The Spiritual Works of Mercy
2. The spiritual works of mercy are: (1), To instruct the ignorant; (2), To counsel the doubtful; (3), To admonish sinners; (4), To bear wrongs patiently; (5), To forgive offenses willingly; (6), To comfort the afflicted; (7), To pray for the living and the dead.
One may instruct the ignorant either in religion or other useful knowledge either by word of mouth or by writing good books. The holy apostles, and the evangelizers of the different nations, performed a work of mercy, as in the present day do all the missionaries to heathen lands, besides all preachers, catechists, confessors, Christian writers and teachers. To co-operate with God for the salvation of Souls is the highest of all works. Those who impart religious instruction to others will have a more exalted place, and enjoy a greater degree of glory in heaven. Daniel says: “They that instruct many to justice shall shine as stars for all eternity” (Dan. xii. 3). Those who collect money for foreign missions also perform a work of mercy. To counsel the doubtful is another of the spiritual works of mercy; but the counsel given must previously be maturely considered, and not forced upon one’s neighbor. Joseph gave good advice to Pharao; Christ to the rich youth; Gamaliel to the council.
We ought to admonish the sinner, provided we can do so without prejudice to ourselves, and provided a good result may be anticipated.
He would indeed be cruel, who seeing a blind man on the brink of a precipice, did not warn him of his danger; and yet more blame worthy would be he who, having it in his power to save his brother from everlasting death, will not take the trouble to rescue him. God will require us to give an account for the soul of our neighbor, if we omit anything we might have done to further the work of his salvation. “We call a man’s attention,” says St. John Chrysostom, “to a stain upon his clothes, but we do not tell him of stains upon his soul; which, if not washed away, will be his eternal ruin.” Noe preached penance to the Ninivites. The good thief admonished his fellow culprit. Admonition is like salt; it makes the wound smart more, but it heals it. Thus reproof is not agreeable but useful. If by administering a rebuke we shall bring trouble on ourselves, we are not obliged to give it; no one is required to love his neighbor more than himself. (It is however the bounden duty of those who are in authority to admonish those under them of their faults; justice, not charity, requires it.) Nor are we called upon to correct others if no good will come of it. Who would be so unwise as to rebuke a man who was intoxicated? Rebuke him by all means, but wait until he is sober.
In admonishing sinners we should observe the rule Christ gave us.
First we are told to rebuke our brother when we are alone with him. If he will not hear us, we must rebuke him in the presence of two or three witnesses. If that is useless, we are to tell his superiors (Matt. xviii. 15-17).
“We must admonish our neighbor with gentleness and charity.
The greater the gentleness and tact wherewith a reprimand is administered, the more effect it produces. If our admonition is to be of use, it must fall on the heart like a gentle rain upon the earth; for it is the still, quiet rain that sinks into and fertilizes the soil, whereas a violent, sudden downpour only breaks up the surface of the ground and rushes away. The bitterness of the reproof should be tempered with kindness and charity, as sour fruit is sweetened with sugar and cooked to render it digestible. Before rebuking any one, it is well to mention something praiseworthy in his conduct, and afterwards to speak a word of encouragement. If the rebuke is harsh and severe, it will do no good, only harm. Rough reproaches will not bring a man to a better mind, any more than kicks will put a wanderer in the right road. They will only drive him in the opposite direction. The sinner will not resolve to amend his ways unless he feels that the admonisher has his welfare sincerely at heart. The Christian must treat his erring brother as the coachman treats a timid horse, which is not to be managed by the violent use of the whip, but by a gentle hand on the rein.
“He who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his ways shall save his soul from death, and cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. v. 20).
We are told that the Evangelist St. John took the greatest trouble to save an unhappy youth whom he had converted, and who afterwards became a highwayman. He went after him to the mountain fastnesses, and called to him: “Why, my son, do you fly from your father, from a defenseless old man? Fear not; I will myself implore pardon for you of God, and make satisfaction for you.” These kind words touched the heart of the prodigal. We cannot offend Christ more deeply than by robbing Him of the souls He has redeemed; nor can we honor Him more than by bringing back to Him those which have gone astray. There is nothing upon earth to compare with the value of a soul. “If thou wert to give vast sums to the poor,” says St. John Chrysostom, “the merit would be nothing in comparison with that of having converted one sinner.” He who converts a sinner deserves an infinitely greater reward than he who rescues a king’s son from death; for he saves a son of the King of heaven, and saves him not from temporal, but from eternal death.
When we bear wrongs patiently, we benefit not ourselves only, but also our fellow-man; we prevent him from going to greater lengths, and make it easier to bring him to a sense of his wrongdoing.
David bore Semei’s abuse patiently, and after a time he acknowledged his sin and implored the king to pardon him. We lose nothing if we suffer wrong patiently, for when our innocence is proved, our forbearance will be richly rewarded. It is also most meritorious, as St. Teresa says, not to justify one’s self when one is blamed. Unhappily too many people are like the hedgehog, which rolls itself into a prickly ball the moment it is touched, for at the first fault-finding word they break out into excuses and exculpations. However it is incumbent upon us to protect ourselves from false accusations, when to bear the injustice in silence would be productive rather of evil than of good. Slight affronts should not be heeded, but one ought not to allow a heinous crime to be falsely laid to one’s charge.
By forgiving offences willingly is meant that we do not seek to avenge ourselves on those who offend against us, but treat them kindly, and are ready to confer upon them any benefit within our power.
Joseph’s conduct towards his brethren affords a beautiful example of this virtue; instead of revenging himself on them, he embraced them and kissed them and loaded them with gifts. If we willingly forgive those who trespass against us, God will forgive our transgressions, as we are told in the fifth clause of the Our Father.
We can comfort the afflicted by showing them heartfelt sympathy, by suggesting grounds of consolation, or by succoring them in need.
Evincing sympathy towards those in trouble is called condoling with them. We may suggest comfort to the poor and afflicted by reminding them of the watchful care of God’s providence, of the happiness that awaits them in heaven; to the sinner we may speak of the divine mercy and compassion. We shall do still better, if we relieve them in their distress. Thus Our Lord comforted the widow of Nairn, and the sisters of Lazarus. Grief is a mental malady: “The sadness of a man consumeth the heart” (Prov. xxv. 20). To console the sorrowing is as much a good work as to nurse the sick. Words of comfort in a time of affliction are as welcome as rain in the time of drought.
To pray for the living and the dead is a work well pleasing in God’s sight. It benefits at the same time both them and us. God enjoins upon us especially to pray for our parents and benefactors, for the Pope, and the ruler of our country, for the bishops and clergy, and also finally for our enemies.
St. Paul declares that it is good and acceptable in the sight of God, that prayers be made for all men, for kings particularly, and those that are in high stations (1 Tim. ii. 2, 3). Furthermore we read in Holy Scripture: “It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Mach. xii. 46). Far from being losers, we are greatly the gainers if we offer prayer to God for others, for we thereby increase our merit, and draw down upon ourselves the blessing of God. Before Judas Machabeus gained the decisive victory over Nicanor, he caused sacrifices to be offered for the warriors who should faJl in battle. Prayers offered for others sometimes seem to be fruitless. On one occasion when St. Gertrude complained that no improvement was discernible in the persons for whom she prayed, Our Lord said to her: “No sincere prayers are in vain, although the effect they produce may be imperceptible to the eye of man.” Abraham interceded for Sodom, Moses for the people, the Christians for St. Peter when he was in prison. At the Last Supper Our Lord prayed for His disciples and for the whole Church, and on the cross He prayed for His enemies. Let us follow the example He gave us. When we recite the Our Father we pray for all men; we say, “Give us our daily bread, etc.”
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