 35 – the vast majority have to do with the corporal or material realm of humanity. Very few miracles were exorcisms; all others were healings, multiplication of food for the hungry crowds, raising from the dead. Not only, but in his healing miracle of the paralysed man, brought down in front of Jesus through the roof, Jesus points out corporal healing as a sign of spiritual healing: “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins [spiritual healing]” – he said to the paralytic – ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home’ [physical healing]” (Mark 2:10-11). Corporal healing becomes a sign of holistic salvation. The physical as the sign of the wider picture and more complete salvation.
But what is mercy?
I wish to make one point about mercy as clear as possible! Mercy is not pity! I can pity a dog that is whining with thirst on some roof. I can pity a new car that has been scratched on purpose because of envy. I can pity the Maltese countryside, defaced with our strewn rubbish. But my pity changes nothing. Pity leaves the person exactly where they are! Mercy recreates the person to whom mercy is shown. And I wish to show this from the very meaning of the word mercy in both the Old and the New Testaments.
The biblical notion of mercy is a complex one. In the Old Testament, the word for mercy is not a word; it’s an image, a picture, a symbol in itself. Mercy is an abstract concept and thus the Semitic mind finds difficulty in expressing it. It has to make use of picture-words. For mercy, the Hebrew Scriptures use the plural word rahamîm, with the concrete meaning of ‘the viscera, the intestines’ (in Maltese, we have the verb ráħħam, with the same consonants of the Hebrew language, used “to appeal to one’s generosity repeatedly”. The noun ráħma is used in one of our idioms: “raddli r-raħma u l-ġenna”, he implored God to grant mercy and heaven, an archaic expression of condolences, or, used in other contexts, to express profuse gratitude and thanks.)
Mercy is the feeling coming from the deepest reality of a being; it’s as if mercy rolls up all the being’s sleeves as from its deepest feeling point and urges it to do something. Visceral compassion. Not like pity!
The more primary basic word, the singular, is réhem, meaning ‘the womb.’
The same thing takes place in the New Testament, written in Greek. The word-image there is splánchna, again meaning the viscera, and the fundamental singular splánchnon, again, the womb.
Incidentally, the Latin word is also plural, misericordiae (We priests, in the absolution formula during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, would invoke God in Latin as ‘Deus, Pater misericordiarum’, God, the Father of mercies).
The womb, where a new person comes into being, a new creation takes place. The womb makes of mercy that “feeling with”, that empathy that links a mother to its baby within her! Women would tell us men what powerful feeling that is! That symbolism takes us to the maternal nest, lined with deep deep love, in the warmth of which a new creature, a new being comes into being, is nurtured and develops until it can live independently of the mother herself. In the womb a person is created and can live independently from then on.
In her womb, that nest of pure love, our mother had made space and more space as we grew in her for nine whole months so that we could become a baby, a person! Mercy is creating space within my heart and within my life so that the other person, to whom I show mercy, can grow again, and be recreated. Mercy is the power that God gives us to be like him, creators anew like him.
Mercy recreates the one who receives it. Mercy transforms the one who gives it into a new identity: from a common creature to a creator, like God! The merciful person is identified with God himself: “kî-hannûn ānì – for I am merciful” (Exodus 22:26) … and that is the very first adjective, description, qualification that God gives to himself in the Bible. The second adjective that God gives to himself is ‘compassionate’, which is yet another word for merciful. And this second adjective is linked contiguously with ‘merciful’: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. In Hebrew it sounds like this: Ēl rahûm vehannûn (Exodus 34:6).
Do we really wish to be like our Father in Heaven? Do we really wish to have the same features of Jesus? Do we wish to have the same face of the Father’s mercy, that is Jesus Christ? Then listen to what Jesus himself commands us: “You shall be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Mercy brings us closer to the likeness of God we were created in; mercy shortens the distance from him who is the Totaliter Aliter, the Wholly Other. During this time, we have the golden possibility to rethink our works of mercy, to take them up another notch: from pity to mercy, from feelings to virtue.
Jesus has made it quite clear: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The Greek original text has a tiny detail that, to me, makes a noteworthy difference. For “you have love for one another,” the Greek reads: eàn agápēn échēte en allēlous, if love you have in one another. It’s as if I deposit my love in small instalments in others, so that when I look at them, I can indeed recognise my love, myself, in them.
“You did it to me”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). What we do to the least … we do to him. Why do we need to do it to him? Why not simply do it with others and leave it at that? Why did Jesus have to say to Saul on the road to Damascus: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting?” (Acts 9:5) Because the Word [read, the Perfect Personal Mind) of God became flesh and pitched his tent among us (John 1:14). This is the way he can be the Immanu-El, the God-with-us. This is the way he chose. So be it!
By Fr Paul Sciberras