At a series of talks on mysticism yesterday, we heard about the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy. These are:
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit the imprisoned
- Bury the dead
As they were enumerated, I felt my soul settle, because for the last few months we’ve been in this storm of opposing opinion about the migrants and refugees, divided between those who say we should take them on board and those who say that, if we do, we’ll all drown. Emotionally I was drawn to the ‘take them in’ movement; rationally I could appreciate the other point of view. Hearing the Seven Acts of Mercy, however, resolved the conflict. And made one feel rather proud of Christianity.
The list derives from chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
That is the source of the first six acts. The seventh, to bury the dead, is derived from the Book of Tobit.
In these days of cynicism, a point of view which, projected back into the past, gives us a view of a Church eternally corrupt, it is comforting to think that some early medieval monks or, perhaps, desert fathers, drew up this list as a guide for us to live by.
‘How did we forget this?’ someone asked me in astonishment in a coffee break. Two answers to that. One is the Reformation, for the Seven Acts of Mercy have not been forgotten by Catholics. The other is that we haven’t forgotten. Food banks feed the hungry, Oxfam et al clothe the naked, and other charities look after the sick and imprisoned. No one should go thirsty, at least not in this country, and the local authorities bury those too impoverished to see to their own funerals.* As a Christian society, these things are more or less covered. But the memory of the text from Matthew, which reminds us of the divine soul of all beings, should not be lost by the individual. It makes right action so much more obvious.
- I just looked into this and found my optimism to be misguided. See The Daily Mail’s article from last December on funeral debt. Further investigation showed that the homeless dead are given ‘public health funerals’ – burials of up to four people in unmarked graves. Burial (or cremation) of paupers and the lonely, which the Beatles highlighted in their song Eleanor Rigby, remains a pressing issue in our society.