The Works of Mercy: An Antidote to the Mercilessness of the Day

“With the passing years, I have come to see our work of hospitality at the Catholic Worker – this doing the works of mercy – as an ever-available antidote to despair, a practical pushback against the mercilessness of the day. A welcoming cup of coffee and pot of soup are tools for defying the trench mentality that sets in when belief in goodness wanes.” Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a member of SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Massachusetts, reflects on the Works of Mercy in a talk she gave at the 2022 Catholic Worker Gathering.

What follows are Claire Schaeffer-Duffy’s notes for the talk she gave on the Works of Mercy during the morning plenary of the Catholic Worker Gathering at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, USA, on October 22, 2022.

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Cover art: Sarah Fuller

Trying to describe the Catholic Worker succinctly is a challenge for anyone who has spent time in this movement. Peter Maurin’s pithy quote comes to mind: We are working to create a society where it is easier for people to be good. Such a seemingly simple mission. The how of it is what we want to think about today. 

Any quick look around at the world today reveals that the good society is not happening. Earlier this month, a grandmother of ten crab-walked her way down the muddy slopes of a pass in Panama, a diapered toddler wedged between her knees. The two were among the nearly six million people who fled the collapsed state of Venezuela since 2015. We have war in Ukraine. Severe political polarization here at home. . . In many respects, the Catholic Worker as a radical, revolutionary movement is a failure. Society is not that good. 

And yet here we are, nearly ninety years out, proclaiming the value of ancient Christian charisms – the works of mercy, pacifism, and farming. These are what we want to reflect on collectively this morning. 

When I read Matthew 25 as a young woman, I heard it as instructions for my personal salvation. Do these acts of charity for others, and you, Claire, have a chance at getting into Heaven and bypassing Hell. These days, after years of being a mother and now grandmother, I am appreciating the deeply practical theology offered here. I have begun to think about this passage as directives from Jesus delivered in anticipation of his bodily departure from Earth – written in the same tone as a to-do list that a parent (usually the mom) might write before going away on a trip: Don’t forget to water the garden, feed the cat, pick your sister up from school. Anyone who has raised children, or nursed the sick and dying knows that life, in its beginning and end, boils down to the elemental – getting the infant to suckle, spooning the food into your dying mother’s mouth. 

How astonishing that these basic acts of care are sacramental: they are the means by which we encounter God.

So now when I hear the works of mercy recounted, I think how thoughtful of Jesus to remind us to provide the basics for one another (It’s kinda obvious after all, isn’t it? When someone’s is thirsty, give ‘em a drink. Hungry, feed them.) More importantly, how astonishing that these basic acts of care are sacramental: they are the means by which we encounter God. Do these and enter the Kingdom of Heaven which begins now, if we have eyes to see. 

Isn’t this what happened to Mary when she went to bury Jesus? After witnessing all that repression and oppression – the sham trial, the bloodlust of the mob, the horror of the crucifixion, I imagine her waking up – maybe she didn’t sleep – and thinking, “Well. . . where can we bury him whom we loved.” And in that practical act of affection, she discovers the Resurrection. She encounters the God of Endless Love whom death cannot destroy. She discovers the Resurrection. 

But we at the Catholic Worker are trying to change the social order, to be revolutionary, and are never content with personal salvation. For years, I kept a card above the kitchen sink that had a photo of Peter Maurin and a quote from him quoting some saint reminding us that if we make it up to heaven, the question God will ask is, “Where are all the others?” We cannot get to Heaven alone. 

So much violence in the world is made possible by disregard, our inability or refusal to see and understand each other. More often than not, this disregard takes the form of a passive indifference that renders entire categories of people invisible to our view – the imprisoned, the tortured, the civilians we bomb in war, inner-city youth dying from gun violence, the list goes on and on. In times of acute violence, like war, we aggressively dehumanize those designated as our enemy. Germans were “krauts,” the North Vietnamese “gooks,” the Iraqis, “towel heads.” 

This de-personalization is necessary because most human beings find it difficult to kill people who are like themselves, towards whom they feel empathy. 

Practicing the works of mercy lessens the distance between “us” and “them,” – and there are so many “usses” and “thems” – and does so organically.

Practicing the works of mercy lessens the distance between “us” and “them,” – and there are so many “usses” and “thems” – and does so organically. A home-cooked meal is a tradition at our Catholic Worker house. The first piece of furniture you see when you enter is the kitchen table, old and marred with many scratches. The meal is a great equalizer (everyone needs to eat) and a place of unusual yet natural communions. Over the years, people from all walks of life have found a seat at our table – the addicted, the undocumented, the mentally ill, battered women, abandoned youth, stranded travelers, released prisoners, veterans of wars we opposed, and war refugees. Artists, writers, activists, and filmmakers have also sat among us. 

I often liken my life at the Catholic Worker to a long, crowded bus ride. The passengers getting on and off the bus argue over the volume of the cell phones and whether or not to open or close the window. Some comment on the passing view. Like travelers everywhere, they talk about their lives with that intimacy unique to strangers briefly sojourning together. The bus is rich with stories and revelations. I know all of you here today have many to tell. 

I will just share one with you this morning. Among our most intriguing guests on Mason Street was M. the former head of the Savak, the notorious Iranian police operating during the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah. Estranged from his family and recovering from a back injury, M had been sleeping in his Mercedes Benz parked in the lot of a local hospital, until a social worker called us on his behalf. Savak was reputedly the most hated and feared institution in Iran under the Shah because of its practice of torturing and executing his opponents.

M. knew nothing of our pacifist politics and opposition to repression. Had our histories and life circumstances been different, we might easily have been inmates in one of his dreaded prisons. But that winter, he was a man in need of shelter and we had a warm bed to offer. He often marveled at our hospitality, considered a sacred duty in his own Islamic culture. Because we had “broken bread and shared salt” with him, as he put it, he insisted on cooking us an elaborate Persian meal the week before he drove off to California to re-unite with his son. For years afterwards, he sent a card every Christmas.

Some may confuse the intimacy of our hospitality with permissiveness. We know full well there are no “holy souls” at the Catholic Worker. Yet practicing the works of mercy give the opportunity to strengthen our ability to trust. And this trust, not to be confused with naïve cluelessness about the world, and its people, is an essential attitude for the nonviolent life. To live in peace, without desiring or tolerating harm to, requires resisting the suspicion and bitterness that shrinks the heart and impedes love.

A welcoming cup of coffee and pot of soup are tools for defying the trench mentality that sets in when belief in goodness wanes.

With the passing years, I have come to see our work of hospitality at the Catholic Worker – this doing the works of mercy – as an ever-available antidote to despair, a practical pushback against the mercilessness of the day. A welcoming cup of coffee and pot of soup are tools for defying the trench mentality that sets in when belief in goodness wanes. It is a preponderance of violence that depletes hope. The enormity of the world’s nuclear arsenal, the ferocity and speed of war’s destruction, the persistent exploitation of the earth and its people convey the message peace is not possible. Human life is not sacred. The media amplifies this negation, giving the impression that harm and killing outpace kindness and redemption. Best to jump into bed and cover my head, I sometimes think. Then the phone rings. Can we take in a refugee from Chad? At the supper table, I sit across from a person whose life story exemplifies resilience and courage. (How many guests have taught me courage?) I read of Catholic Workers in New York organizing against the deployment of drones to Afghanistan and of another community’s joy in their shared life with the Maori of New Zealand. 

And I take heart. 

“We don’t walk past the world and its problems. The world comes in with its problems and sits down for a cup of coffee and a word of consolation,” wrote Catholic Worker Karl Meyer of his years offering hospitality to Chicago’s homeless. We who serve the coffee are also consoled.


Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a founding member of SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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