Advent of Mercy

Growing up in the United States, I always knew Advent would begin before we had properly digested out Thanksgiving dinner. Thursday morning we would be at mass singing ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ with harvest-themed decorations all around, then go home to cook and eat our Turkey feast; and Sunday we would return (as our turkey stock simmered at home) to sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ and to light the first purple candle. Liturgically, in three short days we had gone from feasting with full hearts (and fuller bellies) on all we had been given to feeling acute hunger for what we lacked.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a part of the Church’s universal calendar, but it does fit nicely with the triumphant tone of the liturgical year end: Christ the King meets every need of the world, and a well-ordered creation can only answer with gratitude and praise. Too, it is always celebrated, since Abraham Lincoln so decreed it a national feast, on the fourth Thursday of November, and Thursday is of course the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a word which itself means “thanksgiving.” So, while Americans commemorate the Pilgrim settler’s celebration of their first harvest in the New World, and the mercy of the Native tribes by whose help their labours bore fruit, they do well to remember also the true Bread from Heaven, the true food and true drink in which Christ’s mercy is manifest.

This year, owing to the constraints of time and space, I did not celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday as did my stateside relations. We had no feast until Sunday, on which day we also entered the season of Advent. As I was cooking a fifteen pound turkey to feed a family of five (which is not gluttony if you intend it to feed everyone for a full week…), I was telling my children the story of the Pilgrim settlers, and of Squanto and Samoset, the tribesmen who helped them to survive in the strange wilderness. The lessons we are meant to learn from this story (as I remember from my youth) are to be generous with those in need, like Squanto and Samoset, and to be thankful for all we are given, like the Pilgrims. We could just say that the lessons of Thanksgiving are about mercy.

Mercy is a great and powerful thing. It has been mangled in meaning to the point that many think it means giving licence to do whatever, that it gives a vindication of sin, or even the abolishment of sinfulness. But, if this were the case, how could mercy be of God? It is not about entitlement, either, for if we are entitled to something, then those who give it to us act with justice, not mercy. It is most true to say that mercy responds to needs which not even justice can fill, indeed, that justice may recoil from. As striking illustration of this consider that all of humanity stands in unambiguous need of a saviour, but that this does not mean we are entitled to Christ. The Incarnation is a profound act of mercy, meeting a need that has no remedy in justice. In another way, we can say that the Pilgrims, who made the decision to cross the ocean into the unknown, who plopped themselves on a coastline to which they had no specific claim, had no particular entitlement to local guides to help them find their footing, yet they got them nonetheless, and felt gratitude, which they expressed in a way that, however ostentatious, could never repay what they had been given.

On the 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis will begin. I am planning to make mercy the focus of my advent contemplation and preparation, and I invite you to join me. (This invitation is issued irrespective of your personal opinion of the Holy Father. Be you the most strident of his critics, you cannot cast aside mercy simply because he mentions it.) I shall take as my model the seven corporal acts of mercy, which care for the fleshy side of our being, and the seven spiritual acts of mercy, which care for the soul:

Corporal Acts of Mercy
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead

Spiritual Acts of Mercy
Instruct the ignorant
Counsel the doubtful
Admonish the sinner
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive willingly those who sin against you
Comfort the afflicted
Pray for the living and the dead

Each morning I shall pray for the wisdom to know how to be merciful, and the courage and fortitude to show mercy where it is most needed. I shall speak to my children about these fourteen works of mercy. When I fast I shall contemplate the mercy I have received in having enough to give up, that I give out of plenty, not out of want.

I do not believe that in these short few weeks of Advent I will become a saint, but in this season of contemplation it would be foolish not to try. I shall seek at all times to remember the tiny babe of Bethlehem, for the person of Christ more than any other teaches us about mercy: He alone can be truly merciful, for he alone can fulfil our deepest need, but to do this he took on flesh. He was born a tiny infant. As an infant he holds the promise and power of mercy as surely as he does as a conquering king, but in the guise of overwhelming need. Taking forward into this new liturgical year the lesson of Thanksgiving — gratitude for what we have been given — we are confronted our own underlying neediness. We have what we have out of mercy. Likewise, what is in our power to give should be given out of mercy, as surely as if we gave to the Christ child himself. One of the deep mysteries of the Incarnation is why, when he could win any battle of might against sin and death, Christ chose needy vulnerable flesh as his weapon to win us salvation. Perhaps it was to remove the shame from neediness and want. How can we despise the needy when they appear to us in the guise of the Christ Child?

Advent is a peculiar mix joyful anticipation and meditation on need and want, weakness and vulnerability. I am reminded of a selection from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which I encourage you to listen to (for which purposes google and youtube will be adequate), called “This Little Babe.” Meditate upon these words as we prepare to welcome Our Lord this Christmas.


This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stads for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound

My soul with Christ
join thou in fight;
stick to the tents
that he hath pight.
Within his crib
is surest ward;
this little Babe
will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy
foes with joy, then
flit not from this
heavenly boy!

Playing the Odds

As is commonly the case in the S household, Mr S was reading Mrs S an article on statistics. This time Mrs S found it particularly annoying as she had already gotten out of her chair and was on her way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Then Mr S asked her “Do you know you are now more likely to be killed by your trousers than win the lottery?” As it happened, Mrs S did not know that, and she despaired of ever getting her cup of tea, for now she needed to listen to the rest of the information to hear (1) if problem lay with the particular trousers she was wearing; (2) whether she would be safe if she changed into a skirt; and, most importantly, (3) whether sweatpants and pyjama bottoms were classified as trousers in this analysis.

  It turned out that the article was not about trousers at all, and so Mrs S had no excuse need to revamp her autumn wardrobe.  Damn it! Phew!  The UK National Lottery has added ten new numbers to its selection options. Previously, six numbers were chosen from 1-49; now you may select any number up to 59. Of course, Camelot, the company that administers the Lottery, is eager to highlight how much more choice it gives you. Hooray for choice! They are less keen to inform you that your odds of winning the jackpot have now dropped from 1 in 14 million to 1 in 45 million. Ah well: Mrs S figures most people who play the lottery aren’t in it because of its sound investment profile. And what if your lucky number is 50? Well, you’ll just be relieved to see the end of the discrimination that smiled favour upon those whose luck resides in lower numbers.

 

Is this crowd there for you? The odds are 20 million to one.

 Mr S continued to read out a series of astounding things one was now more likely to do than win the lottery: be killed by a bee, become a Cabinet minister, etc. Then he got to the point, and the reason he knew his wife would want to hear these numbers: According to the statistical analysis of some nerd somewhere, you are more than twice as likely to be cannonised a saint in the Roman Cathoic Church (20 million to one) than win the lottery (as above 45 million to one). Mrs S cannot confirm or vouch for these figures. The reader is likely already aware that the lady has a tense and troubled relationship with numbers: she cannot count past ten without removing her socks. But nonetheless she took strong and immediate umbrage with Mr S’s implication that sanctity was a matter of chance. Mr S took strong and immediate umbrage with Mrs S’s conflation of ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ in her critique, reiterating that statistics describe data populations, not causes. In short, the fact that statistical analysis indicates that in any randomised population of 20 million people one of them will be canonised, does not mean that that one person is selected at random, independent of causal factors. Mrs S was sure she knew this already, so she stomped off and made tea in a huffy manner.

The thing is, the terminology of statistics aside, the comparison is obviously apples and oranges. The odds of winning the lottery are calculated on a one entry per draw basis.  Canonisation is a one-shot deal: you have one soul, so you get one entry. To increase the odds of winning the lottery one merely has to buy more tickets. In fact, buying just three tickets for a single lottery draw slashes the odds of winning to 1 in 15 million, making a jackpot win more likely than canonisation. But, of course, the lottery remains subject to randomness in a way that sanctity does not. It’s black and white, too: any combination of numbers is as likely to win as any others. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is as likely to be a winner as 3, 14, 25, 27, 32, 54. All entries are equal, so when you buy an extra ticket you increase your odds of winning by a set and easily defined increment. However, with respect to sanctity, you can’t multiply your entries, so your only way of increasing your odds is to work on the one entry you have, t make it the type of soul that can be canonised. And that’s a bit trickier.

  Mrs S was pondering how to increase her odds of cannonisation. Now, of course, cannonisation is not synonymous with sainthood: the Church believes that all in heaven are saints, but the canon of saints is made up of those in heaven we can name (on the evidence of their martyrdom or intercessory power), whose  lives and deaths provide us with an example of holiness. However, all canonised saints are in heaven, even if not all in heaven are canonised saints, so Mrs S figured this line of thought was just an extension of the question ‘How do I live a good and holy life?’

Mrs S thought about the type of sanctity that lead to canonisation — a life lived in prayer and penance, with courage and tireless fortitude, with patience and humility —  for as long as it took the kettle to boil twice. (The first time around she somehow forgot who she was making the tea for and used a decaf tea bag and added sugar. Yuck.) And as she waited she pondered the example of saints. There is, of course, the Little Way of St Thérèse: ‘finding God in the pots and pans,’ working quietly and with humility, offering every little act of love, and even the most dreary mundane tasks for the greater glory of God. This is a model especially well-suited to the life of a wife and mother, and many wise people have recommended it to Mrs S. She finds it cripplingly difficult and absolutely hates what it shows her about the state of her soul. So, she figures it would be easier to find a different exemplar, one with a bit of flair and a good excuse for being rubbish at housework. And then she began to think how much easier all of this would be if she did win the lottery. 

You are probably instantly reminded about that pesky parable about the camel and the needle’s eye, especially if you were at Mass this morning. But Mrs S is quite convinced her motives are pure. Nearly everyone has their lottery win planned out. Mrs S knows exactly what she would do. There are a few personal things — Clearly, she would never fly coach on a transatlantic flight ever again. Obviously she would hire a cleaner. And a gardener. And she would be thin because she could pay for one of those gourmet calorie-controlled programs that delivers food right to your door (presumably with a side of will power to sustain you between meals). And she could just pay to have The Artist and the Serpent published and distributed, with a snazzy, professional looking cover. And its sequels. (Did you not know about these? Ah, well, if Mrs S ever finishes the first book, she can set to work on the sequels she’s already plotted: The Artist and the Citadel, The Artist and the Holy Mountain, and The Artist and the Fallen Angel.) — but having done these things, which are not really very costly with reference to a large lottery jackpot (Mrs S never plays for less than £50 million), there would be millions upon millions for good works. Schools, hospitals, religious orders: there are so many worthy recipients. She could endow a chair in the philosophy departments at each of her former Universities. There are other bloggers she admires and would like to fund. Aid to the Church in Need, and a few other choice charities, would get millions. And the idea of being a professional philanthropist, of swooping in with the wherewithal to finance good, is deeply appealing. It’s almost like it wouldn’t matter if she continued to deeply resent the need to clean the kitchen, or continued to lack discipline in prayer, because surely on balance…

Ok, so maybe Mrs S’s sanctity would not be assured by having the financial resources to fund the virtuous activities of others. Faith without works is dead, to be sure, for what can be thought to exist of a faith that does not transform behaviour? But works without faith are mere spectacle with regard to the soul, however much good they do in the world. (Which is not to say they shouldn’t be done, just that they shouldn’t be confused with sanctity.) It is the most irritating feature of holiness that it cannot be delegated. She was listening to her parish priest’s homily this morning on the rich young many who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the Commandments, and when the young man says he has always done this all his life, Jesus says that he should sell everything he owns and give to the poor.  Naturally, the man is saddened by  this, because he is so rich. The priest pointed out that the command to give everything away is nearly unique in the Gospels to this man. Mrs S thought of line that says Jesus  looked on the man and ‘loved him.’ There’s this idea in the text that Jesus wanted union with this man. (This may seem like a leap, but Mrs S spent a lot of time in grad school reading Aquinas, whose definition of love has two parts: desire for the good of the beloved, and desire for union with the beloved.) Jesus has told him what’s good (‘Keep the Commandments, buddy!) and is now explaining wherein full union consists. It’s like “sell your possessions” is shorthand for “Now all you need to do is get rid of all this junk that is your first love so we can be together.” So, it’s hard for the rich to become saints. Not because wealth is evil (if it was then it would be impossible for the rich to become saints), but because it’s seductive. More than anything else, money can allow us to feel like we’re doing really well. You can give vast sums to good causes, help the needy, always have a tidy house, always be up-to-date on current events and the latest artistic trends. If you have enough money you start to feel like virtue itself can be bought. So, despite a moderately well-formed conscience and the great desire to do good, Mrs S imagines she too would end up a slave to her lottery winnings.  

As it is, Jesus’s advice to Mrs S, after he told her to get a grip on the Commandments, would be to put down her book and clean the kitchen, to find him in the pots and pans. Mrs S is more comfortable with the theoretical than the concrete and temporal. She has many lofty ideas about organisation and no patience with tidying up. This makes dometicity hard: she bears primary responsibility for the temporal good of her family. She needs to keep them fed and in clean clothes, and in tolerably non-squalid surroundings. She has often told people that her idea of freedom is not having to clean anyone else’s backside. She becomes inexplicably anxious when every day problems intrude in her consciousness. For example her hands are currently shaking and she’s having trouble typing because this afternoon Mr S noticed a mouldy patch on the ceiling of the pantry, and further investigation revealed that there seems to be some kind of leak in the boxed-in pipes behind the bath. So tomorrow she needs to call a plumber. And then it should be fixed. But all she can think is “How much of MY time is this going to take up? Can I give the children baths tonight? Do I need to take everything out of the pantry? When will I find time to really clean the bathrooms upstairs so I’m not embarassed when the plumber shows up?” Truly disproportionate and neurotic. So clearly there is much work to be done in the development of charity, patience, fortitude, generosity, because Mrs S is as miserly with her time and mental energy as the rich young man seems to have been with his material resources. 

At least peripherallly aware of all of this, by the time Mrs S had gotten to grips with temporal matters sufficiently to make herself a drinkable cup of tea, she decided that she was overjoyed that the odds of becoming a saint were as good as one in 20 million, or hopefully better if you don’t mind about being on the calendar, and also that she was very unlikely to have to manage enough money to cause her problems, even if a few good causes would have to look elsewhere for support. She went back to the living room to tell Mr S that the moment she earns a cent from writing she’s hiring a cleaner, because the best will in the world couldn’t compensate for her domestic deficiencies. She needs to free up a bit of energy to devote to sanctity. Those are long odds to beat, and life is short.

  

Take the Children to Church, No Matter What They’re Flinging

Yesterday, as on every Sunday, Mrs and Mr S took the children to mass. Church attendance is non-negotiable in the S household. Illness and misadventure are the only excuses for missing a week. Anything else can be rescheduled. This is not to say that mass with three children, aged two, four and six, is a deeply spiritual experience. Even when the children are good it’s not by chance, but through the exhausting efforts of their parents. The last time any of Mrs S’s neurons vibrated in prayer during mass was probably the second of August when she was at mass at a conference in Oxfordshire and the children were tormenting the S-in-laws in Buckinghamshire. Be that as it may, the fact remains that children do not learn to behave in church by staying at home. So the S children go to church. 

Not everyone is happy to see young children at church, and to these people Mrs S has vociferously defended parents who bring barely-civilised hoodlums into this sacred space: how else are they to show them the importance of religious practice? Parents are the first teachers of the faith, and they have an obligation to bring their children to mass. Sunday worship is not just about personal contact with God, it is a matter of justice to the Creator. In short, it doesn’t matter if you get nothing out of it (and parents should expect to get nothing out of it for at least ten years and likely longer, because they will be far too busy looking after their children). Sunday obligation is not about having good or powerful feelings: it’s about doing what is right. Of course, within certain tolerances, parents should ensure the good behaviour of their children, and, if possible, remove them if they are uncontrollably disruptive; but some wiggling, baby babble, and quiet conversations between parent and child concerning the mass should be tolerated. There should be no loud toys, no buffet of crunchy food in crinkly packets, no running naked & screaming (or even clothed & screaming) down the aisle without swift and draconian repercussions. Cuddly toys and simple books for the tiny ones are fine. Bribes are expedient. (After-mass donuts are the accepted currency in the US; in the UK biscuits/cookie seem to be the norm.) When there is a lone parent grappling with a pack of children who, having separated the doe from the herd, are circling her like irreverent, screeching and dancing wolves going for the kill — death by social humiliation — allowances have to be made, even if the wolves start howling naked in the aisle. If they’re still doing it as teenagers, then you may judge. In the meantime, if the children of others offend you during mass, offer it up. Pray for the grace of imperviousness to distraction. Stay after mass to pray in silence. Find a different mass to attend. Befriend a struggling parent and offer to help, since you are clearly an expert in such matters. Jesus knows you’re there. Be at peace.

So, to the dismay of some members of the congregation, the S children go to church. This week Mrs S was feeling smug, because none of them were howling naked in the aisles and R, now six and a half, was even following along with the readings in the mass book. 

“Cleary,” Mrs S thought, as she knelt for the consecration, “the children are so good because I am a good and worthy parent, unlike those other parents with little monsters…” 

This made the Lord chuckle, and He guided two-year-old N’s hands to a fascinating little pouch in her mother’s handbag. N took out said pouch and, tugging at the zipper, exerted rather more force than was required. The pouch flew out of her hands, and the venerable ninety-three-year-old woman kneeling one row back was pelted with a large number of brightly-wrapped tampons.  This created a dilemma: when an unsuspecting elderly parishioner has just been assaulted with feminine hygiene products, does one pretend to be deep in prayer and remain kneeling; apologise, even during this most sacred part of the liturgy; or scramble around the pew to tidy up? Fortunately, four-year-old C took the initiative and returned the items to Mrs S’s bag. 

N, who it must be said is a child possessed of a quiet dignity but a carrying voice, waited for a pause in the words of institution and then said sombrely to the victim of the flying tampons: “I sorry. Those for Mommy’s bottom.”

Mrs S considered that perhaps she had been hasty in her insistence that parents of young children should not expect to get anything out of the Sunday church. It appears there is always soul-enriching humiliation on offer. Embrace it, parents! For the sake of your children’s souls, embrace it!

In the Name of These Refugees

“Take the child and his mother and flee.”  –Matthew 2:13

When Mrs S was a child, her mother did a great deal of volunteer work teaching English to Russian and Ethiopian refugees. These people were forced to leave their homelands for fear of political or religious persecution, or were displaced due to war and famine. Some of them escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and when they arrived in the United States were initially wholly dependant ont he compassion of strangers for survival. Theirs was not a planned and careful emigration, prepared for with language lessons, realestate purchase and job interviews. They left in fear, furtive and hurried, and carried with them worries for loved ones left behind heavier than any worldly goods abandoned in flight. Mrs S didn’t know what all their stories were, but she does remember how difficult it all appeared to be: arriving in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and few spoke yours, where you had no money, no status, and many people thought you were an intruder. And yet they seemed so glad to have these hardships over the ones they had left behind, that one knew immediately what they had run away from must have been very bad indeed.

To this clear and persuasive example of charity and mercy, Mrs S’s mother added this formative image. Though the poster was tucked away in a corner of the home library, it made an impact on Mrs S such that she cannot hear of a new tragedy afflicting refugees without it springing instantly to mind:

  
Be not deceived that this image of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod speaks only to Christians. Admittedly, it speaks most clearly and accessibly to Christians in the manner of a short sharp clip upside the head: “Your Lord and Saviour was himself a refugee. When you fail them you fail Him.” But behind the religious maxim is a principle that ought rightly to be at the heart of western democratic Liberalism: the universality of humanity. Hardship and suffering do not strip away the essential human dignity of any person. 

The BBC is stubbornly sticking to the allegedly neutral term “migrants” to describe those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in that part of the world. (They explain why here.) How ridiculous: as though these desperate, displaced and war-ravaged people are casually strolling into non-native lands by preference. When thousands upon thousands of people flee with nothing but what they can carry and show up at a foreign border, en masse, they are not just merely migrants. When they are willing to risk not only their bold young men, but their elderly, their women, their children, and their babes in arms, to leave their homes, to climb onto a boat that is little more than a raft, you can be sure that it is only because this fearful journey is less terrifying than what they are leaving behind. When people are fleeing an evil greater than all the perils of escape, they are not ‘migrants.’ They are refugees.

There are times when Mrs S feels called to polemic, and this is one of them. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is suddenly getting a lot of press, probably because Syrians are not just suffering at home: they are drowning in the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep of the Western first world. (Though more drowned in April than in August, so the timing is still odd.) They are dying in the trucks whose drivers were bribed to smuggle them across Europe. They are living in tents on the streets of Greece — Greece! where we were all directing our pity so few months ago. And all of this to avoid being slaughtered in their homeland. But the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East  and north Africa is neither new, nor unforseen. And for every poor soul who escapes, many more suffer violence, persecution, acute deprivation, and death in their native land. For any rich Western government to be caught unprepared, when there has been ample time to take action to avert this humanitarian crisis, or, failing that, prepare to do what is necessary cope with it, is indefensible. For those fleeing from terror and atrocity to arrive and find their place of refuge unready is inexcusable. For them to arrive and find the borders closed is criminal. It is certainly hard to know how to house and care for large refugee population, both in the short and the long term, but unfortunately they do not have the luxery of time to wait for us to figure it out. However reluctant, unprepared or unequal we feel when faced with this necessary act of mercy, now is not the time for political posturing and hand-wringing. Whatever economic or practical concerns arise, they are trivial in comparison to the plight of displaced peoples. It is not a question of resources, for Europe has the money, but of willing. We just have to take them in. There is no moral way around it.

Mrs S has written and rewritten an uncharitable rant about westerners who are not willing to share from out of their vast resources, who place finances and convenience before the moral demands of humanity. But the fact is a large number of Westerners are concerned — more than concerned — about the plight of refugees. There are prolific efforts to raise awareness and form the consciences of those who still lack passion for the welfare of their afflicted brethern. Some of these come in the form of highly sensational, and hugely distressing, images of brutalised, maimed and even drowned children. Mrs S spent rather a long time trying to figure out why she was upset by this tactic. She thinks of herself as a realist, meaning that she does not imagine that facts wait upon her pleasure or approval. Photographs of this kind are deeply upsetting, but they are a vivid depiction of the nature of the evil that is stalking so many of the most vulnerable. But do images like this form a conscience to fight evil and eagerly safeguard its victims? Mrs S is concerned that the more natural response is to recoil, first from the image and then from the atrocity itself, to turn away and refuse to see what cannot be born. Those sharing the image want to ignite the moral fervour of those who disparage the “migrants” and wonder why those troublesome people don’t just stay where they are. The pictures offer a forceful proof of harm. The message of the picture is “Without our compassion more children will die like this.” But someone seeing such a picture, perhaps caught unawares (Mrs S certainly was, several times, on Facebook), may instead be brought to despair that this child had not been saved. Conscience, instead of being nurtured, is paralysed, seeking refuge in willful ignorance or desensitisation. Better, if possible, to form conscience through diligent example, tireless witness, and, bluntly, making a nuisance of oneself to show that the truth and the urgency of this crisis are more than passing media fads. 

So, what witness should this be? Well, if you are reading this you clearly have internet access, and a very little time with a select few search terms will uncover reputable organisations dedicated to helping refugees and the afflicted. For many, donating to these causes is the most effective way to help, so long as it is not viewed as buying insurance against future obligations. But Mrs S thinks the simplest and best council is to be guided by the works of mercy ennumberated by the Church (and, Catholic or not, it is hard to argue with this list). There are seven corporal works of mercy, which care for the body: 

feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead

and seven spiritual works of mercy, which care for the soul: 

admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. 

For those who want a simple rubric for virtue, there is no truer guide. In everyday life, do these things. When you encounter great need, do these things. Wheresoever you go, do these things. In the name of these refugees, do these things. 

First Blessing


 
  

 Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace. 

              -St Augustine of Hippo (Confessions, 10.27)


  
Mrs S kneels at the altar rail in the little wooden chapel where Latin chant reverberates even in the silence and a cloud of incense lingers like visible sancity. The mass is over. Ite missa est. But at the altar rail, shoulder to shoulder, the faithful kneel as the young priest, newly created, walks slowly up and down the row, stopping at each bowed head. He exends his hands, speaks holy words. Some kiss his hands in gratitude, laying chaste lips upon the palms whose intact skin hides the wounds of Christ. 

The blessing of a priest in the first year of his Holy Orders, a First Blessing, is thought to bring with it a share in the rich graces of his new life in the sacramental ministry of Christ. This is why the faithful knelt, or stood in the queue that at first stretched from the crowded altar rail to the back of the sanctuary.  Each blessed congregant rose in turn, giving his place to another, who waited in prayer for the priest to come with a silent sweep of his cassock. The imposition of his hands would tug aside one tiny corner of the veil, uniting heaven and earth in one otherwise unremarkable point in space and time, and his words call forth grace divine.

Mrs S’s faith is at times a heavy, earthbound thing.  She is blessed with certainty, clarity and every assurance that intellect can give.  In this peculiar spot of cultivation, this safe and ordered refuge amongst the tangle of indiscipline, intemperate desires and the unpruned bramble of fantasies, she is not a slave to passion. She does not grasp at the sensational or make a virtue out of strength of feeling. In faith — such a tiny patch of order in her soul! — she is impassibly serene. She knelt now not in hope of a sign or miracle, but in determination to be humble and obedient. This blessing she awaited was one small activity in the larger economy of grace, nearly meaningless in isolation. There is no magic in a blessing, nor, indeed, in a priest. But still, there is grace to be had, faith to be lived, obedience to be practiced: for it is in the greatness of God that he can be glorified through the humble just as through the magnificent. Touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in quiet faith; or wash his feet with your tears, dry them with your hair and annoint them with costly perfume and his grace will likewise be yours. Mrs S knows this, but she has never felt grace as it enters her soul, never been given to rapture or irrepressible exaultation.  And this lack of feeling has seemed more a freedom than a loss, for she can practice her faith without reliance on the great emotions to confirm the truth of her beliefs, and continue without despair in their absence. 

The priest placed his hand upon her head. He spoke her name and she felt a breeze on her face like feathered wings disturbed the air. His voice was deep and gentle, like the swell of a calm sea, quiet enough that only she could hear: “…may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” the soft breeze became a wind, audibly bowing all around her. Mrs S caught her breath as the priest continued to speak slowly and reverently, oblivious to the whirling tumult that his words brought with them. “…descend upon you and remain with you forever…” 

Her scalp tingled as the wind caught her hair. Every nerve reacted as it tugged at her clothing, blew cool and fresh on her face. The only still point in the room was where the priests hands rested on her head in benediction, barely touching her, but solid and real as Earth is not. “Amen,” said the priest, and Mrs S looked up, engulfed in an unrelenting gale. But while every palpable sensation testified to the reality of the wind, the incense lingering above the altar did not stir and the priest’s alb and cassock hung in elegant, unmoving folds. He lifted his hands from her head and the wind stilled. 

As she had stood waiting for the blessing, Mrs S had resolved not to kiss the hands of the priest, believing that this could never be anything but an empty pantomime piety, and knowing that if she kept her head bowed he would simply move on to the next kneeling congregant. Now, as she looked up, the priest extended his hands and without needing to reflect she kissed each one, not merely knowing that reverence was proper, but feeling reverent, grateful and exultant. There was no awkwardness or anachronism in the ancient gesture of gratitude. The priest inclined his head and smiled benignantly.  Then he was gone, standing before another kneeling supplicant, speaking the same words of blessing.

Mrs S rose reluctantly to relinquish her place at the rail. She paused before the altar in a moment of unplanned adoration. And as she drew in a deep breath it was as though she inhaled the whole of the gale that had moments before swirled about her. She felt it race through the wild untamed parts of her soul, shaking loose stubborn attachments, blowing away limp tepidness and preparing the passions for cultivation. Her chest swelled with joy and she felt her limbs vibrate with an unknown energy. Her mind rang in single voice with words from Scripture that she did not know she knew — “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” — and she trembled to hear them.