The last of the spiritual works of mercy is controversial to many Christians. Praying for the living is OK with all Christians, but not all believe in praying for the dead. Praying for the dead is too complicated to get into with these short meditations, so let's concentrate on praying for the living.
Most of the time in this blog we pray for ourselves to become better followers of Christ. I think that is the most easily answered prayer. When we pray for ourselves we know that we are doing this of our own free will and we really desire to have that prayer answered. When praying for someone else, we may not know where they stand on the issue about which we are praying. Take for example, praying for someone to be healed of a physical ailment. If we know that the person truly wants healing then we are not praying against that person's free will. But if the person does not want to be healed what would be the point of our prayer? Do we want to ask God to heal the person in spite of what that person wants? And would God do that?
When we want to intercede for someone, it might be best to find out what the person in need really desires. If we can agree with that, a mighty prayer can be offered. "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:19-20).
I think the catch is finding two or more people who really agree in prayer. At times when a group has prayed for one particular person, I have asked the individuals in the group afterward "What specifically did you pray?" It turned out that none of them prayed for the same thing. There was no agreement in prayer.
Who are "the afflicted?" If we are to comfort them, we need to be able to identify them. Today we might consider them to be the people of Nepal suffering after the earthquake or the residents of Baltimore who have experienced death, protests and curfews. But, unless we personally know someone involved in those events, we have no opportunity to offer comfort.
We might, on the other hand, know someone who has lost a job, had a fire in their home, or been unjustly accused. Sometimes those who are afflicted hide their problem. They don't want anyone to know that they've lost a job, or their spouse has left them, or the insurance has run out for their sick child. So, often, the person whom we have the opportunity to comfort is someone really close to us, a family member or life-long friend.
Comfort can be a listening ear, doing the laundry for someone spending their days at the hospital, or taking in people who have lost their home. Years ago when my mother was in her final illness, a neighbor, who knew about insurance, offered to keep track of the doctor and hospital bills. It was a tremendous load off of my mind as my days revolved around my mother's medications, oxygen supplies and doctor appointments. Another friend offered me a room to sleep in when my sister would take care of Mom for a night. These acts of kindness were a big comfort to me.
For Reflection: If we listen to people and look around, we may see opportunities to comfort a friend who is afflicted. "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:14-17)
Let us pray. Father, for the times when I have turned a blind eye, forgive me.
For the times when I have seen the need, but refused to get involved, forgive me.
For the times when I have hardened my heart to another's affliction, forgive me.
"To counsel the doubtful" is a lofty-sounding goal that might put most of us off from attempting to do it at all. But I am not one of those who thinks that the spiritual works of mercy apply to some of us and not all of us. All of us, I believe, are called at various times to counsel the doubtful in the same way that we are all called to instruct others in the faith to the best of our abilities.
Who has not been doubtful about their faith at some point in their lives? I certainly have. Satan loves nothing better than to bring doubt to our minds. Isn't that what he tried to do with Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11)? Satan said, "If you are the Son of God, . . ." Starting off with "if" was meant to sow doubt. Obviously Jesus didn't need anyone to counsel him away from doubt, but he had just come off of 40 days of fasting and prayer. Plus Jesus was well versed in the Word of God.
Doubt about our faith does not come from God. When we come across someone who is doubting, what should we do? Let's take them in the reverse order of what Jesus did with Satan's temptation. Remind them of what Scripture says. Pray with and for them. Fast for them. And if we need to refer them to someone who can answer their questions more completely, we can do that too.
The same approach works if we are the one who is doubting. Read Scripture, pray, fast, consult an elder in the faith.
For Reflection: Times of doubt come and go. What do I do when I am doubtful? When I come across someone who is doubtful, what is my response?
Let us pray. "I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues" (Psalm 120: 1-2).
A second Spiritual Work of Mercy is to warn the sinner. Never a popular thing to do. No one wants to hear someone else telling them they are sinning. So how can we practice this particular work of mercy? Let's remember first of all that it is a work of mercy and must be approached with love and mercy in mind, not judgment. As Paul wrote to the Galatians (6:1), "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently." Paul is speaking to a community of people who feel some spiritual responsibility toward each other to grow together in Christ. They are a community growing together in discipleship, working toward the common good. And they should treat each other gently.
The way the woman caught in adultery was being treated by the Jewish leaders was not a good example of warning the sinner (John 8:1-6). Their intent to stone her was not a warning to her but to others who might be thinking of adultery. Jesus' instruction to her was to leave her life of sin. She had already been publicly humiliated. There was no need for him to say more.
A word of warning would ordinarily be given in private, but the woman had been brought into the main public area of the temple. It would ordinarily be done one-on-one, but a group of men accosted her. It would ordinarily be done with compassion and mercy, but the leaders wanted to shame her and make an example of her. They were using her for their own ends. There was nothing gentle about it.
For Reflection: How would I react if someone were to warn me about a sin? How would I want to be approached? Before we begin to warn someone else, a time of intercessory prayer for that person would be helpful, and perhaps all that is necessary.
Let us pray. Jesus, if I am persisting in sin and hardened to it, I hope that you will send someone to warn me and that I will be open to that warning.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy can seem, in some ways, outdated. The first is usually given as "to instruct the ignorant." Today we often consider the term "ignorant" as a pejorative. But to be ignorant of something is not necessarily to be willfully ignorant. I admit there are many, many things I know nothing of and probably never will know anything about. On the other hand, there are fields of study that I know that others don't. It seems to me that this is normal today when the universe of knowledge has expanded so much. And if everyone knew everything a lot of conversations would be boring, wouldn't they?
Lots of people instruct the ignorant on a regular basis, for example, teachers. The other day I toured a battle field and George Washington's boyhood farm in Fredericksburg, VA. On the battlefield I was instructed by a National Park Guide; on the farm I listened to archaeologists both in person and on an ipad. I'm not quite as ignorant now as I was before about the Battle of the Wall or the Ferry Farm.
But instructing the ignorant as a spiritual work of mercy involves teaching someone about being a disciple of Jesus. Plenty of people do this too. Christian parents, first of all, instruct their children about right and wrong, about forgiving, and about the life of Jesus. Then there are those who teach discipleship more formally - catechists, pastors, and Bible study leaders, for example. Sometimes something as informal as telling a co-worker how God touched your life can be educational. So we see that opportunities abound to instruct the ignorant and it needn't be a matter of looking down on someone at all. Rather it is sharing something precious to us - our life with Christ.
For Reflection: How have I shared my life in Christ with others in the last few weeks? If I have a godchild, have I been in touch with him/her lately?
Let us pray. Jesus, I may not have been so good about talking about you to others in the past, but I want to do better in the future. Help me to recognize anyone in my life who could use some instruction.
I started this website and blog on May 1, 2012. I am a Catholic who has been in ministry for many years. I first developed what I would call a close relationship with Jesus in the early 1970s. Ever since then I have been praying with people for healing and other needs. It is because I have seen so many of these prayers answered that I am so bold as to offer to pray for you individually through this website and phone line.