By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 7, 2008)
Ever since I began my series of columns on the corporal works of mercy, I have had several requests to do a similar series on the spiritual works of mercy. As the saying goes, "there is no time like the present," so I will begin those reflections on the spiritual works, below.
However, before launching into that topic, I want to try to respond to a question sent to me by a woman named Mary a couple of weeks ago. She wrote:
Dear Dr Stackpole,
I work as a nurse in a hospice and have been involved in palliative care for 10 years. I feel that caring and providing support to the terminally ill and their families is my vocation. I do however struggle with the works of mercy. I am providing care for the sick and dying yet it is a job I love and I am being paid for. The work can be emotionally difficult so I do little outside of my job to reach out to the hungry and the poor, apart from donating money. I have always been under the impression that works of mercy should be done in addition to everyday working life rather then being something to get paid for.
Maybe I am being over scrupulous. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this
Well, Mary, most of us in the modern world have been influenced — without even knowing it! — by the views of one of the foundational thinkers of the modern era: the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. This philosopher taught that the only truly "good" actions are those done for the sake of duty alone, with nothing whatsoever "in it" for ourselves.
Other modern thinkers, including Christian ones, have taught that the only truly loving actions are those that are expressions of sacrificial love. In other words, a love that suffers for others, like Christ on the Cross. Thus, we in the modern world are "spooked" by the modern intelligentsia: We tend to think that unless the works of mercy we are doing have no benefit to us at all, and unless those works are expressions of suffering love, then they are not really works of compassionate, merciful love at all, but tainted with selfishness and compromise.
It is just not true. Jesus said: "Love your neighbor as yourself," not "Love your neighbor instead of yourself." In short, loving yourself is not always selfish; it's possible to love yourself, in proper measure, selflessly!
First of all, what is love? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, puts it succinctly: "To love is to will the good of another" (1766). To expand that definition a bit: authentic love is the selfless seeking of the good of another, even, if need be, at the expense of one's own temporal good. If we are loving others only, or primarily, to get some good out of it for ourselves, then indeed our love is often tainted with self-seeking. We call it "enlightened self-interest" (for example, when a Hollywood star takes on public works of charity not out of deep concern for the suffering and needy, but to keep his or her name in the news and to cultivate an image with the public).
Moreover, authentic love is indeed tested on those occasions when it becomes costly to carry on with it. One example is when a mother loves her child so much that she decides she has to put her career plans on "hold' for a while to give her child the best stay-at-home care that she can and that her child needs.
But not all authentic love — not all true "selfless seeking of the good of others" — is always suffering and sacrificial. For example, putting on a birthday party for your 5-year-old daughter. There is hardly any suffering involved with that action (in fact, it's tremendous fun — trust me, I know!). But it still meets your child's needs for affection and appreciation. It is still a very loving thing to do. Similarly, sharing conjugal love with one's spouse or devoutly praising and worshipping God at the Eucharist are both truly acts of love, but neither one usually involves much in the way of suffering.
Authentic love must be willing to suffer for the good of others if need be, but when there is no need for such sacrifice it is just love accompanied by celebration and joy.
Similarly, not all love, in order to be selfless (that is, unselfish), needs to have no benefit at all for our selves. There is a great fringe benefit to ourselves in putting on birthday parties for our kids (the fringe benefit is fun and birthday cake!), and there is plenty of benefit to ourselves in lovingly praising and worshipping God at Holy Eucharist (namely, a strengthening of sanctifying grace in our souls). As long as these fringe benefits for ourselves are not our primary motive, then our works of love are not usually tainted by selfishness.
Sometimes, it is even OK to do works of merciful love when the primary motive is a benefit for oneself: that is, when we ourselves have legitimate needs that must be met, such as the need for a salary that can provide us with a reasonable standard of living: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and so on, for ourselves and our family. After all, you too are a child of God, Mary, and that means when you are getting paid for your works of mercy for the sick and the dying, you are thereby taking care of your own authentic needs as well; you are just mercifully caring for the needs of one more child of God at the same time: namely, yourself!
It's the same for me, Mary. I am on salary at the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. I get paid, in part for writing this Q&A column every week. But I do not need to feel guilty about that. Quite the contrary. By getting fairly paid for this spiritual work of mercy, I am thereby able to help take care of not only the spiritual needs of the readers of this column, but also the legitimate physical needs of myself and my wife and child. That pay does not make my work on this column less loving or less merciful. In fact, in a sense, it makes it even more merciful, because it extends the good that my work does to meet the needs of even more children of God: including myself! Your paid work for the sick and the dying, my paid work for the questioning and the doubting: It's all merciful love, if our true intention is to meet the legitimate needs of the children of God.
Now, let's press on to look at the spiritual works of mercy that our Savior calls upon us to do.
The first of these spiritual works is "to admonish sinners." As a matter of fact, this work of mercy is one of the hardest to practice in the western world today. It's the verbal practice of "tough love." We live in the "I'm-OK-you're-OK" culture, in which I have my own personal set of values and you have your own personal set of values, and we are each considered free to practice those values to our heart's content, just as long as we do not do grievous bodily harm to others in the process (although that limitation on our freedom is waived by our society in cases where the "others" in question are unborn children).
If you really want to be unpopular — indeed, if you really want to risk getting a punch in the nose — try admonishing someone today for, say, blasphemously swearing in public, or wearing provocative and immodest clothing. Try admonishing your fellow parishioners for talking out loud with their friends in church as soon as Mass is over (and thereby making it nearly impossible for people to pray after Mass). Try objecting to pornography on display in the magazine shops, or try engaging in non-violent protests outside of an abortuary, or try explaining to a gay friend that you know in your heart that their lifestyle is unnatural and that they will never find true fulfillment and peace of heart by living it out, but that true forgiveness, peace, and even healing can be found through Jesus Christ.
Nine times out of 10, the end result of these attempts to "admonish sinners," no matter how gently and compassionately they are done, is to be branded an intolerant bigot. After all, what could be a worse, what could be a more politically incorrect attitude in an I'm-OK-you're-OK culture, then to tell others: "You're not OK: your harming yourself and others spiritually, if not physically."
The problem is that we live in a society that is now dominated by people who have never made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence. Thus, they stumble through life with an adolescent understanding of love. To be "loved," to them, means to be affirmed in everything they want to do that does not cause anyone else (except unborn children) grievous bodily harm. If you tell someone like that: "Hey, I think you are doing something wrong; I think what you are doing can lead to your spiritual self-destruction and, perhaps, to the spiritual destruction of others too," well, their response is likely to be to complain that you are not affirming them and therefore you must be practicing intolerance and bigotry and hating them. Yet, it is to spiritually adolescent people like this — to a whole society dominated by such people — that we are called to "speak the truth in love" (as St. Paul put it; see Eph 4:15), with both courage and compassion.
It is certainly not easy to do. It takes the virtue of prudence as well: finding just the right moment, and just the right words, in a way that clearly affirms the human dignity of the person you are admonishing, even as it challenges them to fulfill their highest potentials.
Saint Faustina set an excellent example for us here, for in her life in the convent she sometimes discerned the call of the Holy Spirit to practice such "tough love." She actually became known in her religious community for her boldness in admonishing even older and more educated sisters in religion for their sins of malicious gossip, and some of them, in the end, grudgingly respected her for it.
This series on the spiritual works of mercy continues next week.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.