The Dorothy Column: The Scandal of the Works of Mercy

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 39, Advent 2006
Dorothy Day

The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.

The Corporal Works of Mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbour the harbourless, to visit the sick and to bury the dead.

When Peter Maurin talked about the necessity of practising the Works of Mercy, he meant all of them. He envisaged Houses of Hospitality in poor parishes in every city of the country where these precepts of Our Lord could be put into effect. He pointed out that we have turned to state responsibility through home relief, social legislation and social security and that we no longer practise personal responsibility, but are repeating the words of the first murderer, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The Works of Mercy are a wonderful stimulus to our growth in faith as well as love. Our faith is taxed to the utmost and so grows through this strain put upon it. It is pruned again and again and springs up bearing much fruit. For anyone starting to live literally the words of the Fathers of the Church, ‘The bread you retain belongs to the hungry; the dress you lock up is the property of the naked; what is superfluous for one’s need is to be regarded as plunder if one retains it for oneself,’ there is always a trial ahead. ‘Our faith, more precious than gold, must be tried by fire.’

Here is a letter we received today. ‘I took a gentleman seemingly in need of temporal and spiritual guidance into my home on a Sunday afternoon. Let him have a nap on my bed, went through the want ads for him, made coffee and sandwiches for him, and when he left, I found my wallet had gone also.’

I can only say that the saints would only bow their heads and not try to understand or judge. They received no thanks – well then, God had to repay them. They forbore to judge and it was as if they took off their cloak besides their coat to give away. This is expecting heroic charity, of course. But these things happen for our discouragement, for our testing. We are sowing the seed of love, and we are not living in the harvest time. We must love to the point of folly, and we are indeed fools, as Our Lord himself was who died for such a one as this. We lay down our lives too when we have performed so painfully thankless an act, for our correspondent is poor in this world’s goods. It is agony to go through such bitter experiences, because we all want to love, we desire with a great longing to love our fellows, and our hearts are often crushed at such rejections. But as a Carmelite nun said to me last week, ‘It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.’

Such an experience is crueller than our young men in Baltimore who were arrested for running a disorderly house, our St Anthony’s House of Hospitality, and who spent a few nights in jail. Such an experience is even crueller than that which happened to one of our men here in New York who was attacked (for his pacifism) by a maniac with a knife. Actually, to shed one’s blood is a less bitter experience.

Well, our friend has suffered from his experience and it is part of the bitterness of the poor who cheat each other, who exploit each other even as they are exploited, who despise each other even as they are despised.

Is it to be expected that virtue and destitution should go together? No, as John Cogley has written, they are the destitute in every way, destitute of this world’s goods, destitute of honour, of gratitude, of love, they need so much that they cannot take the Works of Mercy apart and say I will do this one or that one Work of Mercy. We find they all go together.

Some years ago there was an article in The Commonweal by George Bernados. He ended it on a warning note for these apocalyptic times. ‘Every particle of Christ’s divine charity is today more precious for your security – for your security I say – than all the atom bombs in all the stockpiles.’

It is by the Works of Mercy that we shall be judged.

Commonweal, November 4, 1949

The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now, I have begun.’

—Dorothy Day, ‘Loaves and Fishes’

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