Living the Works of Mercy

Lara Patangan’s new book, Simple Mercies: How the Works of Mercy Bring Peace and Fulfillment, provides practical, do-able ways to live the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in your family and community.

We have the tendency to think too small when we think about the Works of Mercy – or maybe we’re thinking too big? We look at some of them and think we can’t possibly do things like Visiting the Imprisoned, and that the 42,578th sippy cup of water we’ve just handed to our toddler doesn’t count as Giving Drink to the Thirsty.

The thing is: we don’t have to make a big splash when we do a Work of Mercy. Filling yet another sippy cup, sharing your child’s outgrown but gently-used clothes with a family for their younger children, bringing a plate of cookies to a new neighbor, and praying for the repose of the soul of a friend’s parent might seem like small things to us (the doer) but they have big meaning for the receiver.

A couple of years ago, two close family members had medical crises, one on top of the other. I was spending part of the week helping my parents handle the situation there, more than 100 miles from my own family, where another situation was unfolding. My husband let me know that friends had started just showing up with hot dinners in their hands. That pan of lasagna fed us for a couple of meals so we didn’t have to think about shopping and cooking — and I know that our friends were happy to do this and would say, “Oh, it was nothing.” Truly, it was not nothing. It was a big thing. 

Corporal Works of Mercy

Corporal Works of Mercy are very concrete ways of being a living sign of God’s love in the world, but concrete doesn’t have to be complicated. Consider these ideas to try with your family:

  • If your children are old enough, designate someone to be the server each night, and give them the special task of waiting on others. (Feed the Hungry)
  • Raise money for an organization that provides clean drinking water. (Give Drink to the Thirsty)
  • Encourage your children to get involved by adopting a family at Christmas or donating backpacks at the beginning of a school year. (Clothe the Naked)
  • Collect socks, underwear, and toiletries to help with [the] basic needs [of the homeless]. (Shelter the Homeless)
  • Have [children] make a homemade card, take over the chores of those who don’t feel well, and ask sick family members how they can best comfort them. (Visit the Sick)
  • Visit the homebound, those in nursing homes, and the lonely. (Visit the Imprisoned)
  • Teach your children to attend funerals, send sympathy cards, and make meals for the bereaved. (Bury the Dead)

Spiritual Works of Mercy

Similarly, Lara’s breakdowns of the Spiritual Works of Mercy demonstrate how we can involve our families in living these Works of Mercy in creative ways:

  • Encourage your children to speak up for those who can’t advocate for themselves. (Admonish the Sinner)
  • Do a family Bible study, saint of the week, or watch a religious movie together and discuss it. (Instruct the Ignorant)
  • Demonstrate how you turn to God during difficult times and seek friends who listen with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. (Counsel the Doubtful)
  • Help (family members) facilitate a random act of kindness for someone else that will spread joy to their own heart. (Comfort the Sorrowful)
  • Point out times when (your children) are being patient or someone is being patient with them. (Bear Wrongs Patiently)
  • Teach your children how to make a good apology. (Forgive Injuries)
  • Keep a prayer list for family members’ special intentions. (Pray for the Living and the Dead)

In each chapter of Simple Mercies, Lara begins with a quote that sets the tone for the chapter, then discusses the kinds of opportunities for experiencing a particular Work of Mercy in our own lives, families, work, church and communities. God is never left out of the equation, as Lara frequently references the graces God gives us to carry out works of mercy in His name, with love. Later in each chapter, you’ll find a section titled “Mercy Works: Try It” which lists ideas for applying each Work of Mercy in your family, community, and personal relationship with God. Chapters conclude with reflection questions (perfect for journaling on your own, or for discussion at your book club or parish faith-sharing group), and a concluding prayer.

Lara observes, 

The works of mercy aren’t just another gimmick. They are game-changers. When I tried these works of mercy as an alternative to the creed of the secular world, I found less striving, less busying, less dissatisfaction, less emptiness, and more time for my relationship with God, my family, and the people I love. I found more meaning, more compassion, and more clarity than I’d ever found in anything the world offered. (196-97)

If you want to know how to make small changes in your life that have a big impact on others, read this book.

Simple Mercies is available from Our Sunday Visitor. Download the free study guide with discussion questions you can use on your own or with friends to explore the Works of Mercy in more depth.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Image: Stencil

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On Barb’s Bookshelf: Rosa, Sola by Carmela Martino

Carmela Martino deftly handles the sensitive topic of infant loss in Rosa, Sola, a book for children ages 10 and up.

Rosa wants nothing more than a baby brother of her own. But this is more than simple envy over her best friend’s new baby brother. Rosa is an only child, and in 1960s Chicago, that’s a rarity–and she feels like an outsider among all her friends with their large families. Rosa’s wish comes true, but she blames herself for the tragic events that follow.

It’s easy to forget, or overlook, the impact that the death of an unborn or newborn sibling can have on other children in a family. Rosa, Sola explores all the raw emotions that go along with a family tragedy–in a manner that is merciful, not gratuitous.

Parents will appreciate the classroom discussion guide at the end of the book; it’s also available on the author’s website.

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As I read this very touching novel, I couldn’t help but consider the Year-of-Mercy implications it contains. Rosa, Sola is all about how the Corporal and Spiritual Mercy can be given and received. With that in mind, I asked author Carmela Martino to discuss this topic from her own point of view and that of a few of the characters.

Carmela, this book deals with the sensitive topic of infant loss as seen through the eyes of an older sibling. How do you recommend that parents handle the discussion of this topic with their children?

The original publisher, Candlewick Press, designated Rosa, Sola for ages 8-12. When I speak to parents, I tell them that it’s aimed at ages 9 and up, but add that it does deal with death. My first recommendation is for parents to read the novel themselves before deciding whether it’s appropriate for their child, especially if the child is under age 10. (The book’s a quick read.) I am not a therapist or an expert on the topic of grief, but I am a parent, as well as an aunt to many nieces and nephews, and I’ve seen how unique a child’s reaction to a book can be, no matter the subject. Teen readers have responded more enthusiastically to Rosa, Sola than I expected. One Chicago-area Catholic school added the novel to their sixth-grade curriculum and it led to terrific discussions. At the other end of the spectrum, I was stunned to read a review of Rosa, Sola written by a seven-year-old. I don’t believe my son would have handled the book well at that age. Yet this seven-year-old wrote an amazing review, admitting that Rosa, Sola “was a very sad book and it made me cry,” but also writing about how Rosa’s family “solves problems together and helps together.” The seven-year-old ended the review by saying “I learned that when someone cries about a book it’s a very good book!”

So perhaps a good place for parents to start a discussion of Rosa, Sola would be by having their child write a book review, or by talking about what points the child would include in a review. This could provide insights into which parts of the book made the greatest impression and lead into a discussion of what the book is really about. Parents may be surprised, as I have been, to find how well children pick up on the novel’s deeper themes. In my opinion, Rosa, Sola isn’t so much about death as it is about how love—God’s love and the love of family and friends—can help us through our darkest moments. Father Kevin Shanley, O. Carm., summarized the novel beautifully in his review of the original hardcover edition: “Challenged by the loss of her brother but ultimately bolstered by hope, young Rosa comes to the great understanding that she is never alone, and that love and kinship are often found in the most unexpected places—right in the middle of life itself.”

By the way, parents will find a “Discussion Questions” section in the back of the new edition of Rosa, Sola. For those with the original hardcover edition, the same discussion questions are available on my website.

Let’s talk with a few of the characters about how they gave and received the works of mercy.

Rosa, what do you wish your friends would have said or done for you when you were feeling bad about your baby brother’s death?

I know you’re supposed to say “I’m sorry” when someone dies, but when my best friend AnnaMaria said that to me, all I could think of was how she had a baby brother and I didn’t. That made me cry, and then I felt embarrassed for crying in front of everyone. I think maybe it would have been better if she’d made me a card and mailed it to my house instead, the way Ma had me do for AnnaMaria when her grandpa died. That way, if the card made me cry, no one would see.

But what I really wish is that my friends would treat me the same as before and not be afraid to talk to me or play with me. I know at first I wanted to be left alone, and I’m glad they didn’t bother me then. But later, when I wanted to be around them again, my friends stayed away from me at lunch and recess. I guess they were afraid of making me cry again. I’m so glad we had the spelling bee! After that, everything went back to normal and I didn’t feel strange or different anymore, even though inside I was still sad.

Rosa, what would you have changed about the way your parents and Aunt Ida handled the subject around you?

First thing, I would have had Papa or Uncle Sal tell me the bad news. I didn’t really like Aunt Ida back then, so it made me extra sad when she was the one who told me. She tried to make me feel better, but she didn’t know how to hold me the way Ma did. Then later, I would have had Papa be home more and not spend so much time at the hospital, and for Papa not to ignore me the way he did when he was home. I would have had him talk to me more, and tell me everything was going to be okay. That Ma would be okay. That our family would be okay.

I just thought of something. Maybe Papa didn’t want to cry in front of me, just like I didn’t want to cry in front of my friends. But I think it would have been good if Papa did cry. Uncle Sal had told me it was okay to cry, and after I did, I felt a little better. I think Papa and me crying together would have helped both of us feel better.

Aunt Ida, what was the hardest part about caring for Rosa while Ma was in the hospital?

Oh, those days were so very terrible. I was afraid Francesca might die and leave Rosa motherless. I grew up without a mother and I feared Rosa might have to suffer in the same way. During those terrible days, I tried my best to make Rosa feel safe, to protect her from worry. But what did I know of mothering? I have no memory of my mother and I never had any children of my own. I think the hardest part was hiding how afraid I really was. I had to be strong for Rosa’s sake, even if she thought I was being cruel. Better Rosa hate me than she should worry about her mama, no?

Mrs. Graziano, as a neighbor and family friend, what was the best thing you were able to do for Rosa or her family?

The best thing? I’m not sure. I tried to be there for whatever help the family needed. They needed someone to care for Rosa before and after school—I was there. They needed food to eat—I cooked. Rosa needed someone to tell her worries to—I let her talk. I tried not to ask too many questions. I didn’t want to be nosy. But when Rosa talked, I listened. Not with just my ears. Con il mio cuore—with my heart. Rosa’s words reminded me of some hard, scary times in my own family. So I told Rosa about those times, and about how everything was okay in the end. Maybe, then, the best thing I did was give Rosa hope that everything would be okay for her family, too.

About the author: Carmela Martino (www.carmelamartino.com) is a freelance writer, children’s author, and writing teacher. Her acclaimed children’s novel, Rosa, Sola, which was inspired by her experiences growing up in an Italian-American family, received the Catholic Writer’s Guild Seal of Approval and was named a Booklist Top Ten First Novel for Youth. Carmela’s articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, New Catholic Explorer, and numerous other publications. She blogs about writing and teaching at TeachingAuthors.com (www.teachingauthors.com).

Barb's Book shelf blog title

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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This month I’m joining all the cool kids in the #Write31Days adventure! I didn’t pick a keyword or a theme, because just getting something written for all 31 days is challenge enough for me right now.

#WorthRevisit: French Toast and Mercy

The Year of Mercy is a great time to concentrate on ways we can involve our whole family in acts of mercy toward others. I just finished reading Divine Mercy for Moms, which is all about this topic (and which deserves a real review of its own–coming soon!) And over at CatholicMom.com we’re planning a special summertime feature called “Ordinary Time, Extraordinary Mercy” beginning after Pentecost. So I’ve got mercy on my mind these days.

divine mercy for moms

Here’s a look back at one spring day 11 years ago when my Big Kids (ages 9 and 13 at the time) really stepped up their mercy game.

Photo by annaj (2015) via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.
Photo by annaj (2015) via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

Today one of my neighbors was down with the Flu. This afternoon she came outside with her children (4 1/2 years, and 14 months) and she looked so worn out that I told her to pass the kids over the fence to me and let the kids play here. My Big Kids were helpful with the children, and she got a bit of a nap. Then when she came back out for them, she said that the kids would be eating French toast for dinner.

French toast is Big Brother’s specialty.

I told Big Brother I had a special catering job for him, and sent him inside to make enough French toast for the two little ones. Middle Sister helped him out, cut it all up and put it on plates for the kids.
We passed the children and their dinner back over the fence to their Mommy.

Big Brother bragged about his use of the Secret Ingredient (my guess is, it was cinnamon sugar).

I’m very proud of how my Big Kids were helpful to our neighbor in this way, and without complaining or whining. Good job, Big Kids! I will be sure they are justly rewarded even though (and maybe especially because) they didn’t look for what was in it for them.

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!

Breviary Notes 3/18

Breviary NotesThe Reading for today’s Morning Prayer was Deuteronomy 7: 6, 8-9.

It includes the phrase, “…faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant…”

Merciful.

God’s covenant is merciful.

Of course it is–what else would it be? But I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before! God wants what’s good for us, because He loves us. And that’s what mercy is all about: wanting the good for others.

Today, may we be a sign of mercy in the world in which God has placed us.