Spiritual > Corporal

Two doctors walk into a bar. Another man at the same bar falls to the ground and has a heart attack. The two doctors know exactly what is happening. The first doctor falls to his knees and prays for the man. The second doctor falls to his knees and begins to resuscitate the man.

Which doctor did the right thing?

The answer might surprise you.

According to Aquinas,”spiritual works of mercy surpass corporal works of mercy. Moreover, this is more pertinent to the service of God, to Whom no sacrifice is more acceptable than zeal for souls…” (ST II-II Q. 188, a. 4).

In other words, the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the man having a heart attack, as opposed to acting to save his life, would merit more value for his soul than the physical resuscitation of his life.


The situation certainly goes to extremes, but it was intentional. The answer is obviously a bit more complicated that what it seems.

The doctors in question knew exactly what was happening because they had been trained for years on how to recognize, treat, and serve the sick, and it is their duty to use those talents when they are needed. Both doctors had a moral responsibility to save the man’s physical life because, in essence, this is what God had prepared them to do through the knowledge that he gave to them. Therefore, the first doctor who decided to not use his talent would be guilty of the sin of inaction much the servant from scripture who buried the coin his master gave him (Matthew 25: 14-30).

However, we cannot discount the value of that doctor’s prayer. In light of theological truth, the first doctor’s faith deserves a certain degree of merit. Aquinas goes on to say that “it is a greater thing to employ spiritual arms in defending the faithful against the errors of heretics and the temptations of the devil, than to protect the faithful by means of bodily weapons.” Therefore, the doctor’s use of the spiritual weapon of his prayer did serve as a source of strength for the suffering man’s soul.

We can imagine the multiplication of that doctor’s spiritual merits in the onlookers who are watching the scene frantically searching for some way to help. Not knowing what to do, some pull out their phones and call 9-1-1 while others say silent prayers as they watch the second doctor do his job. These witnesses add to the spiritual flame that helps enliven the suffering man’s soul while his body remains in torment. It is all the witnesses can do having not been given the grace of medical knowledge like the doctors who are rightfully at the suffering man’s side.

The onlookers’ prayers deserve merit. Jesus tells us on countless occasions that the spiritual acts we commit are valued more than the physical alms we give in our time, talent and treasure:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 31-33).

“‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22: 36-39).

A rosary said is worth 50 times more than the giving of bread. But we must never discount the value of giving of bread, lest we turn into Scientologists. Our Catholic faith is always and forever a religion of both/and, a middle road that unites the spiritual with the physical in every act that brings us closer to sanctification. Pope Francis, a current model of corporal sanctity, recently said, “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” Note how these two acts, one spiritual and the other corporal, are united in the simplicity of his words?

Jesus himself reiterated this when he said “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11).

Too often, we glorify the giving as the highest form of service when in truth, it is the spiritual prep work that manifests itself more concretely in the souls of those we serve.

This is why Jesus spent hours upon mountaintops praying before he journeyed through the towns to produce miracles, preach, and ultimately suffer the worst death known to man.

This is why St. Dominic spent every moment he was’t preaching in silent contemplation so that he could prepare to use the words of the Spirit instead of his own.

This is why Mother Teresa woke up at 4AM to lose herself to God in silent prayer and daily Mass so that she could have the strength of serve those who needed her in the streets of Calcutta.

Spiritual acts must always be the source of serving the physical needs of those who need us. This Christmas, when you give, be sure that your giving is motivated by the zeal for souls. That’s when the spiritual combines with the corporal and you become the communion of body and soul that God engineered you to be.

“Give me souls, Take away the rest.”

 St. John Bosco

Image: Lichen / Poland – 07.08.2018: Basilica of Our Lady of Lichen, the biggest catholic church in Poland. Pilgrimage village. Shutterstock: Szymon Mucha


T.J. Burdick the author of several books and articles on the Catholic faith. He writes and speaks on how to grow in holiness amongst the distractions and difficulties of the current age. When he is not spending time with his family or writing books, you can find him teaching courses on the Catholic faith through Signum Dei (signumdei.com). For more about T.J., visit his site at tjburdick.com

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