by Kerry Weber, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2014, pp.152.
Ash Wednesday usually brushes me with a feeling left over from childhood of mild dismay. My attention is drawn to the meaning of the season, and to the expectation that something is being required of me by way of response. I recall all of those things that I might have tried under the caption “giving it up for Lent,” or perhaps “doing something for Lent,” and I am inundated with the memories of all those things I have tried and never quite carried through. “So goes human nature,” one might say, but others, myself included might say, “You can do better than that.” Perhaps it’s not just a matter of choice but also intentionality: what do I really think I’m doing, and what does it mean in the scheme of things?
In a compelling narrative that is both authentically sincere and frequently humorous, Kerry Weber takes on the daunting task of “doing” the Corporal Works of Mercy, one by one in the course of Lent. Choosing the commitment was definitely not a stunt, nor was it an effort to accumulate “Brownie Points.” Early on, she makes the observation that it is quite possible to turn one’s attention to the list, — the Corporal Works of Mercy, that is, — almost as an academic exercise, and never see the face of Christ in any of the people mentioned. In other words, never truly showing mercy. The effort needs work. It is easy to have good intentions, but what about the follow-through? She observes:
…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….They [the Works of Mercy] must become habits without becoming mindless …There’s no guarantee we get to see how it ends, but I know I won’t make progress if I don’t begin.
First of all, there is the mindfulness one must develop when one faces the challenge of responding to beggars on the street, to homeless people. If one has become accustomed to passing by with eyes averted, or with no notice at all, where is the meaningful response? Kerry maintains that lack of action could be an injustice. So she takes on several tasks: Handing out sandwiches early in the morning on the St. Francis Breadline; clearing out her “clutter” of clothes (and encouraging her friends to do the same) for the sake of the thrift shop; helping overnight in the men’s shelter In St. Francis Xavier Church. The list is formidable, and she has a day job: she is on the editorial board of America Magazine. And in the meantime, she meets and interacts with people she had scarcely noticed before nor thought to engage in conversation.
A charming choice of style begins each chapter, moving the reader from one lively experience to the next. I was particularly taken with Chapter 16: In Which I Spend St. Patrick’s Day Surrounded by Water. Giving drink to the thirsty takes on multiple levels of meaning in the context of the ecological ramifications of water, — its availability and its scarcity on this planet; its significance as a cleansing and life-giving force; its meaning to the Samaritan Woman at the well, and its use in the Sacrament of Baptism. The scope of her mindfulness here is laced with the author’s own sense of gratitude for something one might take for granted. And the irony of focusing on water on St. Patrick’s Day is not missing.
While she continues with tenacity to pry open other opportunities for showing mercy, — visiting San Quentin Prison is among the more remarkable, — she comes to realize not only that each Work of Mercy does not appear in isolation, but also that very often an opportunity will surface in an unexpected and unsensational way, — visiting the sick, for example, in one’s own immediate family. Moreover, the one in need of this or that form of mercy may very well be the one who is there quietly offering the same gift to you. The life-affirming offering of mercy follows through to her joyous experience of Easter, and we are aware, that once having received that gift, it is not likely to disappear. Her choice for Lent was a blessed one.
Maureen F, McDermott