The Corporal Works of Mercy

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.





40 thoughts on “The Corporal Works of Mercy

    • Thank you Kay. And YIKES! I hope that you or anyone else doesn’t interpret my words about monetary contributions as negative. Many of these organizations would go under. You don’t have anything to confess at all!!!

      Also…while I’m making with the mea culpas…how in the name of all that is just and decent could I have ever of forgotten Habitat for Humanity?!

  1. When I lived in Orlando, I was active in the Adult Literacy League. Reading is a vital skill. Now, I’m more involved in trying to find a cure for MS, as one of my daughters was diagnosed with it three years ago. I’ve made pancakes at a WalkMS event, and I’m trying to help her BikeMS team by offering the chance to be a character in my next book in return for donations to the MS Society.

    • Terry, that’s terrific. Interestingly enough, the lab where my younger daughter works as a researcher is looking for a cure for pediatric MS in the hope that it will assist in the prevention and cure of adult onset MS. Here’s hoping and praying that you both meet in the middle at some point.

  2. At present I am more of a funds donor than a time donor. But my passion is providing greater mobility to the aging so that they can be as mobile as they can for as long as they can. I haven’t yet figured out a way to contribute there. There is a bit of a gap in services in this respect. On the one hand, you have personal trainers, some of which are excellent and some of which leave much to be desired. On the other end, you have the outstanding work of physical therapists but many people are limited in their ability to financially access physical therapy. It’s on my goals list to figure out how to make an impact in this area.

    The other thing I’ve always wanted to do is be a volunteer Cesar Millan and go around to various apartment complexes. So many people who have dogs in apartment complexes simply do not understand how to properly socialize their dogs (I’ve been there, done that so I’m talking to me too). I’d love to volunteer time helping people and dogs in these apartment communities get along better together.

    As for right now, I’m content to be able to donate funds to a local university’s physical therapy program.

    • Physical therapy in any form is a worthy cause, BK. One of the many results of my visits to the rehab center is a newfound appreciation that I can move. I can ambulate. What a concept. I used to complain about mowing the lawn. Who was I kidding? There are so many physical and perceptual faculties that come into play with a task like that…I HAVE them. I’m complaining about using them?! Shame on me. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Suzanne, thank you for the reminder. He has. If I started counting my blessings every morning and continued throughout the day I still wouldn’t complete the list, which begins with “Yes, I can hear my cat getting me up” which translates to 1) my hearing still works and 2) I have the all enveloping love of a cat (though he has a strange way of showing it. Thanks again.

  3. I need to get back to what the good sisters taught us, Joe. I used to volunteer at a home for abandoned children and I’m still in touch with one of the graduates. Going there was an education. I met kind, selfless people, brave children who struggled to overcome the many difficulties heaped on them at a terrifyingly tender age, as well as the system’s failures and the boneheaded stupidity of children’s court judges and some social workers.

    • Elaine, thanks for sharing that. It must have been a heartbreaking experience to see what some children go through. And you’re right on point about the system’s failures. BTW, a criminal attorney once asked me if I knew what you called a lawyer with an IQ of 50…he told me that it was “Your honor…”. Of course, I have never had any reason whatsoever to reach a similar conclusion.

  4. Joe,
    As soon as you said, “Bear with me,” I knew this would be a memorable post.
    You beautifully summed up the values that fewer and fewer people seem to live by in this increasingly hateful world.
    Regarding your friend in the rehab center, you’re actually accomplishing two of the mercies: visit the sick and visit the imprisoned. An old friend was recently sentenced to assisted living. He lives in luxury with a caring staff, but it’s still a gilded cage in which this man will live out his last days, deprived of his freedom. You reminded me to visit him today.
    As to how helping others improves our own craft, for years I’ve edited, beta-read, and mentored other writers. The time I spend figuring out how to solve their problems and improve their work yields unexpected payback. Often, a dilemma I’ve struggled with in someone else’s story later turns into solution for my own.
    My friend/mentor Dennis Foley (of the original MacGyver series) tells the story of his early floundering days as a H’wood screenwriter when the great Stirling Silliphant took him under his wing. After much help, Dennis asked, “How can I ever repay you for all you’ve done for me?”
    Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”
    For the past quarter century, Dennis has passed it on to scores of writers, proving beyond all question that he is anything but an a**hole.
    Joe, may all the mercies you’ve shown others be repaid to you a hundredfold.

    • Debbie, thank you so much, especially for the reminder of visiting the imprisoned. You’re 100% right. Some of these folks are warehoused. They get placed and they have no family and they can’t get out. I’d rather be dead. I’m glad I’m alive. And yes, yes, pass those good works forward, the ones extended to you.

  5. You’re a good man, Joe. I do random acts of kindness almost every time I leave the house. My husband does, too. Self-sacrifice, I think, be it your time, patience, or money, especially if you’re strapped for cash, means the most. Years ago, when my husband and I were first married money was really tight. On several occasions we had total strangers hand us $10, $20, even $50 bills for no reason. We’ve never forgotten those “angels” who somehow sensed we needed help, and acted. We pay it forward every chance we get.

    Make-A-Wish Foundation is a wonderful cause. I have a friend whose son received “a wish” when he was battling leukemia. He’s one of the lucky ones who has stayed in remission, but his mother has never forgotten that gift. She pays it forward every chance she gets.

    • Thank you Sue, and you are as well, for passing on your story. I’ve anonymously paid for gas or meals for Armed Forces Personnel that I’ve encountered…I’m no angel but I hope that they felt as if one touched their lives. Something else I’ve noticed…sometimes when you give money directly to someone in need — money that you need yourself — it comes back to you. I have no idea why this is, but it’s so. Maybe I should write a story about it…

  6. Wonderful post, Joe. I see how those Sisters of Charity have drummed the Corporal Works of Mercy into your spirit. I’ll never forget when you reviewed a publishing contract for me, how generous you were with your time. I second what Sue said, “You’re a good man.”

    As I began to read your post, it hit me that these Corporal Works of Mercy are often displayed in some of the hard-core, beat-em-up detectives and heroes that we read about in our favorite novels. Those heroes don’t hesitate to break bones or shoot the bad guys, but when they are faced with the weak or helpless, they often show their “good” side. This certainly endears them to the reader.

    And when you asked what we do, it was a wake up call to me. In the last few years, I’ve allowed the business of life to get in the way of what is important. It’s time to recheck priorities, make room for what’s important. I’m not sure yet what that will be. But I’ll let you know.

    Thanks for a needed post.

    • Thank you Steve. That’s high praise indeed from a guy who is truly indispensable in his community. Your point about the private eyes are well taken. I have read many, many stories where the detective continues with the case even after the client is dead or he’s working pro bono, just because it’s the right thing to do and someone needs justice. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. I can always count on a good read at TKZ but that was particularly lovely. Thank you.

    • Sheri, you’re welcome and on behalf of everyone here thank you for your kind words. They’re much appreciated.

  8. Thank you for the inspirational piece. I wouldn’t want to put my charitable and community efforts up against anyone else’s, but as an old timer raised Episcopalian, I absorbed some of the gospels and together with many Catholic and Protestant friends, we would often try to help out a friend in need or less fortunate in the community. We weren’t saints, but felt better about ourselves for whatever we did. I felt I was reaching outside myself, expanding, more receptive to others and their circumstances whenever I helped somebody out.

    I can think of one way, at least, it’s helped me in my writing. I was inspired by Rev. John M. Corridan, S.J., the “waterfront priest” battling corruption and violence against workers on the New York docks. He was featured in the 1948-1949 New York Sun series and later portrayed by Karl Malden in the hit film “On the Waterfront” (1954). I’ve written an historical novel, bringing Father Corridan back to life. The more I learned about him, the more it helped the story I was writing, inspired the writing itself (I believe) and now he has inspired the other protagonists, including a Holy Cross football player who runs up against the Mob in a New Jersey Teamsters warehouse. Of course, the young Turks, even though Jesuit-educated, don’t always take Father Corridan’s advise, but he does not abandon them in their crusade against the Mob. Thanks for reminding me what’s important in our lives.

    • David, thank you so much, not only for your story about your giving but also about your work in progress, which sounds…exactly like something I would want to read, be compelled to read, actually. Please let us know how those books are progressing.

  9. Great piece today, Joe. The thing is, it doesn’t take a big thing to really make a difference. Small gestures can make an impact at the right times. My wife, God bless her, has worked as a cancer nurse for the last twenty years. Her weeks are filled with heart rendering stories, yet she keeps going. Just last night at dinner she told me of a conversation she had that day with an elderly gentleman who was at wit’s end over his dying wife. Doctors had done all they can, and she was afraid, and in pain, but didn’t want to go back to the hospital. My wife explained what few options the couple had left and finally suggested contacting Hospice Care. She offered to make the call and get someone to go to their home. The gentlemen started to cry and said, “You’d do that for me?”

    It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

    • David, thank you. That’s a heck of a story about your wife. And you’re right about how it doesn’t take much. I on occasion run into people that I knew peripherally and haven’t seen for a long time, and a couple of them had said, “You know, you turned my life around when you…” and they’re referencing a simple thing which barely seemed of consequence at the time. I may tell one of those stories down the road, if I can disguise the identities sufficiently. Thanks again.

  10. Joe, I’d like to tell you from the other side about the works of mercy.

    My wife and I are retired, and we live in retirement housing. We are surrounded by folks who not only receive all kinds of formal and informal assistance from agency volunteers, family members, grandchildren helping out grandma and grandpa, food banks, and so many others, but they themselves help others in our community.

    Some of them are living in housing here that costs them a little more than half of their monthly retirement incomes. The little lady down the hall has less than $100 a month to feed herself after she pays her rent and her electricity bill. Yet, she sends $10 a month to her church by mail–she doesn’t have a computer and thereby access to Paypal or other online pay mechanisms. Another is a friend who has dialysis three times a week, and bears the costs all of the medications and expenses associated with that. He is generous with his friendship.

    My wife and I live in the same city where all of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live, except for one son and his family. We are more than blessed by family members who are willing to pitch in to help grandma and grandpa. My wife had a kidney transplant. Polycistic kidney disease has claimed so many in her family; she is the oldest surviving member of her family; all of them who had it passed in their 40s and early 50s; we are in our 70s, and she is strong and as healthy as one can be with a transplanted kidney. Two of our sons took personal time off from work came down and just stood around for an entire week to be certain she got along well. We had to move to Tucson for five weeks for the transplant, and one of them came from Buffalo. I personally believe my wife did well and got better sooner simply because they were there. (We spent our 50th wedding anniversary in her hospital room, and I left so she could go back to sleep.)

    So the blessings you and other folks give to others is, I think, lifesaving, enriching to those with whom you share your lives, and encouraging in all manner of ways.

    Thank you for your help. It is needed. It is appreciated.

    • Wow, Jim. Thanks for sharing your stories with us. Those are sobering, to be sure. I have to tell you quite honestly — and I hope that those who are following the comments thread today take at least this, if nothing else, away with them — that I get a lot more than I give with the interactions I’ve described. I accordingly want to thank you for the opportunity to give, on behalf of those who are helping out. I’m sure that they feel the same way.

  11. I had the Dominicans and the Sisters if St. Joseph. Also the Jesuits.

    I work full time, do theatre, and try to write. My works of mercy these days are being the calm in the storm that is our office (huge department, lots of stress) and being present for my family (which involved 16 hours in the car over the long weekend).

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Oh, Cynthia. You got a good schooling, didn’t you? I had the Dominicans later. And my brother somehow survived the Jesuits.

      Charity begins at home. Sometimes family is the hardest. I hope they appreciated those long hours you spent in the automobile. It does make a difference, particularly with the little ones. Thanks.

  12. After more than 25 years as a minister, I cannot tell you how many times these acts of mercy have come full circle helping both the giver and receiver.

    • Basil, thank you for being THE GUY on the front lines, 24/7. It’s a job I could never do.

  13. This was a beautiful and meaningful post. Thank you! A few years ago I was a member of our town “Neighbors helping Neighbors” caregiving group (non-medical). I had lunch one day a week with a neighbor down the street who was already in Hospice. Over these months, I learned about his family, friends, interests, and, of course, I brought him books to read and when he died I lost a friend.

    • You’re welcome, Frances, and thank you. That’s quite a story and idea. There’s so much to do…

  14. I think the corporal works of mercy are good for us on a lot of levels, including the creative level. Partly because it takes us out of ourselves (it’s a wonderful cure for depression, for instance) and partly because it helps us to see others “different” from ourselves (we like to thing that we will never be poor, sick, in need of any kind) as being a lot more like ourselves than we can imagine from a distance.

    For a number of years, I volunteered at a night shelter — just checking people in and hand out towels, no heroic feats required. It made me aware of how precarious life can be — except for having a safety net of family and friends, I was never more than a paycheck or two away from being in the situation of the shelter’s residents. A few years later, when I was volunteering with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, each week I visited people in need in their homes, and often heard the stories of why they were having trouble keeping the lights on or their kids fed, or getting to the pharmacy to pick up life-saving medications. Not long after that, I found myself out of a job, out of money, living on my parents’ sofa, and really glad that I’d had somewhere to go, unlike many of those I’d helped in the past.

    Since I’ve taken up writing, I’ve tried to “keep it real” in my stories by honoring the real struggles that many experience on a daily basis. In fact, right now I’m working on a novel about a woman who, overnight, goes from being a respected professional in a comfortable life to having it all taken away from her, through no real fault of her own. The story is about how she learns to adapt to her new circumstances, to accept help from others rather than insisting on being entirely self-sufficient, and to recognize that there are things she can offer others that have nothing to do with her professional standing. In fact, she’ll regain a sense of her own worth by giving of herself through the corporal works of mercy (visiting a prisoner, providing a home for a displaced friend, etc.).

    It’s a book I’m really glad to be writing, and one I might never have conceived if it hadn’t been for my own experience helping the needy — and being, for a time, one of them myself.

    • Lisa, thanks for sharing and for giving us the phrase I was looking for and just couldn’t find…”…it takes us out of ourselves…” Exactly. I also appreciate the reminder of how quickly things can go upside down. It can happen in the blink of an eye. Thanks for your account and the reminder.

  15. I’m not able to volunteer a lot physically these days, but I have joined a Facebook group that has a lot of people struggling to stay sane and stay alive. I understand what many are going through, so I give what meager advice and support that I can online.

    It’s not much, but it’s all I can do at this time.

    I used to work for a cancer organization, and our organization offered various supports for people with cancer. Our volunteers were not only important, but invaluable, sharing from their own experience for people hit with one of the hardest diagnoses there is.

    I believe all this also fits under ‘visiting the sick’.

    • BJ, everything you mentioned absolutely fits under “visiting the sick.” You don’t have to walk twenty miles to qualify. Phone calls and emails (or old-fashioned cards and letters) work too. Thanks!

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