Caritas: 1559, Pieter Brugel the Elder
Bear with me, please. If you stick to the end of this humble offering it will help you with your writing and your life. Guaranteed. Just give me a few minutes.
I usually wake up in the morning with a coherent thought. It is often a song title or phrase — this morning it was “Gimme Danger” by The Stooges — but sometimes it will be a title or a name or an object. Several weeks ago on a Saturday morning the phrase “Corporal Works of Mercy” was standing there at 0500 hours reporting for duty in the forefront of my consciousness.
I hadn’t thought of the Corporal Works of Mercy for decades. They were drummed into me by rote memorization by the good, stern and strict Sisters of Charity at St. Agatha Grade School, and if you put a gun to my head I can still recite a few of them: clothe the naked (this always elicited a snicker or two from one of the ten year olds in the classroom corner); visit the sick; feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead. I just checked myself and I only missed one: give water to the thirsty. Those nuns did a pretty good job. Anyway, the term nagged and tugged at me all day, right up to the time when I retired for the night.
I found out why a couple of hours later when I was awakened by a telephone call. The caller was an acquaintance that I hadn’t spoken with for several years, an alcoholic like myself. He somehow had my number which I had given him all that time ago, and was taking me up on the offer that I had made: he could call me anytime, anywhere, if he needed help. The caller needed help, badly. I provided it that night, and since then we’ve formed a de facto AA group with another guy we both know, a good guy whose problems would send most people into a ceiling beamed room, holding a chair in one hand and a rope in the other. It’s been a humbling experience.
Two days after that weekend phone call I got the news that an elderly client and friend of mine who had seemingly disappeared was in fact a patient in a rehabilitation center not ten minutes from my home. I immediately went to see him. It was the first time I had ever seen him smile. I told him that I would visit, and that I wouldn’t stay long — I’m not really a social animal — but that I would visit frequently, and have fulfilled that promise. I don’t have to, but I want to. I take the sense that he will not be leaving there, and I want to do what I can to help him with his passage.
Both of the above actions would qualify, I think, under the heading of “visit the sick.” There are a whole bunch of other works of mercy there for the choosing, however. Writing a check to help someone out is wonderful; but what people in need really, really require is your time and an act of friendship. You don’t have to go very far to do it, either. There are volunteers needed at food banks and The Make-A-Wish Foundation and St. Vincent de Paul clothing stores and yes, at rehabilitation centers, places where you encounter people at their worst and lowest and need somebody to…heck, to be nice to them for a few minutes. Those of us who are a bit older and are watching those in our personal herd go ahead of us into the next adventure need to make sure that they don’t make the transition alone. With regard to the latter, women know this. Men generally do not. Women go and visit and sit by the bedside and hold their friends’ hands and give them comfort. Men sit and say, “Gee, I wonder how (insert name here) is doing. I probably should call him. Or something.” Guys, if you think about it, do it.
What I am here to tell you, however, is that it’s not a one way road. My writing and my work has gotten better since I have been visiting my one friend and meeting with my other. What the Sisters didn’t tell us is that doing one or two or all of the Corporal Works of Mercy will focus and settle the doer. It is in a sense counterintuitive; if you’re spending time with someone else that’s time away from writing or working or all of those things that you have to do. Just so. But. But. There is a lot of focus on exercising the mind and the body. What we often forget, however, is that we need to exercise the spirit. I would submit to you that the spirit motivates our writing as much as the mind. Try it, at those points in your life when your life is low or troubled or afflicted. It works.
Thank you for bearing with me. I know that at least a few of you who visit these pages regularly are already heavily involved in the Corporal Works of Mercy, even if you don’t call them that. What do you do? What would you be interested in doing? Please share. I will be somewhat uncharacteristically quiet, but I’ll be here. Thank you.