America’s pain has reached fever pitch. So has its fear, anger and confusion.
Months of lockdown and loss, followed by scenes of excessive force by police, massive protests, wanton destruction, heated conversations on everything from face masks to race, and a looming presidential election that will be fun for no one, have infected us all. Some of us would move to Italy if we could. But we can’t. Because Europe will no longer let us in.
How do you exist in a civil society that has lost its civility? How do you even engage in conversations on Facebook without fear of doing more harm than good to relationships you value?
I don’t have a clue. I’ve prayed. I’ve read. I’ve listened. And I haven’t found a single foolproof answer. Too many people are walking around raw, bleeding and broken. Others are so tightly wound, that one wrong word can cause them to snap. No matter how hard we try, most of us are going to do or say something to which someone else will take offense.
That’s not to say we’re totally without guidance, though. In the Church’s teachings on spiritual works of mercy, we can find some help.
The spiritual works of mercy, like the corporal works of mercy, call Christians to imitate Jesus Christ by practicing justice and compassion toward our neighbor. But while the corporal works of mercy focus on meeting our neighbors’ physical needs, the spiritual works of mercy call us to tend to our neighbors’ souls. Through merciful acts of kindness, we can show others the compassion of Our Lord and lead them closer to him.
Traditionally, the Church teaches there are seven spiritual works of mercy: to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead.
All the spiritual works of mercy matter. All are important. Right now, however, we need more of the last four in our world. We need more forbearance, more forgiveness, more comfort, and more prayer.
For some of us, that goes against type. We would prefer to be on Twitter, telling everyone else what they’re doing wrong. After all, so much out there needs correcting. If we don’t do it, who will?
The answer? Lots of people. No shortage exists of people, online or in the real world, ready and willing to tell others how they should be thinking or acting. There is so much instructing, admonishing and counseling going on today that it’s almost deafening. But precious few people are willing to just love others in their pain, give others the benefit of the doubt, let go of past wounds, and do the hard work of interceding for our broken world.
That, however, is what we need most right now. That is how we heal and how we help others heal. So, how do we carry out these spiritual acts of compassion?
To comfort the sorrowful starts with listening. We focus on the other, not on ourselves. We don’t think about what we want to say; we simply hear what the other needs to say. And as we listen, we don’t critique their pain; we enter into their pain with them. The sorrowful and grieving don’t need advice at the height of their suffering. They need to know they are not alone, that someone sees them and loves them and will sit with them when they hurt. A word of affirmation, a note of encouragement, an offer of prayer (or a bottle of wine) — all can go a long way to bringing comfort to the sorrowful.
To bear wrongs patiently requires us to assume the best about those who hurt us. It asks us to presume that the person who said or did the wrong, offensive or obnoxious thing was perhaps trying to help us … or was acting out of ignorance … or is suffering themselves and acted out of their own pain. In effect, it calls us to remember that we cannot see hearts or know minds and that we risk doing a grave injustice to someone when we leap to judgment. Because of that, when we bear wrongs patiently, we show ourselves mercy, too.
Along with giving others the benefit of the doubt, bearing wrongs patiently requires us to not return kind for kind: to not return insults for insults, offense for offense, or raised voices for raised voices. It is to obey Jesus’ injunction, “But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also …” (Matthew 5:39).
Lastly, bearing wrongs patiently calls us to not pity ourselves. When we are insulted, when we are attacked, when we are unjustly maligned, we should never see ourselves as an innocent victim. Because we’re not. We’ve all done a thousand things wrong — made bad choices, said bad things, failed to do good things — and suffering through an injustice with patience and love is our chance to do penance for the injustices we’ve perpetuated against others.
Regardless of intent, though, hurts hurt. Wounds, however they’re inflicted, are real. They exist. We must respond to them somehow. And that’s where the spiritual work of forgiveness comes in. God asks us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. And God always forgives, readily, freely and absolutely. He doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn’t nurse hurt feelings. He doesn’t complain about what we’ve done to him on Facebook. Instead, he pours out his mercy on us as soon as we approach. Sooner, actually.
From the cross, God anticipated our requests for forgiveness. He didn’t wait for people to tell him they were sorry before he died for them. He died for them — he died for us — while we were still far from him. God asks us to do the same, forgiving people who don’t deserve or want or even ask for our forgiveness. That kind of forgiveness can take time. The deeper the wounds the harder it can be to extend mercy to others, asked for or not. But only those who can forgive can be forgiven. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Last but not least, we’re called to pray for the living and the dead. Make no mistake, we are in the midst of a spiritual battle. Fear, confusion, rage and chaos are the devil’s favorite children. He breeds them. He feeds them. He delights in them. He doesn’t want us to comfort the suffering, bear wrongs patiently or forgive those who hurt us. He wants us to hurt the hurting. He wants us to take offense, wallow in self-pity and mercilessly judge those who think or look differently from us. He also wants us to hold on to hurt and hate, forever feeling aggrieved, forever feeling the victim, forever feeling justified in our bitterness and rage.
Prayer beats the devil back. It holds him at bay. It binds him and prevents his lies from reaching our ears and the ears of those for whom we pray. It also softens hearts and illuminates minds, forging chains of understanding. By prayer, wounds are healed. By prayer, relationships are restored. By prayer, fears are driven out so peace can reign once more.
In the weeks and months ahead, the world needs our comfort. It needs our forbearance. It needs our forgiveness. And most of all, it needs our prayers. Prayer makes the other spiritual works of mercy not only fruitful, but possible. So, if the first three of these four discussed spiritual works of mercy are a struggle for you, start with prayer, and ask God to let compassion, forbearance and forgiveness follow. To that prayer, God will never say No.
Emily Stimpson Chapman, a wife, adoptive mother and author, writes from Pittsburgh.