Much of the moral life depends on the proper use of words and the manner of speech. What one says and what does not say make a difference in all human relationships. Without sacrificing truth or integrity, a person can speak the truth with gentleness, kindness, and civility instead of with harshness, coarseness, or insensitivity. Living the moral life also requires that all persons express gratitude, pay compliments, and offer praise to the deserving rather than remain silent or indifferent to these obligations. In The Proverbs Explained (EWTN Publishing, 2017), Father Mitch Pacwa cites the following passage to provide the moral standard of speaking: “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:11). In explaining the life-giving nature of words that inspire, console, illuminate, encourage, and lift the heart and soul, he continues with this penetrating observation: the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy all depend on the nature of speech that breathes life and hope into the lives of the afflicted.
The first spiritual work of mercy is to instruct the ignorant. Speaking the truth, however, requires more than authoritative pronouncements, severe disapproval, or prideful condescension. Without speech that conveys charity and courtesy, the words that communicate knowledge lose their power and attractiveness and do not result in any good work. As St. Paul writes in his famous letter on love, “Love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude” (I Corinthians 13: 4). St. Francis de Sales also speaks of this matter, explaining that “when condemning a vice to spare as far as possible the person in whom it is found.” He adds, “Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, unaffected, and honest,” qualifying his statement with the admonition that, although deception is never justified, “it is not always advisable to say all that is true.” Thus the right tone, manner, selection of words, and tact make the teaching of the ignorant a work of mercy. Cruel, callous words that insult, demean, or ridicule the person only violate the dignity of the ignorant.
The second spiritual work of mercy is to counsel the doubtful. Instilling hope in God’s Providence, relieving anxiety about the future, removing foolish fears of unlikely disaster, and offering prudent advice to dispel procrastination or scrupulosity change a doubtful person’s entire outlook into one of trust and confidence in God’s goodness. Often married couples may delay having children or become hesitant about having another baby because of uncertainties about economic security and affordability. Many unwed mothers who do not wish to abort their child let their doubts to provide and care for the baby rule their decision. Those whose minds and hearts convince them of the Catholic Church as the one true church founded by Christ let their doubts and fears about the social or professional consequences of their decision delay this important choice. In these situations, theological arguments and acrimonious debates do not make the critical difference between doubt and trust. Simple sincere words like “You will never be sorry for having another child because of the gift of joy it brings into your life, but some day you may regret not having another child for lack of trust.” To paraphrase Cardinal Newman, a thousand difficulties do not make a single doubt—words that always counsel the doubtful.
The third spiritual work of mercy is to admonish the sinner. Without a hint of self-righteousness, priggishness, or spiritual pride in one’s own perfection, a moral person can move others to correct their faults by an act of friendship, by a mark of disapproval, by an appeal to conscience, or by a reminder that those who love and admire him would never approve or would feel ashamed to know of these misdeeds. An appeal to honor or reputation rather than harsh censure often makes all the difference in converting the sinner. “Go and sin no more,” Christ’s words to the woman in adultery, were not words of denunciation but balm for the soul. In the Confessions, St. Augustine shows amazement at the way he cured his friend Alypius’ compulsive habit of watching the gladiatorial contests of the Roman circus, an uncontrollable thirst for violence he found irresistible. Augustine confesses, “I had no thought of curing Alypius of this disease,” but during one of his classes as a professor of rhetoric Augustine saw his friend in attendance and used the example of the gladiatorial games to explain a passage from literature “to make my point clearer and more amusing, and I could combine it with some bitter sarcasm at the expense of those who were the prey of this kind of madness.” Indirectly Augustine effected the cure even though he was not intentionally thinking of Alypius when he made an allusion to the Circus in class: “all the filth of the Circus fell off and he never went there again.” There are many ways to admonish the sinner without resorting to insult, condemnation, or mockery.
The fourth work of mercy is to bear wrongs patiently. Words that move others to forbearance and tolerance of the weaknesses and imperfections of others eliminate much strife and promote harmony in family life and social relations. In The Imitation of Christ Thomas a Kempis explains that no one escapes the crosses and tribulations of life. The only relief from these hardships is the virtue of patience that ultimately brings God’s comfort: “The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you . . . . Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross. And everywhere you must have patience, if you wish to attain inner peace, and win an eternal crown.” What medications, drugs, self-help books, and counseling often do not solve, patience achieves. Loving advice that acknowledges the inevitability of the cross and imparts the counsel of patience—an aspect of fortitude– as the answer to the strange vicissitudes of fickle Fortune’s wheel offers words of potent medicine to console and calm the troubled spirit and to bring stability in a topsy-turvy world filled with many injustices and sufferings.
Another spiritual work of mercy is to forgive sins willingly. To harbor grudges and resentments by silence, aloofness, and coldness, though it does not injure with violent words, fails to be “the fountain of life” that heals, reconciles, and renews broken friendships and unions. As Robert Frost writes in “Fire and Ice,” though some predict the world will end in fire and others foresee ice, “I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” When animosity turns to deadly silence and the unwillingness to forgive and forget with kind words, the medicine of mercy that gentle speech expresses has no effect. Likewise, the spiritual work of comforting the afflicted also depends on the spoken and written word for healing. The consoling words written by Cardinal Newman to a grieving friend mourning for the death of his beloved wife show the depths of one heart touching another heart that only heartfelt words can communicate:
“You are called to trouble as we all are, and the severer the more God loves you . . . . if in His great wisdom and love He take away the desire of your eyes, it will only be to bring her really nearer to you. For those we love are not nearest to us when in the flesh, but they come into our very hearts as being spiritual beings, when they are removed from us.”
The final work of mercy is to pray for both the living and the dead. St. Augustine attributes his conversion to the holy life and devout prayers of his mother Monica. During the nine years he embraced the heresy of Manichaeism (“I wallowed in the mud of the pit”), Monica “never slackened in her weeping and lamentations, never ceased in all hours of her prayer to weep to you about me . . . .” The beseeching cries of a loving mother who never ceased in her petitions not only inspired a priest to reassure Monica, “As you live it is impossible that the son of these prayers should perish” but also later moved Augustine to thank God for this great gift of spiritual mercy: “. . . and you, Lord, heard her prayer. You heard her and you did not despise her tears which fell streaming and watered the ground in every place where she prayed.”
Likewise, as Dante shows in his travel to Purgatory in The Divine Comedy, many souls punished for the seven deadly sins petition Dante for intercessory prayers to hasten their release. As the spiritual realm that represents God’s mercy. Purgatory allows the repentant dead to atone for the sins that still require punishment and to benefit from the prayers of all who love them. On the circle of the wrathful Marco Lombardo pleads with Dante, “I pray you to pray for me when you’re above,” and Dante makes the promise to perform this spiritual work of mercy: “I pledge my faith to you to do what you have asked.” These prayers for the living and for the dead are composed of words that are “a fountain of life” that convert the lost, save the suffering, and touch God’s merciful heart.
Words can heal or destroy, accomplish God’s mercy in the world or perform the works of Satan; serve as medicine or poison; rescue souls from ignorance, sadness, doubt, punishment, and despair or lead them into temptation. Words are intended to be as life-giving as a refreshing fountain and food for the soul, but words or silence can be as callous, cold, and heartless as a land of ice and devoid of all feeling, charity, and kindness. Without the warm feelings of the human heart, man cannot perform the seven works of mercy that are not mere dutiful acts of obligation but one human heart speaking to another human heart: “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart).