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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The Simple Mercy of Intercessory Prayer

I was privileged this week to help my friend, Catholic Mom contributing author Lara Patangan, introduce her beautiful new book, Simple Mercies: How the Works of Mercy Bring Peace and Fulfillment, coming next week from Our Sunday Visitor!

I’ll be sharing more about this book soon. It’s not a long book, and it’s not at all a difficult read, but there’s just so much in there to ponder! Lara makes it easy to live the works of mercy – and shows us how we already do live those works of mercy in our everyday lives.

Simple Mercies book cover

When Lara asked me to write about intercessory prayer as a work of mercy, I immediately agreed and asked about my deadline for the piece, which turned out to be two weeks. She had it back in two hours, because it turned out that I couldn’t get anything else done until I’d written down my thoughts about this.

During a crisis, many people find that they have a hard time praying. They know they need the prayers, but they feel like God is far away or not listening – or maybe they haven’t connected with God in a while. When someone comes to you and asks for prayer, that is an act of great trust both in you and in God. This is a work of mercy that costs you very little but means so very much to others. By praying for someone in need, you are shouldering their burden right along with them.

Read the rest over at Mercy Me!


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

There are no coincidences around here

Sometimes things unfold in just the perfect way, with connections made between seemingly unrelated events: there’s no other way to explain it except to acknowledge that God has put it all together, and even made some small good come out of something that started out bad.

Here’s the story.

I spent some time this weekend at an event where it became increasingly clear throughout the day that the only people welcome and the only ones whose voices would be heard were the ones who espoused a politically correct point of view (one I do not share.) Such an attitude was patently out of place, given the kind of event it was. The implicit message that I did not belong at that event because of my views was very upsetting to me.

Afterward, I reached out to a few trusted friends to ask about how I should respond to what happened. It’s certainly not an event I intend to revisit, but it’s one I’m expected to attend. Slowly, a plan began to take shape, and I felt peace about that.

On Sunday, I saw one of our deacons at Mass; he’d missed daily Mass all week (very uncharacteristic for him) so I asked if he was OK. He replied that he’d been suffering from a back problem. I figured he must have been in considerable pain, and wished him well.

Yesterday that same deacon was back at daily Mass. He normally proclaims the Gospel rather slowly and very clearly. But he was reading more slowly than usual, and it seemed like he was slurring his words a bit. (I figured he might be taking a new pain medication, and hoped he wasn’t driving if he wasn’t used to it yet.)

At the end of Mass, he couldn’t get up the aisle to leave the church without assistance. Again, I figured it must have been his back injury. Since he had a few people helping him, I continued on my way.

One of the friends whom I’d been in touch with about the weekend stopped me on my way out the door to talk about what had happened. We chatted for about ten minutes, then noticed that there was an ambulance at the other door, figured it was for the deacon, and went back into the church.

Our pastor said that the deacon’s blood sugar was very low, and that he’d eaten a candy bar and had some water.

“Candy bars are no good,” I replied. “The fat in the candy makes it slow to absorb. He needs juice first. I have some in the car.”

(Have teen with diabetes, will travel. I keep a lunchbox in my car, filled with a juice box, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, and fruit rollups or Smarties. Emergency sugar, with and without fat.)

I ran to the car and got the lunchbox, and gave the Capri Sun that was inside to the EMTs. Then we all waited some more. When the EMTs came out of the sacristy looking for milk or peanut butter, I handed them the whole lunchbox so they could take what the deacon needed. Finally, they decided he was OK to go home (with someone else driving).

The rest of us all continued on our way.

This doesn’t make what I went through over the weekend any better, but there is comfort that something good — even something little — came out of it.

PSA, since it’s National Diabetes Awareness Month:

Signs of low blood sugar

TL; DR: if I hadn’t had that bad experience over the weekend, I wouldn’t have been around Monday to help.

… all things work for good for those who love God. (Romans 8:28)


Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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.

rosasola_cvr_lrg-1800-x-2700

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.

Feeding the Hungry (and Allergic)

To the mom who was so apologetic about mentioning her daughter’s dairy allergy to me at dinner the other day:

Do not feel as if it is an imposition on me to tell me what I need to know in order to safely feed your daughter.

With a bit of advance notice and an opportunity to bounce ideas around with you, I can come up with safe alternatives. I don’t want you to have to feel like you need to send “special food” with her wherever she goes. (Or, at the very least, when she comes to dinner with us.)

tomato pieIt is both a corporal AND spiritual work of mercy to honor someone’s medical dietary needs.

The corporal part is obvious. I think the spiritual part falls under the category of “comforting the sorrowful.”

When your child has special dietary needs, it’s tough on parents. By comparison, I have it “easy” with a diabetic. We just need nutrition labels and insulin. It’s not that he can’t have something.

I get a lot of “what can he have?” from people who don’t know how diabetes works. That is an opportunity to gently educate (“instruct the ignorant” in a way). I do know that the people who ask me this question are acting on a generous impulse, and I appreciate it. I appreciate even more when they ask first, rather than investing in expensive special foods like sugar-free candies, which are much less diabetic-friendly than people think.

So when I ask what your child can have, I intend to provide that. She’s singled out enough. You have to bring special food for her most, if not all, of the time. I wouldn’t offer to find something that works for her if I wouldn’t gladly do it. I am happy to find a way for her to enjoy the meal that all her friends will be sharing.

(And don’t worry–I left out the Parmesan on the tomato pie.)