Sacraments and the Spiritual Works of Mercy

When looking at the seven sacraments through the lens of the hierarchy of importance, it is difficult to over-rate the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Certainly Baptism is the necessary doorway to the others, and the Eucharist is the life-sustaining encounter with Christ, but after that it would be difficult to find a sacrament more helpful along the road of life than that of Penance and Reconciliation.

This sacrament goes hand-in-hand with the next three Spiritual Works of Mercy, called by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization the “works of reconciliation.” And for that reason, it takes the same attitude of humility to walk into the confessional as it does to practice one of these three Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Humility, in the sense meant by the Church, is not a denial of one’s gifts and talents, but instead it is an honest appraisal of one’s true self.  For LeBron James to deny his obvious talents on a basketball court is not humility, and, in fact, would probably be an example of what can be called “false humility,” or the intentional fishing for further complements. Instead, LeBron could (honestly) say thanks and then point out that he needs to work on his free throw shooting (not complaining, just suggesting). That would be a humble response.

When polls are taken where people are asked to name qualities or characteristics that they find attractive in others, humility always seems to make it onto the list. Who isn’t drawn to the person who can laugh at her or himself, or who can take constructive criticism in stride? And, even more importantly, who doesn’t long for a friend who can relate to one’s own struggles in life because she or he can relate because of their own struggles? In short, who doesn’t love a person who embodies empathy?

To Comfort the Afflicted, the fourth Spiritual Work, is to share in the affliction of the one who needs comfort. Anyone with a conscience will feel sympathy or compassion for those who are afflicted, but it is the cherished friend who feels empathy, who puts her or himself in the shoes of the one afflicted, the one who makes the pain their own. Empathy is the partner of humility – together they recognize that affliction is an unavoidable part of the human condition and that one person’s affliction is, in truth, everyone’s affliction.

Colloquially, this Spiritual Work is often conjoined to the phrase “and afflict the comfortable.” Besides it being a misquote of famous Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne, it also misinterprets his meaning. Dunne, in the voice of his fictional Irish bartender/sage Mr. Dooley, was trying to satirically critique the role of newspapers as the arbiters of all facets of the lives of the reading public:

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

But even if Dunne had been quoted correctly it would have run against the grain of the Spiritual Work to which it was attached. Even “the comfortable” are afflicted in some ways. One need only recall the prophetic voice of St. Teresa of Calcutta who said that our comfortable society is afflicted with loneliness, despair and hopelessness. These are afflictions that no amount of money can eradicate because, as St. Teresa pointed out, “their only cure is love.”

Love has many facets, but essential to love is empathy, especially if the traditional Thomistic definition of love is used: “to love is to will the good of another.” To Comfort the Afflicted is to put love into action, to not only will the good of another but to feel the affliction on such a level that the only response is to act and help to make the good happen.

Another quote of Finley Peter Dunne, one that is misattributed to the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, is “all politics is local.” These are wise words and, in a nation of screamers and not listeners, probably the only way to affect any real change. Also, these are words that, unlike the previous misquote, can be applied to this Spiritual Work of Mercy. Anyone who has ever had her hand held or had his shoulder embraced in time of affliction would certainly affirm that, indeed, all comfort is local.