Reviewed by Jessica Mesman Griffith
The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are among the many lists and prayers I memorized as a child. I still remember the St. Joseph’s picture book with the children carrying the groceries of an elderly man, Jesus hovering above them approvingly. The hymn we sang in Catholic school, “Whatsoever You Do To the Least of My People,” conjures up the feeling of a scratchy polyester pleated skirt and the smell of paste and mimeographed coloring sheets of Mary. For years the works of mercy existed for me only as poetry, another bit of nostalgia for a Catholic girlhood.
Now, as a mother of young children, I perform corporal works—those relating to the care of the physical body—around the clock. My entire life is devoted to nurturing other people’s bodies, often at the expense of my own. I’m writing this after nursing my entire family through the stomach flu, so my feelings of exhaustion and self-neglect are particularly acute.
I can’t imagine finding more time, money, or energy to see to the needs of those beyond my own roof. And yet I always feel I should be doing more (that vague imperative) to help the less fortunate (another vagary, a crowd too big and faceless to imagine.)
Kerry Weber, the author of Mercy in the City, is not a mother of young children, so she doesn’t have as many obvious opportunities in a day to deny her own comfort for the sake of another and thus to let herself off the hook for this Christian imperative. She’s a young, single, busy New Yorker and an editor at America Magazine, and she knew she could do more. So she committed to forty days of practicing the corporal works of mercy as a Lenten discipline.
Weber’s mercy casts a wide net—in one chapter she gives drink to the thirsty at a Central Park foot race and in another she visits the imprisoned on death row at San Quentin. But each work proves transformative. We discover at her side that the distance between us and those who need us is really not so great.
“The men are on death row because they did horrible crimes,” the prison chaplain tells her. “But…there are other dimensions to them besides that…They are still human beings who did these things. They are not the crime.” What separates a sweet Midwestern Catholic girl—Weber—from and an inmate on death row in San Quentin? “A different family” and “a few wrong choices.”
In one of the book’s most moving passages, the chaplain describes for Weber giving the sign of peace during a prison Mass:
“They have slots in each cage, he tells me, and when they do the sign of peace, they can reach out to each other. One time an inmate held up his fingertip to a tiny hole in the grate. Fr. Williams placed his hand against the grate as well. ‘It really sums up the whole thing. You have this human being reaching through a cage to touch another human being within a bigger cage, within a prison.’”
Weber reveals throughout her book that what is often most meaningful to another human being is not the coat or the sandwich we give but the look and the touch. What is transformative is being seen, really seen, as a person. When we come into communion with each other, giving and receiving, the mercy runs both ways.
“There are so many ways to say yes,” she writes. “Mercy is not something we bestow from on high in a sort of grand gesture, but rather something much quieter, more humble. It is an invitation, an openness, a kind of accompanying.”
This I can do—keep my eyes open, look for more ways to say yes.
Jessica Mesman Griffith is the author of “Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters” and a regular contributor to Good Letters, The Image blog.