When I witness the beautiful corporal works of mercy that religious sisters do, I am always inspired, but sometimes I feel like a slacker. I mean, those Missionaries of Charity are picking up dying men from gutters and bandaging lepers’ wounds, and here I am, sipping coffee on my comfortable couch.
There is no doubt about it: Those religious sisters are amazing. What I have to remember, though, when the “I’m-doing-nothing-compared-to-them!” pangs strike, is that God is not calling me to be a religious sister. He is calling me to be a wife and a mother. The works of mercy for my vocation are not necessarily the same as the works of mercy for a religious order. They are complementary, not parallel. I might still be a slacker at times, but the yardstick should be calibrated to the standard of my own vocation, not someone else’s, with measurements that equate in love, not specific acts.
I once heard a religious sister say that as an examination of conscience, she sometimes thinks about what mothers are going through. “My friend from college gets up with her new baby five times a night,” she said. “I have to ask myself, ‘What am I doing that is an equivalent sacrifice?’”
Holiness takes different forms in different vocations. Works of mercy do, too.
“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family,” Blessed Mother Teresa said. Those of us who cannot be in Calcutta serving the poor can still do corporal works of mercy in our own homes, by serving our families. (That’s not to say we should not also do corporal works of mercy for the poor outside of our homes, but that our homes are the starting point for love.)
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,” Jesus says in Matthew 25:40. In Matthew 18:5, He puts a child in the midst of His disciples and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Placing these two verses side by side, we can see that what we do for the children we receive in His name, we do for Him.
“I was hungry and you gave me food…” (Mt 25:35)
Raising children is a whirlwind of grocery lists, overflowing carts, running back out to the store for forgotten items, scouring cupboards for ingredients, trying to prepare balanced meals (and feeling guilty when we don’t), setting the table, doing dishes, and starting all over again.
It is wonderful to donate to food pantries, send financial support to needy children in Africa, and have our children help us pack bags for the homeless. Yet our fulfillment of this work of mercy does not begin or end there; it begins with the breakfast we serve our children in the morning, and ends with the dinner we prepare (or order out!) at night. Every meal we make is an act of love. Every time we feed a hungry child, we feed Jesus.
“I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” (Mt 25:35)
My husband and I often receive a wake-up call at about 3 a.m. It’s not an alarm, but a voice, calling out: “I’m thirsty!” One of our children has a penchant for wanting water in the middle of the night, and so we fumble downstairs in the dark to retrieve it for him.
In his book A Severe Mercy, author Sheldon Vanauken tells a story about how he and his wife had an agreement that they would always do what the other asked, out of love. He uses the example that if one person asked for water in the middle of the night, “the other would peacefully (and sleepily) fetch it.” In fact, this scenario became a symbol for their pledge: “A cup of water in the night” was a phrase they used to define the courtesy with which they would love one another.
This can be a phrase to describe how we love Jesus, too. When we give drink to a thirsty child (or a thirsty spouse), we give it to Him.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Mt 25:35)
Most of us can relate to the familiar phrase, “I’m just not myself today,” or “He’s not acting like himself.” Children, especially, have a way of morphing into different people when they are tired, hungry, overwhelmed, growing, fielding a new situation, or experiencing other stress. As parents, we might wonder: Where did my sweet, loving child go, and who is this child taking her place?
This is when we can welcome the stranger in our home. All of us know how it feels when we aren’t acting like ourselves and wish we could behave differently. We also know how good it feels when someone loves and accepts us anyway. When we hold out our arms to welcome a child who is acting like a stranger, we hold out our arms to welcome Jesus.
“I was naked and you clothed me…” (Mt 25:36)
Just thinking about children’s clothing makes my mind spin. Babies require a new wardrobe every three months. Shopping for older children is a gamble; an outfit you buy for them might last a year, or the child might suddenly shoot up and outgrow it in a month. Ensuring that each child has the proper accessories for every season (swimsuits, pool shoes, sunglasses, snowpants, boots, gloves…), in the proper (ever-changing) size, is a monumental juggling act.
Then comes caring for the clothes: scrubbing stains, hemming rips, and patching holes; and, of course, washing, folding, and putting away endless loads of laundry.
Storage is another hurdle: sorting, organizing, and putting away clothes in bins according to season, size, and gender, and pulling them out again when a younger sibling needs them. (Why didn’t they teach me strategies for this in school?)
Outfitting children is no minor task. Sometimes it feels to me like a full-time job in itself. But the blessed little ones are worth every minute of effort. It is a privilege to buy their shoes and wash their socks. When we provide clothing for our children, we clothe Jesus.
“I was sick and you visited me…” (Mt 25:36)
Naturally, we want to protect our children. When they get sick, it can be frightening (especially when we look up symptoms on the internet). We feel helpless when we aren’t able to take away their suffering. But when children get older and look back, what they often remember most isn’t the sickness, but the loving way their parents cared for them during their illness.
This work of mercy is both sad and sweet: to snuggle with a sick child and read stories together; to sit at a teenager’s bedside and pray over him; to run a cool washcloth across a toddler’s feverish forehead; to rock and sing to a sleepless baby, is to visit Jesus.
“I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt 25:36)
My dad was a deacon whose main focus was prison ministry, so I know firsthand the powerful impact it can make to visit prisoners. May God bless all of His children who are incarcerated, and all those who minister to them.
Those of us who cannot regularly visit brick-and-mortar prisons, though, can still perform this work of mercy in a different way. There are many ways to be in prison besides occupying a cell in a physical jail, and so there are other ways to visit prisoners, too.
Jail is punishment. It’s a consequence for a crime. Often, when children are punished, they are put in solitary confinement. Some are sent to time-out or to their bedrooms. Others remain in the room, but their offenses have built invisible walls that isolate them from others. Those places, to a child, can feel like prison cells. They’ve lost their freedom and their ability to be with their families. We can ease their pain by coming to visit them in that prison—not to condone their behavior, but to hug them and show them that we love them no matter how they act. When we show children this mercy, they learn to treat others with mercy, too.
Punishment isn’t the only jail cell. Anything that separates us from other people can imprison us. Loneliness, anger, sin, anxiety, selfishness, fear, and sadness can all trap us. When people in our homes are in these prisons, and we come to them there to ease their pain, we come to Jesus.
During this Year of Mercy and always, may God grant us the grace to remember that whatever we do “for the least of these” in our homes, we do for Him.