The spiritual works of mercy developed as Christians cared for the world in which they lived – admonish the sinner, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, instruct the ignorant, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead.
To reflect on these works includes doing them and then looking back on what we have done and who we have become.
Take comforting the sorrowful. We have all found ourselves accompanying someone who has suffered a divorce, or lost a spouse to death, or was downsized, or was overlooked for the promotion they desperately needed, or was disappointed in their children’s behavior, or was driven by debilitating anxieties, or etc. In short, we and our family and friends suffer in one way or another; and we walk together.
In comforting the sorrowful, we often don’t know what to say. We want to console and we bring forward whatever wisdom we have. We say things like, “Call me” or “If I can do anything, just let me know.”
But we soon come to understand comforting the sorrowful is not about banishing grief but about walking with a person we love until what has come to pass is somehow integrated into a larger identity and purpose.
Take instructing the ignorant. If we are teachers, the application is obvious. But this spiritual work goes beyond formal instruction. It means we communicate whatever knowledge we have in a way that empowers those who receive it.
It may be a parent bent over and soft talking into the ear of a child, or a boss carefully explaining to an employee what needs to be done, or a friend pointing out the implications of a decision. We all have some knowledge that would benefit others; and, instead of keeping it to ourselves, we offer it in the hope that it will help.
In comforting the sorrowful and instructing the ignorant we become other-centered; and, as every spiritual tradition knows, in becoming other-centered we enter into the deepest secret about ourselves. Being merciful is our true identity.
© Jack Shea