A New York-based Catholic editor says her experience with the corporal works of mercy two Lenten seasons ago transformed her understanding of charity and service.
Kerry Weber, managing editor of America Magazine, documents her experiences in her newly published book “Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job” (Loyola Press).
In an interview with CNA, Weber recounted when Lent in 2012 was fast approaching and her typical Lenten sacrifice of sweets proved less than challenging.
“I was kind of doing the same Lenten sacrifice every year,” she explained. “As much as I would like to think that I was very spiritually advanced at the age of 12, and that I had perfected Lent and my sacrifice, I highly doubted that that was the case.”
Weber thought that “maybe as I grew and changed in my faith, I should try to grow and change in the way I live that faith out.”
Around that time, she was beginning research for an article on prison ministry at San Quentin State Prison in California. Eventually, her research led her to a list of the Catholic Church's corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and so on.
“It seems like such a simple list,” Weber said, describing her feelings upon rediscovering the corporal works of mercy. “But, I realized I hadn’t really been doing any of them lately.”
Weber then set out to complete all seven of the corporal works of mercy within that Lenten season.
“I wanted to challenge myself to really try to live out both the active and contemplative elements of the season as best I could.”
Of all of her experiences that Lenten season, Weber says her visit to inmates at San Quentin was the most striking because “the line between their lives and mine was much thinner than I'd thought.”
“I was struck by how ordinary our conversations were, by how welcoming they were,” Weber reflected. “I was more conscious of our shared humanity and how much more we had in common than I'd realized.”
“As I left, I said to the chaplain that it didn't seem like these men were capable of doing the horrible things they'd been imprisoned for. And the chaplain said something like, ‘We're all capable of such things’.”
Along with her prison visit, Weber’s acts of mercy included working an overnight shift at a local homeless shelter, handing out water to runners in the NYC half-marathon and visiting a retirement home in Queens for retired Sisters of Mercy.
Weber recalled that the biggest challenge that Lenten season was balancing her time.
“I’m not a morning person and a lot of these challenges took place in the morning, or in order to fit them in I had to rearrange my day and my schedule to make it work.”
“I found that challenging, but also invigorating because it was filling my day with really good things: things that nourished me,” she said.
Weber went on to describe how the experience taught her not only to stretch her time, but also her heart.
“Sometimes we equate the amount of time in our day with the capacity to love in some ways,” she said. “I only have so much time for other people and therefore I only have so much love to give, or so much that I can give of myself. But, it’s not a direct correlation.”
This realization also affected Weber’s understanding of mercy. She told CNA that her Lenten experience revealed that mercy is not a single act, but a lifestyle.
“I think mercy, at its core, is a kind of accompanying. It’s being beside someone. It’s being present to someone. I think that’s part of what we’re called to do as compassionate Christians; to suffer with, to put ourselves into the shoes of another, to consider the experience of another and to accompany each other on this journey through good and bad.”
Weber says trying to fulfill all seven corporal works of mercy in one Lent is likely not feasible for everyone. But, she says a lifestyle of mercy is not only realistic, but also required in the life of every Christian.
“It’s a process that we have to participate in throughout our lives,” Weber said. “And we live out that Gospel call imperfectly all the time, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.”
“Being able to start over, to continue on that journey doing the best we can is part of accepting God’s mercy in our lives, as well as trying to live it out in the lives of others.”