We do not simply just fall deeper and deeper into our faith after our baptism or initial conversion. We are called to keep jumping. We talk of that “leap of faith,” but our reality is one of multiple leaps, every day. Tiny jumps, or steps, even, sometimes just the distance it takes for our feet to go from the bed to the floor. It is that forward motion that keeps us going, that keeps saying that today will be better. Today I will try harder. Today I might fail. But I am still loved.
Despite all of this trouble, this overthinking, the potential for scrupulosity, I must confess: I love Lent. I love the sense of possibility the season implies. I love the symbolism that comes along with it. I love that it compels me to act, to change, to rethink how I am living, in a way that is more purposeful than at any other time of year.
The thing is, it’s easy to imagine yourself doing great works of mercy. It’s easy to have good intentions. What’s difficult is that follow-through, because God didn’t challenge us to commit to the Corporal Works of Mercy for forty days. God challenges us to commit to a lifestyle—and a lifetime—of mercy. And that’s not easy, because maybe in the end, the Works of Mercy aren’t things that can be completed the way one can finish playing a board game or painting a picture. Each act is not an isolated incident, but a part of a process, akin to sweeping the floor. You have to do it regularly or things begin to get messy. They must become habits without becoming mindless. Ultimately, the Works of Mercy point us toward ways in which we can build God’s reign on earth. There’s no guarantee we get to see how it ends, but I know I certainly won’t make progress if I don’t begin.
How many times do I say, with my actions or with my inattention to prayer, I don’t need you, God, the way the unrepentant criminal did, and yet still expect to be treated like the repentant one? I don’t have time for you, God, but hey, remember me anyway. But the thing is, God does. God remembers me. Every day. Even when I don’t deserve it, and perhaps especially when I don’t deserve it.
As I walked from the breadline on my way to Mass, a man standing by a deli asked if I could spare some change for his breakfast. I was caught off guard and muttered, “Sorry, sir,” and looked away. … It bothered me that I didn’t react more charitably. If he’d been in the breadline, I would have smiled and said hello. And yet right down the street I found myself distancing myself from his reality. It is easy to compartmentalize life. To say: “This is when I deal with homeless people, this is when I feed the hungry, and then I am done.” But at the heart of the Corporal Works of Mercy is making yourself available to those in need, even when it isn’t convenient, even when you don’t expect it.
It’s not easy to determine the best ways to act with kindness and mercy. Of course St. Basil the Great, of the fourth century, saw less grey area. He put it quite simply: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”