The Corporal Works of Mercy
by Fr. Michael Mueller, 1881
I. How should we help the needy?
By corporal, as well as by spiritual, works of mercy.
Our neighbor may be in bodily or spiritual want, or in both at the same time. To relieve him in the wants of the body is a corporal work of mercy, and to relieve him in his wants of the soul, is a spiritual work of mercy.
Now, as the soul is far superior to the body, a benefit conferred on the soul is, also, generally speaking, far superior to a benefit conferred on the body.
In some particular cases, however, a corporal work of mercy, may be better than a spiritual work of mercy, because it may be more necessary. For a man dying of hunger, a loaf of bread is better than an eloquent discourse or a salutary counsel.
In the practice of charity a certain order must be observed. This order is determined by the ties of kindred, of country, and of religion. Hence, when our nearest relations are in distress, nature and charity require us to relieve them in preference to others, because they are more closely united to us by the ties of kindred and friendship. If, however, one of our nearest relatives is only in ordinary want, and a stranger is in extreme want, we are bound by the precept of charity to relieve the stranger in preference to our nearest relative.
If a poor person is in extreme want and in danger of death by starvation we are obliged to relieve him with those means of ours which are not necessary for the preservation of our own life. If our neighbor is in great want, we are obliged to assist him with those means which we do not need for our condition of life.II. Which are the corporal works of mercy?
1. To feed the hungry;
2. to give drink to the thirsty;
3. to clothe the naked;
4. to harbor the harborless;
5. to visit the sick;
6. to visit the imprisoned;
7. to bury the dead.
God has made the rich depend on the poor, and the poor on the rich. The rich should take care of the poor, in order that the poor may take care of the rich. The misery of the poor is corporal. The misery of the rich is generally spiritual. The rich, therefore, should give corporal relief to the poor, in order to receive from them spiritual aid in turn. Without the assistance of the rich, the poor would die corporally. Without the prayers and blessings of the poor, the rich would die spiritually. Graces and chastisements are in the hands of the poor. When they implore mercy for him who aids them, God grants their prayers. When they demand justice against those who send them away empty, God also grants their prayers. "Son, defraud not the poor of alms, and turn not away thy eyes from the poor. For the prayer of him that curseth thee in the bitterness of his soul shall be heard: for He that made him will hear him." (Ecclus. iv., 1, 6.)
A rich man is in danger of losing his soul when he has not the prayers and blessings of the poor. In this world, the rich are the judges of the poor. In the world to come, the poor will be the judges of the rich. Those who have not the poor for their advocates, will not find grace with their judge. He who has the poor to plead for him, need not fear, but may rejoice. Those, therefore, who are able to give alms, are strictly obliged by the precept of charity, to relieve the needy, especially those who are ashamed to beg. "He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in want, and shut up his heart from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?" (1 John iii.,17.) "Be you, therefore, perfect," says our Lord, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt v., 48.) In these words, Jesus Christ points out to us his heavenly Father as the model of our charity.
We cannot imitate the omnipotence of God by performing miracles. We cannot multiply bread, change water into wine, give sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, raise the dead to life, as Christ did. But no one has an excuse, if he does not imitate the charity of God. In his charity, God has created the heavens to give us light and rain; the fire to give us warmth; the air to preserve our life; the earth to give us various kinds of fruit; the sea to give us fish; the animals to give us food and clothing! In his charity, God the Father has given us His only-begotten Son, and His Son gave Himself to us in the manger of Bethlehem, and upon, the cross, and He gives Himself still every day upon our altars, at each holy Mass, and in each holy Communion. God is almighty; but His omnipotence is not able to give us anything greater as a proof of His unspeakable charity towards us. He has given heaven; He has given earth; He has given His kingdom, He has given Himself; what more has He to give! Ah! how prodigal is He of himself!
Now, this charity of God is most wonderful for five reasons:
1. On account of the greatness and majesty of the lover and giver; for who can be greater and more exalted than the Lord of heaven and earth?
2. On account of the condition of those to whom He communicates Himself with all his gifts. By nature, they are but men, the lowest of rational beings; they are proud, ungrateful, carnal sinners, prone to every evil; they are mortal, corrupt, vile creatures, doomed to become one day the food of worms. "What is man," exclaims the Psalmist, "that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that Thou visitest him!" (Ps. viii., 5.)
3. This charity of God is wonderful on account of the manifold and extraordinary gifts which He partly confers on men, and partly offers them. These are a rational soul, created in God's own Image and Likeness; His grace; the promise of glory; the protection of His Angels; the whole visible world; and finally, His own well-beloved Son. "For God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, might not perish, but might have life everlasting." (John iii., 16.)
4. This charity of God is wonderful on account of the end for which He confers all these benefits, that is, for the happiness of man, and not for His own happiness; for God does not expect to receive any advantage from man.
5. On account of the manner in which he communicates Himself to men.It is peculiar to God's infinite love to lower Himself to what is vile and despicable, to heal what is ailing, to seek what is rejected, to exalt what is humble, and to pour out His riches where they are most needed.
He often communicates Himself even before He is asked, as He does in all the so-called preventing graces, by which He moves the soul to pray for subsequent ones. He even gives more than is asked. The good thief on the cross asked of our dear Saviour to remember him in His kingdom. But our Lord did more than that; He promised him paradise. "Amen, I say to you, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.'' (Luke xxiii., 42.) God often lavishes His blessings upon those who abuse them, and are ungrateful for them; nay, He lavishes them even upon the worst of his enemies--upon infidels, atheists, heretics, blasphemers. "Be you the children of your Father who is in heaven, Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good and the bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust." (Matt, v., 45.) This charity of our Lord must be our model. "Be, therefore, followers of God as most dear children, and walk in charity," says St. Paul. (Eph. v., 1, 2.)
We need no money to buy charity, nor is it necessary for us to cross seas and travel into far-distant countries to find it. Charity is natural to man. He who is destitute of it, is said to have no heart, and, therefore, nothing is more detestable in the eyes of men than want of charity. Every one should be able to say with Job: "I was an eye to the blind, and a foot to the lame. I was the father of the poor." (Xxix. 15.) The goods of this world were made for man's benefit. If they had eyes, feet, and understanding, they would go where they are most needed. Now, if a man has charity, he will lend to them his feet to go, his eyes to see, and his tongue to enquire, where they are needed.
Indeed, what are the goods of this world? Are they not the alms which men have received from the Lord? "The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine," saith the Lord of Hosts by the Prophet Aggaeus. (Chap, ii., 9.) Men are all beggars before God. "What hast thou," says St. Paul, "that thou hast not received?" (II. Cor. iv., 7.) The Lord bestows these goods upon men in order that by means of them they may be enabled to imitate His mercy, charity and liberality. God wishes that men, His children, should resemble Him as much as possible. The more they endeavor to become like unto Him, the more He is delighted with them. "The Lord values a perfect soul more highly than a thousand imperfect ones," says St. Alphonsus. The reason of this is, because "there is nothing more like unto God," says Plato," than a holy man." Out of a thousand likenesses of himself, an emperor will value that one most highly which represents him most perfectly. In like manner, God values a soul in which His Image and Likeness shine forth most perfectly, more than a thousand others which resemble Him less perfectly. Hence, all good Christians apply themselves constantly to their spiritual progress; they try to enrich their souls every day with greater merits; they endeavor to embellish them more and more by acts of charity and liberality towards their fellow-men. They know that they cannot become like unto God, by any thing better than by the practice of the virtue of mercy. This truth is declared in Holy Scripture by the Holy Ghost Himself. "In judging be merciful to the fatherless as a father, and as a husband to their mother, and thou shalt be as the obedient Son of the Most High, and He will have mercy on thee more than a mother." (Ecclus iv., 10.)
To suffer with hunger, is so great a pain that many, to satisfy the cravings of hunger, have eaten most disgusting things. During the siege of Jerusalem (A. D. 68.), the famine had become so fearful in this doomed city that the inhabitants had recourse to the most horrible expedients to procure a single morsel of food. They dragged the dead from their graves, in the wild hope of finding food. A woman, a mother, murdered her own infant, roasted it and ate one half of its body, and presented the remainder to the famished soldiers, whom the odor of this execrable meal had attracted to the spot. "It is my son," she said; "be not more tender than a woman, nor more compassionate than a mother."
Many of the readers of these lines will still remember the terrible time of famine in Ireland. There were thousands and thousands wasting away and dying of hunger. They were falling and dying as the leaves fall in autumn. To supply, then, with food the poor and the hungry is a work of charity most pleasing to God. Among the many thousands of Israelites who were led away by Salmanazar into Assyria, there was one, by the name of Tobias, who, for his charity, was distinguished from all the rest. As he had full leave from the king to go where he pleased, he went freely from one part of the country to another, to give all the comfort and assistance in his power to his fellow-captives. "He fed the hungry, and gave clothes to the naked." (Tob. i.) In going about he met a man named Gabelus, who was in great distress. Now, as he had money at his disposal, he loaned to Gabelus ten talents of silver. "From my infancy," says Job, " mercy grew up with me. I have not denied to the poor what they desired. I have not made the eyes of the widow wait. I have not eaten my morsel alone, the fatherless have eaten thereof." (Job, xxxi.)
The saints rejoice in having an opportunity of practising charity, and they feel sad if such an opportunity is wanting. In order to have always such an opportunity, many of the saints fed a certain number of poor people every day; others sold every thing they had, and even contracted debts, to relieve the poor and needy.
St. Louis, King of France, used to feed some poor people at his table, and he himself waited upon them: it was his firm belief that, in the person of the poor, he had Jesus Christ Himself for his guest. He gave money to them with his own hands, because they are, said he, my soldiers to defend my kingdom; I myself, then, must pay their salary.
St. Charles Borromeo sold one of his estates for forty thousand dollars to relieve the poor.
St. Serapion gave away even part of his clothing. Upon being asked why he did so, he pointed to the Gospel and said: "Behold what has robbed me of every thing!" He gave in alms even the Gospel book itself. (Life.)
St. Camillus de Lellis contracted a debt of thirty thousand dollars for the relief of the poor.
Our Lord preserved the right arm of St. Oswald, king of England, uncorrupt, because He wished thus to honor him for having given with his right hand so many alms to the poor. (Butler's Lives of the Saints.)
St. John the Almoner, Patriarch of Alexandria, was, as it were, an ocean of alms; the more he bestowed, the more he received. The saint tells us what especially induced him to practise this virtue. "When I was fifteen years old," he says, "and lived in Cyprus, I saw in a dream a virgin of charming beauty, with a splendid crown on her head. She drew near me, and gently struck me with her hand. I was frightened, and awoke from my sleep. When I asked her who she was, and whence she had come, and how she could dare come near me whilst asleep, she smiled, cast upon me a most gracious look, and said in joyful accents: 'I am the first among the king's daughters. If you have me for your friend, you will also have the king for your most intimate friend. No one enjoys more his confidence, and stands in higher favor with him than I. It was I who persuaded him to leave heaven for earth, there to become man.' After having reflected on this vison for some time, I thought that it meant mercy and charity. I rose at once and went to church. On my way thither, I met a poor man who was almost naked, and shivering with cold. I took off my coat and gave it to him, saying to myself: Now let me see whether the vision I had was true. Before I reached the church, a certain man came and gave me one hundred dollars in gold, and then disappeared suddenly. Now I felt persuaded that the vision was no illusion, but a true vision from God." (Life by Leontius.)
From that time the saint devoted himself so much to works of charity that he became the example and admiration of the whole world. "It is not right for us," he used to say, "to attend to the affairs of others sooner than to those of Jesus Christ. Go, then, about in the town, and take up the names of all my masters." And on being asked who they were whom he called his masters, he answered: "They are those whom you call the poor and needy. They are my masters and my helpers. For they alone are able to assist me, that I may not be excluded from life everlasting. And no sooner have I given away something, than I receive it back a hundred-fold." This saint, while admiring the great goodness of God who sent him so many good things, was often heard to exclaim: "So! so! my Lord! "Let us see whether Thou art more liberal in sending means than I in bestowing them!" One day Sophronius saw this saint much cast down. He asked him the cause of his sadness. "I feel unhappy to-day," he answered, "because I had no opportunity to offer to God something in expiation of my sins by assisting the poor."
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
The pain of thirst is a greater pain than that of hunger. Those who are sick and dying, generally complain of great thirst. Our dear Saviour himself, when hanging on the cross, could not help manifesting the pain which was caused by thirst. Plutarch relates that Lysimachus, king of Thrazia, surrendered, after a battle, his kingdom to his enemy, in order to obtain water to quench his thirst. How happy must not this enemy of Lysimachus have felt when he bought a whole kingdom at so cheap a price. But our dear Lord has promised to give more than an earthly kingdom to him who gives drink to those who cannot help themselves, to prisoners, to the sick and the poor. "Whoever," he says, " shall give to drink to one of those little ones a cup of cold water, amen I say to you he shall not lose his reward." (Matt, x., 42.)
Leo Majoran met one day in the wilderness, a poor, blind beggar, who had lost his way, and suffered exceedingly with thirst. Leo went immediately in search of water, gave it to the poor man, and led him back to the right road. Almighty God was so much pleased with this act of charity that he made Leo hear a voice assuring him that he would become emperor as a reward for his charity. (Baron, ad An. 457., Num. 6.)
Whilst St. Anastasia suffered the torments of martyrdom, she experienced an excruciating thirst. She asked for a drink of water. A certain man, a heathen, named Cyrillus, felt compassion on her, and went immediately for water and gave it to her. Almighty God rewarded him for thia act of charity by giving him the grace to become a christian and die a martyr.3. To clothe the naked.
"When thou shalt see one naked," says the prophet Isaias, "cover him." (Lviii., 7.) To clothe the poor for the sake of Jesua Christ, is to clothe Christ Himself: "I was naked and you covered me." (Matt, xxv., 36.)
St. Sulpicius relates the following beautiful example of the compassion and charity of St. Martin, bishop of Tours. One day in the midst of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many perished with cold, as he was marching with other officers and soldiers, he met at the gate of the City of Amiens, a poor man, almost naked, trembling and shaking with cold, and begging alms of those that passed by. When Martin saw that those who went before him, took no notice of the poor man, he felt great compassion for him. As he had nothing left but his arms and clothes upon his back, he drew his sword and cut his cloak into two pieces, gave one to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other. Some of the by-standers laughed at the figure he made in that dress, whilst others were ashamed not to have relieved the poor man. The following night, St.. Martin saw, in his sleep, Jesus Christ dressed in that half of the garment which he had given away, and was bidden to look at it well, and asked whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus Christ say to the angels that surrounded him: "Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment."4. To harbor the harborless.
Those who, for the sake of Jesus Christ, harbor the poor and friendless, give such pleasure to our Lord, that, on the day of judgment, He will say to them: "I was a stranger and you took me in" (Matt, xxv., 35.), and then, for having given Him, in the person of the poor, a little room in their dwelling, he will give them His immense, everlasting kingdom. If it is not in your power to harbor the poor, give them something to pay towards a night's lodging, help to support orphan asylums, hospitals, and other charitable institutions, and you will largely share in the corporal works of mercy, that are performed there.
Caesarius relates (L. iii., c. 68.) that a certain family was always very kind and hospitable to the poor, and was, on this account, blessed by God, spiritually and temporally. They never suffered from want, and all the members were very religious. Now, it happened that two members of the family died, and with them all temporal and spiritual prosperity and happiness seemed to have left the family. One day a venerable old man came and asked for a night's lodging. He obtained it with great difficulty. One of the inmates of the house told him that they had been well off, and lived in great peace and happiness, but that since the death of two members of the family, all spiritual and temporal welfare had gradually vanished. To this the stranger replied: "My friend, those deceased members are Date, 'give,' and Dabitur, 'it shall be given to you.' (Luke vi., 38.) Let these two members come back, and you will be again as happy and prosperous as before." These words made a deep impression upon the family. They understood that the blessing of God was withdrawn because they had ceased to practise hospitality to the poor. So they returned to the practice of their former charity, and with it returned the blessing of God.5. To visit the sick.
During his life, our dear Saviour was the comforter of the sick. For them he showed more than a mother's compassion. For them He wrought most of His miracles. "I will come," He said to the centurion, "and heal thy servant." (Matt, viii., 7.) "He went about," says the Evangelist, "doing good, and healing all that were suffering." (Matt, xi., 5.) Let the sick, especially if poor and abandoned, be as dear to you as the apple of your eye. If your charity is to shine forth towards all, it should shine forth especially towards the poor when they are sick. Procure for them all the relief and comfort you can; and if it is not in your power to assist them, ask others to do something for them. Show at least, compassion for them. "As long as I know," wrote St. Francis de Sales to a sick person, "that you are confined to your bed of sickness, I will always bear you a great love and affection as to a person visited by the Lord. I am sincere in what I say."
Bear also patiently and charitably with the weaknesses of the sick, and pretend not to notice them. Do not require of them the perfect practice of virtue at a time when they are depressed by pains and miseries.
To be harsh and hard to the sick is to become accountable to God for their pains and sufferings. Generally speaking, those who were often sick themselves, are most charitable to the sick. "It is by my own pains, sufferings and infirmities," says St. Frances de Chantal, "that the Lord was pleased to make me sympathize with the sick, and practise patience and charity towards them. The Lord made me understand that there is nothing equal to perfect charity." You cannot go easily to excess in charity and affection for the sick, when there is question about procuring relief for them, not only when they are dangerously ill, but also when they complain of light indispositions. These indispositions, it is true, may sometimes be nothing but over great anxiety for their health, or may be only imaginary, or exaggerated; yet, generally speaking, you should believe what they tell you, for a slight indisposition may prove serious if neglected in the beginning. Even in imaginary evils there is some reality at the bottom on account of the uneasiness and anxiety which they produce. Besides, should you not believe them, they will be afraid to tell you again when they are really suffering, thinking within themselves that it is useless to speak to you about their sufferings, because you would not believe them anyhow; and this might be followed by evil consequences. Hence, it is better to be deceived than not to apply remedies to evils which may really exist. Conceal then your hesitation to believe them, even if you have the best of reasons not to believe them. It is better to show yourself rather ready to believe them, than to expose yourself to the danger of violating charity.
There lived in Alexandria a pious and wealthy lady who, wishing to make rapid progress in virtue, went to the bishop, St. Athanasius, and begged him to permit her to take home with her one of the sick poor widows, who depended on the church for support. St. Athanasius, greatly pleased with her charitable design, selected for her an old lady who was very pious and sweet-tempered. The good lady took her home and waited on her day and night with the greatest attention, and the pious old woman thanked and blessed her continually for her great kindness. Now the charitable lady, fearing that she would not have much reward in the other world for serving one who was so sweet-tempered and thankful, went once more to the bishop and requested him to send her one who was ill-tempered, who would try her patience, and thus afford her an opportunity of meriting heaven. The bishop astonished at the request, said: "Very well!. Your request shall be granted!" The bishop then gave orders to send her one of the sourest and most ill-tempered sick old women that could be found in the city--and as Cassian naively remarks--"such a one was easily found."
The old woman was brought to the rich lady's house. She was every thing that could be desired--cross-grained, peevish, quarrelsome, never satisfied, and, what was worse than all, her tongue had a very loose rein. The rich lady tried her utmost to serve and please her, but all in vain; she received only abuse and curses for her charity. Sometimes, even, the old woman struck her. To every one that came in, she complained that the rich lady neglected and starved her. The pious lady felt at times almost discouraged, still she prayed and continued her offices of charity till finally God called her to himself. (Cassian, Confessions.)
One of the chief reasons why you should be very kind to the sick is, that you may be better able to benefit their souls in their pains and sufferings. A sick person will listen the more willingly to your spiritual discourse, the more he notices your charity and solicitude for him. Many a soul, it is true, is brought to a sense of her duty and enters into herself by means of bodily sickness; but the number of those who do not profit by their sufferings is far greater, because there are but too many who at the the time of sickness, especially when the disease has assumed a chronic form, and also at the time of convalescence, do not combat their disorderly appetites, and, from being servants of God, they soon become the slaves of corrupt nature.
To guard the sick against this spiritual lethargy, it is well to relate to them what Father Surin, S. J., writes in one of his letters: "A young man," he says, "filled with the Holy Ghost, and with whom I had the happiness to travel for three days and from whom I learned more of the spiritual life than ever before, told me among other things, that one of our greatest evils is that we do not profit well by our bodily infirmities." "The Lord," said Father Surin," inflicts them upon us for a wise purpose. He unites Himself to the soul more perfectly by sufferings than by consolations. Hence too great a care for preserving our health is a great obstacle in the road to perfection."
Should a soul experience a great desire to advance in the spiritual life and to give herself up to prayer, but feel unable to do so on account of her bodily infirmities, let her consider that God requires of her an angelic patience, a constant resignation and calm submission to the dispositions of His divine providence, a generous abandonment of herself to His fatherly care, a perfect holy indifference for life or death, and an utter contempt for all earthly things. Then, if the Lord should wish to make use of her for His glory, He will repair in an hour's time all the harm that a sickness of several years may have caused her to suffer in her body. Hence, sick people must be repeatedly exhorted to pray often and most fervently for the grace to profit well by their sickness, and obtain the wise end for which the Lord is accustomed to visit us with different kinds of infirmities, in order that it may be said of them in truth: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it."
A great means to dispose sick people to submit to God's holy will, and to holy indifference for life or death, is to show them that, by accepting death with perfect resignation to the holy will of God, they die with a merit similar to that of a martyr and go straight to heaven after death.
Death is the last sacrifice that we can make to God. It is a sacrifice most difficult to make, because death is unnatural. Death is a punishment inflicted on all men, in consequence of the sin of Adam; it is revolting to our nature, for man was not made to die. Now, to die perfectly resigned to the just and holy will of God, is to die with a merit similar to that of martyrdom. According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the merit of martyrdom does not consist merely in suffering many horrible torments; it consists rather in the conformity of the martyr's will to the holy will of God. Now, if God, instead of employing the hand of the executioner, makes use of some natural means, such as sickness, or an accident, to take away my life, and I accept death with as much resignation as a martyr, God will give me the reward that he gives to a martyr. Now, our faith teaches that a martyr, after death, goes straight to heaven. If I die, then, with the dispositions and the merit of a martyr, my reward will be similar to his. Hence, not only those acquire the merit and crown of martyrdom who die for the faith, but also all those who cheerfully accept death for the love of God. Such a death is an act of perfect love, because by it we abandon and sacrifice ourselves without reserve to the holy will of God. Consequently, such an act of love cancels sin and the punishment due to it.
In order to be able to make this act of love at the hour of death, we should accustom ourselves to make it often during life. We should often make an offering of our life to God, declaring ourselves ready to accept, at any time, the kind of death which he has decreed for us from all eternity. As soon as the holy martyrs knew that they had to suffer martyrdom, they began to make frequent offerings of their life to God. For every such act they have obtained in heaven a special reward. We should imitate their example, because we, too, shall receive in heaven, as many crowns as we have made acts of entire abandonment of ourselves into the hands of God. We should daily beseech our Lord most earnestly to grant us the grace to accept death at his hands with the intention of pleasing him and doing his holy will.
Although this doctrine is very consoling for sick persons and well calculated to dispose them to a perfect resignation to God's holy will, yet let it be remembered that if the Lord does not enlighten their mind to understand it, and inflame their will to embrace and to love it, they will draw from it but little comfort and encouragement. In the life of St. Lidwine, who was sick for thirty-eight years, we read that in the beginning of her sickness she shrank from suffering. By a particular disposition of Providence, however, a celebrated servant of God, John Por, went to see her, and preceiving that she was not quite resigned to the will of God, he exhorted her to meditate frequently on the sufferings of Jesus Christ, that by the remembrance of His Passion she might gain courage to suffer more willingly. She promised to do so and fulfilled her promise, but could not find any relief for her soul. Every meditation was irksome and unpleasant, and she began again to break out into her usual complaints. Upon being asked by her director how she had succeeded in her meditation upon our Lord's Passion, and what profit she had derived from it, she replied, "O my father, your counsel was very good indeed, but the greatness of my sufferings does not permit me to find any consolation in meditating on my Saviour's sorrows." Seeing at last that Lidwine derived no benefit from his charitable exhortations, the Rev. Father Por thought of another means. He gave her Holy Communion and, immediately after, whispered into her ear: "Till now I have tried to console you, but in vain; but now let Jesus Christ Himself perform this office." Behold! no sooner had she swallowed the Sacred Host than she felt so great a love for Jesus Christ and so ardent a desire to become like unto Him in His sufferings that she broke out into sobs and sighs, and for two weeks she was hardly able to stop her tears. From this moment she never complained again, but desired to suffer still more for Jesus Christ.
Hence it is evident that the sick should be strengthened by the frequent reception of the sacraments; for they will derive more benefit from one single communion than from all the exhortations they may receive, no matter how pious or persuasive they may be.
I have dwelled so long on this point, from the conviction that there is scarcely any thing more apt to draw the blessing of God upon one's self than the careful and charitable attendance to the corporal and spiritual wants of the sick, whilst, on the other hand, the neglect of this duty is followed by many great evils.
How well the Lord is pleased with one who faithfully complies with this duty, and how great a reward is awaiting him in the life to come, may be gathered from what we read in the life and revelations of St. Gertrude. One day after having recited the Office as far as the fifth lesson, St. Gertrude saw a religious who was ill and who had no one to say Matins with her. The Saint, moved by the charity which always animated her, said to our Lord: "Thou knowest, O Lord, that I have almost exhausted the little strength I have in reciting my Office so far; nevertheless, as I ardently desire Thee to abide with me during these holy days and as I have not a fitting abode prepared for Thee, I am willing, for Thy sake, and in satisfaction for my faults, to commence Matins again." As she began the Office once more, our Lord verified the words "I was sick and you visited Me; and as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me," by appearing to her and overwhelming her with sweet consolations, which could neither be explained nor understood.
It appeared to the Saint that our Lord was seated at a table in the most sublime glory, and that He was distributing ineffable gifts, graces, and joys to the souls in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory, not only for each word, but even for each letter which she had repeated with the sick sister; and she also received an intelligence of the Psalms, Responses and Lessons, which filled her with inexpressible delight. And when she besought our Lord to pour forth an abundant grace and benediction on the whole Church, "What do you desire that I should do, My beloved?" replied He, "for I give Myself up to you with the same love and resignation as I abandoned myself to My Father on the Cross; for even as I would not descend from the Cross, until He willed it, so now I desire to do nothing but what you will. Distribute, then, in virtue of my Divinity, all that you desire and as abundantly as you desire."
After Matins, the Saint retired again to rest, and our Lord said to her: "She who wearies herself in exercises of charity, has a right to repose peacefully on the couch of charity," and as He said this, He soothed her soul so tenderly that it appeared to her as if she did, indeed, repose on the bosom of this heavenly Bridegroom. Then she beheld a tree of charity, very high and very fair, covered with fruit and flowers and with leaves shining like stars which sprang forth from the heart of Jesus, extending and lowering its branches so as to surround and cover the nuptial couch on which the soul of Gertrude reposed. And she saw a spring of pure water gush forth from its roots, which shot upwards and then returned again to its source, and this refreshed her soul marvellously. By this she understood the Divinity of Jesus Christ sweetly reposing in His humanity, which imparts ineffable joys to the charitable elect. (Lite and Revelations: chap, xxxvi.)6. To visit the imprisoned?
To be deprived of liberty is one of the greatest afflictions. Those who suffer in prison for crimes which they committed, are deprived of their liberty through their own fault. However, Christian charity requires us to show compassion for them as far as possible. We often hear that many a prisoner committed suicide, or went to the place of execution in complete despair. The reason of this may be, because he saw himself abandoned by every body. It is, therefore, an act of great charity to relieve these sufferers as far as we are able. Charity and kindness towards them will soften their hearts, make them repent of their crimes, and inspire them with the sincere desire to be reconciled to God, and accept their punishment at the hand of God in expiation of their sins.
In 1851, a murder was committed near Paris, in France. A captain of the carbineers, an excellent officer, beloved by all, going, as usual, the rounds of the stables, had reprimanded one of the troopers whose conduct had not been very regular. The latter made no reply, but apparently turned away with a calm countenance, and went up to the mess-room. There he loaded one of his horse-pistols, and, going back to the stable, approached his captain, and with a deadly aim, discharged it against the loins of the officer. The unfortunate man fell, weltering in his blood. They took him up, carried him to his room, and the surgeons pronounced the wound mortal. In fact, the poor captain breathed his last, a few hours after, in the arms of his old mother, in the midst of horrible sufferings, endured heroically, and with sentiments of faith and charity truly admirable. He had made his confession with great piety, had received the Blessed Sacrament, and, in imitation of his divine Master praying on the cross for his crucifiers, had pardoned his murderer, and begged for his pardon with the most touching and pressing appeal.
The murderer had been arrested on the spot, and transferred to the prison in Paris. There he was abandoned by all, except the priest. Two or three days after the deed had been committed, the priest went to see the trooper, for the first time, in the cell of the military prison. He encouraged him to hope in the mercy of God, and to prepare himself for a good confession, and to accept death in expiation of his crime. The poor criminal was touched by the words of the priest, and said: "I have been the victim of a moment of fury and insanity. It was a punishment from God, whom I had abandoned. Had I always prayed as I do now, I should not have come to this pass. My father said to me often: 'Fear God, and pray to him: he alone is good, all the rest is nothing!' But it is so hard to do so at the regiment; we are always surrounded by young men who say nothing but what is bad." When he heard that he had been sentenced to death, he exclaimed: "The sentence is just; to appeal would be to go against the goodness of God. They would show me a mercy that I do not wish for, because the punishment must be undergone. I must atone for what I have done. My hopes are no longer here below. I have only God to look to. He is now every thing to me; in Him alone do I trust. I feel quite calm; I feel no rebellion in my heart; I am perfectly resigned to the will of God."
Now, what brought about that calmness, that happiness, in this poor prisoner? It was his sincere confession which the priest was kind enough to hear. It was holy, communion, which the priest brought to him several times. In a word, it was the charity of the priest, who often went to see him in his prison, in order to console him, and to inspire him with great confidence in the mercy of God.
During the three hours and a half of the drive to the place of execution, he never lost his calmness. God was with him in the person of the priest, who accompanied him to the Savory Plains, where he was to be shot. What a touching spectacle: to behold, on a wagon, a tall man, the culprit, followed by the priest of God; to see how the priest was even paler than the culprit; and to see them walking side by side, you would think that he was the one to be shot!
The expression of the culprit's countenance evinced great calmness and resignation; his eyes betrayed, at once, sorrow and hope. He seemed to pray with fervor. There was no sadness in his looks; there could even be seen the reflections of a certain inward joy. He listened, with love and deep attention, to the words addressed to him by the minister of Jesus Christ. When the priest said to him, "Our Lord is between us two: my poor child, we are always well when the good Saviour is with us," he replied: "Oh, yes, my heart is perfectly happy, I did not think I should tell you, but I feel as if I was going to a wedding. God has permitted all this for my good, to save my soul. I feel so much consoled, thinking that my poor captain died a good Christian! I am going to see him; he is praying for me now. My God has saved me; I feel that he will have mercy on me. He ascended Calvary, carrying his cross: I accompany him. I shall not resist whatever they wish to do with me--tie me, or bandage my eyes. Ah! the poor soldiers are lost because they do not listen to you priests. Without you, without religion, the whole world would be lost!"
When they drove by the barracks, where he had committed the murder, he offered a prayer for his captain. "I can't conceive how I could have done it! I had no ill-will against him! Could the commission of a sin save me from being shot, I would not commit it: I think so now. I have nothing to keep me here; I am going to see God!"
When they had arrived at the place of execution, the priest and the culprit alighted. An officer read the sentence. The culprit replied: "I acknowledge the justice of my punishment; I am sorry for what I have done; I beg of God to pardon me: I love Him with all my heart!" Then he knelt; the priest gave him the crucifix to kiss for the last time. "My father," he said, with feeling expression--"my father, I place my soul within your hands; I unite my death to that of my Saviour Jesus. Farewell! farewell!" The priest embraced him once more. Then with his arms extended in the form of a cross, the culprit inclined his head, and awaited his death. The priest retired to pray at some distance. One minute after, human justice had been satisfied, and the soul of the unfortunate soldier, purified and transformed by religion, had fled to the bosom of him who pardons all those who repent. The priest resumed his place by him, and, with tears in his eyes, prayed, on his knees, for the departed soul of the unfortunate carbineer.
There are others, who may lose their liberty in defense of their country, as it generally happens in the time of war. Others, again, may lose their liberty in defense of the Catholic religion, as it happened in the time of the crusades. Others, again, may be carried off by violence, into the hands of idolators, where they are cruelly treated and have to live in barbarous slavery.
About eight centuries ago, the Moors were very powerful. They often landed on the coast of southern Europe, seized upon many defenseless Christians, and sold them as slaves. They also attacked Christian vessels, plundered them, and sold the crew into bondage. There lived at this time in Paris, a holy priest, named John de Matha. During his first Mass he was honored by a heavenly vision. He beheld a bright angel, clad in a robe of snowy whiteness. On his breast shimmered a cross of blue and crimson. He held his hand extended over a Moor and a Christian who stood beside him. The saint understood from this vision that he was called by God to ransom Christian captives. In order, then, to prepare himself for this generous undertaking, he quitted Paris and retired to the wilderness where he sought the company of St. Felix, a holy hermit, who was heir to the crown of France, but had quitted all to secure his salvation. While these holy men were, one day, seated near a cool spring that gushed forth beside their hermitage, and were discoursing of heavenly things, they suddenly beheld a snow-white stag. Between its antlers glittered a brilliant cross of blue and crimson. St. John de Matha now told his astonished companion the vision he had seen during his first Mass. The two holy men then agreed to obey the voice of heaven and to found an order for the redemption of Christian captives. They set out for Rome to receive the approbation of the Pope. On their arrival they were graciously received, and on the following morning the Pope also, during Mass, had the same vision which John de Matha beheld in Paris. The holy Father approved the new order, and gave it the name of the Most Holy Trinity.
Now from the fact that God called into existence a religious order for the purpose of redeeming Christian captives, we clearly see that to visit the imprisoned, or contribute towards the ransom of Christians, is a work most pleasing to the Lord. Those who, for Christ's sake, have performed this corporal work of mercy, will, on the day of doom hear the Eternal Judge say to them: "I was in prison, and you came to me." (Matt, xxv., 36.)
One day, a poor widow came to St. Paulinus, bishop of Nola, and begged him, with tears in her eyes, to procure for her the means to redeem her son who had fallen into the hands of a cruel idolater. So St. Paulinus went to the master of the poor widow's son, and said to him : "Be kind enough to let the son of this poor woman return home, and keep me instead." The request of the holy bishop was granted. He lived in slavery and worked as a gardener for a long time, until at last he obtained his liberty in a wonderful manner, and returned into his diocese with many fellow-captives. (Life.)
7. To bury the dead.
After Adam had sinned, God said to him: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return." (Gen. iii., 19.) The grave, then, is our earthly home, as heaven is our eternal one.
What is the meaning of the word "home?" Home is the hallowed ground, where we are born. Now where were we born? Whence have we sprung? We have come from the ground. "God made the first man out of the slime of the earth," says holy writ. The earth then is our home, the earth blessed by the hand of God. But where can we find that earth blessed by the hand of God? In the churchyard--in the grave. The Holy Ghost admonishes us not to refuse this home to the dead. "Stretch out thy hand to the poor, and restrain not grace from the dead." (Ecclus. vii., 36-37.) To contribute, then, towards defraying the expenses of christian funerals of "the poor, or to help burying them, or to honor their dead bodies by accompanying them to the graveyard, is to perform the seventh corporal work of mercy.
We read in Holy Scripture that Sennacherib, king of Assyria, inflicted many kinds of cruelties upon the captive Israelites. He put many of them to death, and left their bodies unburied." Now it happened that, whilst Tobias was at dinner, he was told that an Israelite had just been slain in the street. He immediately rose from table, took his corpse and concealed it in his house till night, and then buried it. His friends reminded him of the great danger he had but lately escaped, and said that his zeal was indiscreet. Tobias, who had a greater regard for God than for men, could not be talked out of his duty. He would not suffer a dead body that came in his way to remain unburied. Hence he deserved to hear the archangel Raphael say to him: "When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord." (Tob. xii., 12.) Almighty God has often shown, in a wonderful manner, how pleasing it is to him to bury the dead.
After St. Catharine had suffered the death of martyrdom in Alexandria, in the year 306, her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, and buried there.
One day, St. Anthony, the hermit, went to see St. Paul. He found him kneeling in his cave and thought that he was praying. Full of joy, and supposing him yet alive, he knelt down to pray with him, but, by his silence, soon perceived that he was dead. Having paid his last respects to the holy body, he carried it out of the cave. Whilst he was at a loss how to dig a grave, two lions came up quietly, and, as if mourning. They tore up the ground and made a hole large enough for the reception of a human body. St. Anthony then buried the holy corpse, singing hymns and psalms according to holy usages of the Church. (Butler's Lives of the Saints, Jany. 15.)
St. Stanislas, bishop of Cracow, repeatedly admonished Boleslaus II., the impious king of Poland, to give up his scandalous conduct. At these fatherly admonitions, the king became so infuriated, that he, with his own hand, killed the holy bishop. Then his life-guards fell on the martyr's body and cut it into pieces which they scattered about the fields to be devoured by wild beasts and birds of prey. But eagles came and defended them, till the canons of the cathedral, three days after, gathered them together and buried them before the door of the chapel in which he was martyred. Wonderful to relate, when they put the pieces together, in as natural an order as possible, they grew conjointly so as not to leave even a scar. (Life, May 7.)
There are many who, when preparing for burying their dead friends and relatives, show more honor to their bodies than to their souls. There is a lavish expense for the funeral. A hundred dollars are spent where the means of the family hardly justify the half of it. Where there is more wealth, sometimes five hundred or a thousand, and even more, dollars are expended on the dead body. But let me ask, what is done for the poor living soul! Perhaps the poor soul is suffering the most frightful tortures in purgatory, whilst the lifeless body is laid out in state, and borne pompously to the graveyard.
You must not misunderstand me. It is certainly right and just to show all due respect even to the body of your deceased friend, for that body was once the dwelling place of his soul. But tell me candidly, what joy has the departed and, perhaps, suffering soul in the fine music of the choir, even should the choir be composed of the best (opera) singers in the country? What consolation does the suffering sold feel in the superb coffin, in the splendid funeral? What pleasure does the soul find in the costly marble monument, in all the honors that are so freely lavished on the body? All this may satisfy, or at least seem to satisfy, the living, but it is of no avail whatever to the dead. Poor, unhappy souls! how the diminution of true Catholic faith and charity is visited upon you while you suffer, and those that loved you in life might help you, and do not, for want of knowledge or faith! Poor, unhappy souls! whilst your friends accompany your bodies to the graveyard, how many prayers did they recite for you? How many masses had they offered up for you? After returning from your graves, they go to their business, to their eating and drinking, with the foolish assurance that the case cannot be hard on one they know to be so good! Oh! how much, and how long this false charity of your friends makes you suffer! If we, then, wish to please God by burying the dead, if we desire to honor our deceased friends and relatives by accompanying their bodies to the graveyard, we must assist at their funerals with true, christian sentiments of piety; we must pray for the repose of their souls, and request the prayers of others for them. And, oh! what impressive lessons does not the graveyard teach as!
Again, what is home? Home is that hallowed spot where dwell our forefathers, friends, relatives, and all those we hold dear. Now, where do they all dwell or what is their last resting-place? It is the grave. Where are those who loved and nursed you in early childhood, who soothed you when lying on the bed of fever, who watched you through the long dull nights, who cooled your burning brow, who kissed away your tears? Ah! how many of us miss them now! Those who labored and wept and suffered for us; those who always advised us for our good; who tried to keep us from harm and lead us on to a life of virtue; those who loving us with pure unselfish love, would gladly have given their heart's blood to save us; those whose good name and blessing we inherit--where do they dwell, where do they sleep? Their home, their resting place is the graveyard!
Hence it is that every pure and loving heart loves to visit the graveyard; to deck with flowers the hallowed spot where sleep their loved ones; and to offer up heartfelt prayers and tears for the repose of their souls departed.
Where will you find those with whom you were once united in the bonds of pure and hallowed love: those who loved you once and who love you still? Death has torn from your arms the dear husband and loved wife. You were but one heart and one soul. You walked together so long, side by side, through this vale of tears. The icy hand of death snapped the sweet bonds of love in twain; the grave now hides that faithful heart in which you fondly trusted. You are left alone in the wide world; you must bear your cross alone. Your dear little ones are fatherless now. A strange homesickness draws you forth from the busy haunts of men to the silent graveyard. Ah! it is there the broken-hearted feel that they have found home.
See that poor mother. She has brough forth her child amid pain and tears. She loves it as the apple of her eye, as a portion of her very being. She breathes of its breath, she lives of its life. But cruel death comes and breathes on the sweet flower; it withers in the bud. Her dear child is torn from her breast, from her loving arms; her tender heart bleeds. With ringing hands and broken heart, and weeping eyes she totters behind the coffin that bears her hope, her all on earth. Ah! ask that heartbroken mother where is her home now! She will lead you to the silent churchyard and the grave where her loved one is buried.
Who is there among us who has not a dear friend, or beloved one resting in the graveyard? Ah! whoever has a heart that is capable of thanking and loving will feel drawn to weep and pray at the grave of the loved one. And, therefore, the grave is not to us a place of terror. It is the meeting-place of loved ones, the abode of blessing and peace; it is our home!
Woe to him who flies from the grave! Woe to him whom the sight of the grave fills only with hate and terror! His conscience tortures him, because the grave reminds him of some one he has hastened to an untimely death; some one whose life he has embittered, whose heart he has broken by cruelty, by treachery, by the blackest ingratitude.
The rich, sensual man hates the sight of the grave; because his soul is buried in wealth and luxury, and the grave speaks to him of death, that death shall tear him away from all he holds dear, that death which is followed by judgment which shall decide his fate for weal or woe for eternity. The graveyard is the school of true wisdom, it speaks a language calm and stern. It shows us the folly of human pride and human ambition. The path of glory leads but to the grave. When tempted to vanity to pride or ambition, go visit the graveyard; saunter among the abodes of the dead; mark the inscriptions on the tombs, and remember those who lie buried there, whose memory perchance is long forgotten; once cherished fond dreams of greatness like yourself, were once flattered for their wit and beauty, or envied for their wealth. Where is their wealth and beauty now?
When the accursed thirst for gold torments you, when you are tempted to defraud your neighbor, to forswear your holy faith for the sake of some office, for a membership in some secret society, go to the graveyard; ask the dead how much of all their wealth they have taken with them to the other world!
Are you dissatisfied with your lot; do you complain that God has been unkind to you? Go to the graveyard and see how in death all are equal, how short is life, how brief are all our joys and all our sorrows. The grave tells you: "There is a joy, there is a woe: and both are everlasting!"
Does the devil tempt you to revenge? do you feel the spirit of hatred glowing in your heart, and throbbing in your brain? Go to the graveyard. See how the most bitter enemies sleep there so peacefully side by side. Are you one of those who enjoy life, who spend your days in feasting and rioting, who watch so jealously over the beauty of your face, the symmetry of your form? Go to the graveyard. The delicately-nurtured body, the beautiful face, the graceful form, are all hideous and loathesome; they are become the prey of countless worms.
Indeed, the graveyard is the school of solid wisdom. There the living may learn from the dead. There we can learn to hate sin, to love God, and to save our eternal soul.
Where is your true home, your last dwelling-place? You rent or own a house or room which you call your home; but that home, you will have soon to leave. There is one home, where your name is to be inscribed; on a home where you shall dwell winter and summer, year after year, and no landlord or lawsuit will be able to dispossess you; and that is the grave. How poor soever you may be, even though you have not one foot of land you can call your own, there, in the grave, you will become landowner, you will have at least one spot of earth that you can call your own. Even if you lose your property, even if deprived of all your rights, this property at least you will retain, and this one right, the right to a grave. You complain that your enemies give you no rest. Ah! there, in the grave, they shall not disturb you any more; there your bones can rest in peace. Are you hated, mocked, and persecuted? See, in the grave, your enemies can no longer annoy you; in the grave, you will find a true home; in the grave, you can sleep in undisturbed peace. In the grave, you can rest from all your cares and labors and sorrows; you can rest from your long weary wanderings. When your long day's work is ended, when you have fought the last dread fight, and yielded to the angel of death, your friends bear you to your last resting-place, the grave. Yes, it is the last resting-place of us all. You may wander over the wide world, and sigh because the world seems too small to satisfy the desires of your heart; you may dwell in the healthiest clime; you may have wealth and enjoyment, you may live to a green old age; at last, the end of all your travels, and amusements, and honors, shall be the silent grave.
The grave is indeed our true home. Let us then visit it often. It is a spot consecrated to prayer, and love and holy fear. The sunken graves, the moss-grown tombstones, the weather-stained crosses, the withered wreathes, and mouldering bones of the dead, will then speak eloquently to your heart. There you may learn betimes to die to the world and its vanities, to the flesh and its sinful desires. There you will grow more familiar day by day with the earnest thoughts of death, judgment and eternity! Pray often, then, for the souls of the faithful departed, and when you shall go to your last home, tears of love and gratitude will bedew your tomb, and other lips and hearts will breathe that prayer for you: "Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine unto them!"