The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
Dorothy Day once said that everything a baptized person does should be, directly or indirectly, related to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, bury the dead (the corporal works); counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, bear patiently the troublesome, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, pray for the living and the dead (the spiritual works). What Dorothy Day proposes here is an extremely “thick” description of the Christian life.
Following Jesus is not, for her, a matter of inner states or private convictions, still less an embrace of gassy abstractions such as “peace and justice.” Rather it is a set of very definite, embodied practices, things that one does on behalf of another. The scriptural warrant for the corporal works is, of course, the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? … . And the king will answer them, ‘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’” (Malt 25:37-40).
Feeding this particular hungry person and visiting these lonely prisoners and taking care of this homeless man with one’s own resources – that is the form of the Christian life. Day was uneasy with the Roosevelt-era New Deal reforms, not because she lacked compassion, but because she feared that they allowed Christians to abdicate responsibility for caring directly for the needy. Applying the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, she insisted that towns, communities, families, and villages should support the brothers and sisters that they could see with their own eyes and reach with their own hands – and not pass the buck to the far more abstract care of the government. When starry-eyed young idealists would come to her Catholic Worker House, hoping to have a romantic experience “with the poor,” Dorothy Day would tell them, “There are two things you need to know about the poor: they are ungrateful and they smell.” The poor, she was telling them, are not a quaint abstraction, and working with them is not a holiday; their plight is frighteningly real, and the work is dangerously direct.
What we see in both the corporal and spiritual works is a practical antidote to Augustine’s curvatus in se. All of them compel a self-regarding ego outward in the direction of mission and connection, and, as such, they constitute a distinctively Christian social theory, radically out of step with modern social arrangements, but well-suited to the walking of the third path of holiness. It is remarkably difficult to cling to the illusion that your life is about you when you are focused, body and soul, on the needs of another.
…We bear each other’s burdens in love because we are, whether we like it or not, connected to one another. Since Christians believe that we are all rooted in the same divine source, we are all brothers and sisters, or better, organs in the same body. Contra Hobbes, it is not the war of all against all that is “natural” to us; rather that frightening condition is the product of a sinful denial of what the universe really is. Christians know that when we deal with one another in love, we are not only acting in an ethically upright manner, but we are moving in sync with the deepest rhythms of creation. Hence; there is, for followers of Jesus, no such thing as “your” problem; as yours it is mine. If there is one person starving, the whole body suffers; if there is one child lonely, we are all diminished; if there is one who dies through violence, we are all violated. Bob Dylan commented bitterly on the typically modern reversal of this perspective when he said, “I heard one person starve /I heard many people laughin’.” uncompromised solidarity and communion is what the works of mercy embody."
I noticed your list of daily activities did not include anything from Matthew 25. Neither does mine and I suffer from the same ennui and am sick myself. I’m going to do this though and everyday I get various proddings, like you’re note. I’ve already volunteered at a VA Hospital to read to the patients on the wards but they never called me back. So I have to go back and do it again I guess. Even if it’s once a month there is something you can DO for someone that will be the most exciting thing you do this year. The above quote comes from Fr. Robert Barron.