There’s a challenge that has gone viral on Facebook called, “Forty Bags in Forty Days.” It intentionally coincides with the 40 days of Lent, promising to organize one’s life by getting rid of the stuff that gathers throughout our homes, seemingly by its own volition. Millions of people are taking part in this challenge; yearning for the simplicity it will bring. It is no surprise that this secular de-clutter so easily co-opts the Sacred Spiritual exercise of the Lenten fast. After all, don’t we tend to use Lent as a personal make over?
“When you fasted and lamented, was it really for God?” asks the prophet Zechariah. God answers with a reminder that we are called to be merciful, not to give up candy and wine. “Judge with true justice, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor; do not plot evil against one another in your hearts.” We have heard this admonishment in every way throughout our Salvation history. Thomas Merton said that God is mercy within mercy within mercy, and God is asking us to give ourselves a makeover into God’s Own image.
Mercy is part of our Spiritual DNA, so it should be a natural movement to go from doing merciful acts to being mercy itself. Lent is a good way to start that transformation so it will last beyond the 40 days. Although we may have limited mercy to extraordinary “works,” the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are more than a to-do list in order to get into Heaven. We perform these acts with the best intentions of taking care of the people whose welfare has been entrusted to us by God.
But God wants more than our good works. Kerry Weber wrote in her book, “Mercy in the City,” “It’s easy to have good intentions. What’s difficult is the follow-through, because God didn’t challenge us to the Corporal Works of Mercy for 40 days. God challenges us to a lifestyle — and lifetime — of mercy.” The challenge is not adding these acts of mercy to our lives, but transforming our everyday actions into works of mercy.
Deep in the roots of the Corporal Works of Mercy is the need to be aware of the physical needs of those around us. The hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned are all in need of our care, and our contribution to the Church’s tradition of social justice has far reaching impact. But we can also give meaning to the everyday acts of care that we give to those we love. This is where mercy becomes a part of who we are, not just what we do.
The mundane acts of providing for our families can be an occasion for reflection on the call to take care of the corporal needs of the ones we love. It is the intention that we mix into the recipe that transforms the act of preparing a meal into an act of mercy. Mercy is the spice that makes the food we give to our family an act of love. Mercy transforms a cup of coffee with a lonely friend into an encounter with the Christ within each of us. Mercy is the fashion that adorns the dressing of the little baby, or the aging parent. Mercy brings comfort to the friend trapped in the prison of addiction.
The Spiritual and Corporal Works were given to us so that we would always know that we are not alone on this journey through life. This is why we were advised to free the sinner from the danger of going down the wrong path. We must always forgive those who have wronged us, and bear wrongs patiently. We need these people with us on the journey; no one can be left behind. We can also find ways to think outside of the usual box of fasts to be creative mercy-givers.
The Ignatian Spirituality website suggests that we “choose something to create: a recipe, a sculpture, a model airplane, a poem, a painting, a birdhouse, a film, or something that draws on your talents. Give your creation to someone you love and tell him or her why you did it. Do everything you can to make the gift beautiful and remarkable so that the person understands that you gave your best effort on his or her behalf.”
As we enter into the final weeks of Lent we can look at our life through mercy-colored lenses. Even though Lent is a time to go deep inside ourselves to find God within, the more we connect with others, the closer we are drawn into God. There are so many interesting ways in which we can re-make our fast, transform our almsgiving, and energize our prayer. While we fill those 40 bags of junk this Lent with all the mess that clutters our lives, let’s make room for the people who will enrich our journey.
Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation.