Following is my interview with Mark Shea, author of The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ. I reviewed Mark’s book in my March Catholic Post column. This Q&A is a shorter version of a far-ranging phone conversation we had about his book and his writing. Thanks, Mark, for being so willing to talk with me, and for your great book!
Q. Please tell Catholic Post readers a little more about yourself and your work.
I’m an author of a number of books, most recently The Work of Mercy. I’ve also written a book called By What Authority? among others. I write a lot for the Catholic press. I have a blog that I write for the Patheos and the National Catholic Register. I’m a convert to the faith, and was received into the Church in 1987.
How I started writing books is interesting. I was confirmed in December 1987. The following month a friend of mine told me he didn’t believe in the Real Presence. I sat down and started a letter to the author Peter Kreeft (philosophy (we had corresponded when I had been coming into the Church) , trying to articulate why I did believe in the Real Presence. The letter got bigger & bigger, and by the time I was done, 10 months later, it was the script of my book, This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. I’ve always chalked up the explosion of my writing to the sacrament of Confirmation.
Q. Why a book on the works of the mercy?
I hadn’t seen one in awhile, and it seemed to me that reacquainting the modern audience was a good idea since the works of mercy are essential to our salvation. They go right back to Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats, in which what’s make or break for both the sheep and the goats is the works of mercy—how did you treats the least of these. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was hungry and you didn’t give me something to eat.” That’s what that parable is all about.
Archbishop Chaput is speaking gospel truth when he warns us very bluntly
“If you neglect the poor, you will go to hell.” That’s why a book on the works of mercy.
Still, our response to the works of mercy is left up to our prudence; there’s guidance from the church, but how you live out the works of mercy is left up to the person.
There are basically two classes of the works of mercy that the church has teased out of tradition.
First, the corporal works of mercy (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, ransom the captive, visit the sick, bury the dead). Those are addressed to the fact that yes, we are spiritual beings, but we are also bodily creatures, so our bodily needs matter.
The reason a body matters is because a). the body is the creation of God and b). God himself has taken on a body in the Incarnation of Jesus. He’s become human. Our humanity really matters. It was through the body that our salvation was won. It was through Jesus’ very physical, very graphic, very bloody crucifixion and his bodily resurrection that our salvation was won. And so the body really matters in the Catholic tradition.
In addition to that, there are also the spiritual works of mercy, such as instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving wrongs, praying for the living and the dead. These works of mercy are addressed to the fact that we are not just bodily creatures– we are more than cows. Our concern is more than just getting our three square meals a day and keeping our belly full. As Jesus says, man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Both of these classes of works of mercy are essential in the Catholic life. That’s what my book is attempting to do—bring out the fullness of what those works of mercy mean.
They all have a spiritual application as well. So when we speak of feeding the hungry, for example, we mean, yes, people are starving in Africa and we feed them. But in addition, what the Catholic tradition has always seen in giving bread to the hungry is ultimately a reference to the Eucharist. Jesus will say to the Jews in John 6, that Moses gave you manna in the wilderness, he fed your bellies, but your fathers all died after they ate that. The bread that I will give you will eat of and you will live forever. I am the Bread of Life, Jesus tells us.
Over and over again you’ll see in the works of mercy the spiritual overtones of the spiritual element. In give drink to the thirsty, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, whoever drinks the water that I give will live forever. And that water is the Holy Spirit.
And ransoming the captive, Jesus speaks of himself of giving his life as a ransom for many. In addition to supporting anti-slavery organizations, for example, we also ransom people out of captivity by introducing them to Jesus, who ransoms them from captivity to sin.
Q. Which was your most challenging chapter to write?
Certain works of mercy are quite obviously contemporary. Feed the hungry? There are a billion people hungry in the world. But then you get to things like, say, ransom the captive. What does that look like in the modern world?
It’s been awhile since the president of the United States went to visit a foreign country and was kidnapped by Saracen raiders who sent a ransom note back to the vice president demanding 20,000 golden ducats.
This was something that was a real issue hundreds of years ago, but today, our view of ransoming the captive has changed radically. It was regarded as a corporal work of mercy, say, a thousand years ago during the Crusades, to ransom people out of slavery. What do we say about it today? “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. “
The reality is that’s an illusion. There is still real concrete work to be done in term of ransoming the captive, because everywhere you get outside of those parts of the world where Christianity has had a major influence on the culture, you immediately run into real, honest-to-gosh slavery. So there is slavery practiced all over the Islamic world—people being bought and sold. In Asia there is a thriving sex slavery trade, which is–to our great shame–fueled and patronized by Westerners, who go to places like Thailand so they can go exploit girls who are barely into their teens. So in all these places there’s still real work to be done.
Personally? the most difficult chapter to write, because I felt like a total hypocrite writing it, is the chapter on bearing wrongs patiently. As I write in the chapter, asking me for how to bear wrongs patiently is like asking the Incredible Hulk for anger management counseling.
I’m terrible at bearing wrongs patiently. But my task in the book is not to say, ‘I do this and you should be like me’; my task in the book is to report what the tradition says. I’m terrible at it; but it’s what the tradition says we must do. So you report what it says, you stumble along, and you go to confession for all the times that you fail.
Q. You shared that you were a little embarrassed that in my review, I compared you to C.S. Lewis (and GK Chesterton, don’t forget), but I stand by my assertion that it is an appropriate comparison. Do you consider them influences on your writing, and who else/other informs your writing?
I’m not in their league but honored by the comparison. Chesteron and Lewis are influences to be sure, but I don’t hold a candle to them. Chesterton and I have one major similarity in that we are fat. Beyond that, I am not worthy to untie their sandals.
Other influences? Peter Kreeft has been a huge help to me. Thomas Howard was a big help for me.
Q. You’ve written books, and now you blog regularly. Do you like one or the other better? Disadvantages or advantages?
The great thing about books is that you get to say what you mean to say, and you get to deliberate, and it really comes out the way you want it. The disadvantage of most writing, except for blogging, is that it is a one-way conversation. You don’t really know if someone likes it until it’s published, and then it’s a one-way conversation the other way, because they write to you about it.
What I love about my blog is summed up in my blog motto: “So that no thought of mine, no matter how stupid, should ever go unpublished again.” A blog is a running diary stream of consciousness, about holding forth on what’s in the news today.
I like the interactivity of blogs. Blogs allow you to talk to your audience, they get to talk back to you, they get to talk to each other. I like that because I’m an extrovert trapped in an introvert’s job.
The disadvantages? Well, you stay stupid things sometimes, you can misread what people are saying and lose your temper. But both forms have their charms.
Blogs are huge invaluable sources of information and insight. One of the big effects of the Internet has been the democratization of media. Media, until very recently, was as Chesterton put it, “the playthings of a few rich people.” There were not many who could afford to run a television station or a radio station. What you got was what they decided you were going to be told was reality.
With the advent of the blog and with new media technology, all of a sudden, any person with a keyboard (that has plenty of advantages and disadvantages, because it can be any idiot with a keyboard), can now get information out that was suppressed by the editorial needs or corporate interests of whoever was running ABC, NBC and so on.
It’s much more difficult for media to get away with snowing us with bad journalism. Obviously there are disadvantages to the Internet, too. The Internet is ripe for demagoguery, because you can also tell lies. But on the whole, I think the democratization of media, is a wholesome and tonic.
Q. I’m always interested in why people name their blogs. How did you choose “Catholic and Enjoying It”? (and of course the cheeky subtitle, so that no thought of mine, no matter how stupid, should ever go unpublished again!”)
Because I enjoy being Catholic!
Q. Anything else you’d like to add, or wish I had asked?
Well, I feel like we short shrift to the other works of mercy in our discussion since we spoke so much about “ransoming the captive.” I would just want to stress that all the works of mercy.
What the Church says is that we are the Body of Christ. Different members have different gifts. Different people will be attracted to different works of mercy.
As a writer, part of my task and my charism in talking about the faith is instructing the ignorant, and that’s a work of mercy. Other people have, for example, charisms of intercessrory prayer, who are naturally drawn to pray for the living and the dead. You may have felt a call in college to go into the Catholic funeral industry. Why? Because burying the dead is a work of mercy. If you wind up doing that, you can live out that work of mercy.
All the works of mercy are essential, and so a person interested in living the works of mercy should first of all, ask God, where can I help? And God will guide you. If He’s calling you to a particular work of mercy, he will give you the gifts.