Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting the corporal and spiritual works of mercy during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
You’ve seen him lying on the sidewalks. Perhaps it was January, and his skin was ice blue. Or maybe it was August, and he was sunburned red as blood. And he was naked, or almost so.
I don’t need to tell you to care for him, to clothe him. Few sights evoke pity and mercy in us like this one, few sights provoke such a visceral and vehement response. Out of this pity flows a corporal work of mercy: you clothe the naked. It is natural, for the need could not be more obvious and the solution isn’t hard. So what do you do?
Don’t leave him naked.
Yet there is something futile about this work of mercy. Clothe a man today, and tomorrow the fabric will wear through, and the buttons will fall off, and even the buckles will rust away. This work has a character that is somehow unsatisfactory, even a little in vain, because the need it fulfills can only be fulfilled briefly. In the same way feeding a man is an act of charity, of powerful love—but soon he will be hungry again. Every corporal work of mercy has this character, because each cares for the needs of the mortal body, a body that will soon need the last corporal work of mercy.
Thanks be to God, there is more to the story: that mortal body is united to an immortal soul. And the pity you feel looking at a man lacking clothes, the pity evoking mercy, is for the whole person and not merely for the body. So what do you do?
Don’t leave him naked.
Clothe him, but not only his body. Because while many live with their bodies exposed, there are also many that wear the finest cloth while their souls are entirely naked, for the soul should be clothed by holiness and adorned by virtue. You’ve seen him, you know him, a friend or co-worker or family member; while his body is well cared for, his soul is lying by the side of the road, stripped and beaten and senseless. And when you care for his soul, when you see his condition and love him too much to leave him there, you help clothe him with imperishable gifts that can’t be consumed by moth and rust. These spiritual treasures are the treasures that last.
We are prone to separate the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and to divide the Church into those who fulfill social justice and those who evangelize. This tears the human person in two. Men are embodied souls and ensouled bodies, needing both physical and spiritual care. And so when you see your brother in need, when you see him suffering, naked, alone, and unloved, whether his needs are for his body or for his soul, you already know what to do: you have only to carry it out.
Image: John Henry Twachtman, Along the River, Winter