“Lent isn’t just a self-help season; we’re called to do these things as a part of a community. We’re called to become better people and to love God more, not simply for ourselves, but so that we can begin to love others more, as well.” — Kerry Weber, author, Mercy in the City
Several years ago as she was considering what to practice for Lent, Kerry Weber, a young Catholic woman living in New York City, decided to tackle the “Corporal Works of Mercy” — all seven of them — during the 40 days of Lent. What she did, and how it transformed her life, is the subject of her new book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job. We asked her a few questions about her journey for the Patheos Book Club this month.
What inspired you to write Mercy in the City?
The idea began as I was researching an article about a chaplain who teaches theology classes at San Quentin State Prison. Visiting the imprisoned is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and as I read through the full list, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been as dedicated to these acts as Christ calls us to be. I wanted to do more. And around that time Loyola Press approached me about the possibility of writing a book. Balancing service and sleep and my daily work was something that I was struggling at the time, and I think it’s a pretty universal struggle, so I thought it might be useful for me, and hopefully for readers, to go consider these challenges through the Works of Mercy and through my writing.
What are the Corporal Works of Mercy, and why did you choose to observe them as your Lenten practice?
The seven Corporal Works of Mercy are: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless; Visit the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead. I chose to consider them during Lent, because it is a season that calls us to do more. It calls us to re-examine our lives and it is a jump-start to our spiritual lives. The season is also a finite period of time, which makes the challenge of doing all these works of mercy more difficult, but it also gives me a reason to get started. It can be easy to put off service, especially when we face so many challenges in our daily lives. But doing these acts during Lent meant that I had to be deliberate about them, set deadlines and get going.
Lent calls us to think deliberately about our relationship with God and how we’re going to live that out, how we’re going to strengthen and improve it. But Lent isn’t just a self-help season; we’re called to do these things as a part of a community. We’re called to become better people and to love God more, not simply for ourselves, but so that we can begin to love others more, as well.
Which of the Works of Mercy proved most difficult to observe?
In some ways, visiting the imprisoned was the most difficult, as it took a bit of work to set up the visit and to work through the system. You can’t just casually stop by a prison and say hello. However, once I was there, I was moved by how welcoming everyone was and by how readily many of the men told me, a stranger, about their lives.
What are some of your memorable experiences of “feeding the hungry,” “giving drink to the thirsty” and “visiting the imprisoned.”
I think that my conversation with a gravedigger on a beautiful spring day in the midst of an expansive cemetery still sticks out in my mind. It was very moving, but not in the way I’d expected. It was a good reminder not to try to shape ideas or experiences according to my own thoughts or desires, even when it comes to death. I thought that gravedigging would give him a certain perspective on life—and it had—but it was just different from what I’d imagined it would be. It’s good to be open to having your point of view stretched.
What surprised you most about practicing the Works of Mercy? What was the greatest gift in your experience?
I was most surprised by how energizing they were. I felt very tired at times, but it was that good kind of tired you feel after a day of hard work worth doing. The greatest gift was the reminder to meet people where they are and not to label people before you get to know them. I learned to look at people in need not just as extreme examples of Christ-like figures or criminals, but to just interact with people as they are and to love them for who they are.
You have a great chapter on “Where Not To Find Men” in your book, in which you share some very funny stories about online dating, particularly during Lent. Is having a faith life problematic for dating? How have you navigated sharing your faith as a single young woman in New York City?
Dating in New York as a person of faith has its challenges, but for the most part my experience has been positive. The topic of religion tends to come up pretty early, given that I’m an editor at a Catholic magazine. Generally speaking, people are more intrigued than scared-off when they find out that I am a Catholic. It has led to some really interesting conversations with dates. Most of the time people are interested in discussing how my faith affects my life, even if they don’t share my beliefs. Occasionally, I’ll get a, let’s say, interesting reaction. Like the guy who, when I told him my job, said, “So, you’re religious? So does that mean you have, like, morals and ethics and stuff?” That was our first and last date.
You are a “Mercy Associate” with the Sisters of Mercy in NYC … what does this involve for you?
Being a Mercy associate means, in practical terms, that I have promised to try to live out the Charism of Mercy through community, prayer, and ministry, and with the help of my fellow associates and the Sisters of Mercy. We meet once a month for prayer and discussion and have occasional retreats and days of reflection. The group offers me a chance to grow in Mercy as part of a supportive community; we encourage each other in our efforts to better our world and ourselves.
What does “mercy” mean to you?
The great thing about Mercy is that there are so many ways to live it out. So the way that I choose to try to embody Mercy might be different from your approach, but we can be working toward the same goal. For me, Mercy is a sort of mindset in which I open myself up to being moved by God’s love and give of myself in ways that, hopefully, embody that love.
Early in your book, you say: “Despite all of the trouble, the overthinking, the potential for scrupulosity, I must confess: I love Lent.” What is it about Lent that you love so much?
I really like the sense of possibility that comes along with Lent. There is such hope in the season. It is a good reminder that we can start over with God, with each other. Lent is a wonderful reminder that we always have the chance, with God’s help, to become better than we are—and that we don’t have to walk that path alone. Lent reminds us, of course, that Christ suffered, but also that he overcame death. The season reminds us of the little resurrections in our own lives.
How are you approaching Lent this year? And for those of us who are still discerning how to observe Lent, do you have any suggestions or tips for finding a meaningful practice?
I’m trying to be very deliberate about it. I started thinking about it well ahead of time and have tried to come up with practices that are meaningful and challenging, but also realistic, given the fact that I’ll also be doing a lot of traveling this season. So I knew I needed to be able to do (or not do) these things from anywhere. I decided to give up coffee and tea. I drink one or the other nearly every day, so it will be a definite change in the morning and evening to have that up. I also want to be more deliberate about almsgiving, or donating, during the season. Catholic Relief Services has an awesome app that allows you to keep track of what you’re sacrificing, but also offers prayers and information about people in need. I also plan to try to pray morning and evening prayer each day, in order to better center my days in God.
For more on Mercy in the City – and to read an excerpt – visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Watch our Video Conversation with Kerry Weber here: