When I was in grade school I bought two goldfish and named them Calvin and Hobbes, after the beloved comic strip characters. I looked forward to years of watching these small orange creatures swim laps above the neon rocks that lined the bottom of their bowl. Three days later I found Hobbes floating at the top of the tank. Crushed, I scooped him out and placed him on a cotton bed in a small cardboard jewelry box. Determined not to let his short life go unnoticed, I recruited a friend and my younger sister to join in a mid-afternoon funeral procession. Singing “On Eagles Wings,” we marched into the woods behind our house where I had dug a shallow grave (about six inches, rather than feet), and I covered the tiny box with soft earth. I would later mark the spot with a smooth rock on which I had painted the fish’s name in puffy fabric paint.
Anyone who happened upon these proceedings might have viewed them as sweet and childlike, or possibly insane, but generous souls might also label the actions a Corporal Work of Mercy.
The seven Corporal Works of Mercy include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead. These actions connect us with God by connecting us with each other. They allow us to see Christ in our neighbors. The corporal works of mercy are rooted in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Of course the folks listening to Jesus wonder when, exactly, they did these things for him. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” These are strong, unambiguous words. We are called to serve God through these acts. But that doesn’t mean we should run around forcing sandwiches into people’s hands or showing up at hospitals unannounced. These items are not simply tasks to be checked off a list; rather, they require us to be deliberate and to build relationships.
Some of these works can be done frequently, and many might even be enjoyable: getting a glimpse into someone else’s life while serving them at a soup kitchen or the satisfaction of paring down one’s wardrobe in an effort to donate clothing to a shelter, for example. We are less likely to look forward to others: It’s easy to avoid thinking about visiting the sick or imprisoned, and it can be even more difficult to think about burying the dead. We don’t like to think about losing those closest to us.
When a loved one dies, we don’t look forward to the rituals of wakes and funerals, but when we simply go through the motions of these aspects of the grieving process we ignore the mercy that is present in them. By viewing such rituals in the context of the Works of Mercy, we realize that they are sacred, grace-filled acts that allow us to recall our eternal connection to our lost loved ones through the love of God, who is timeless and eternal.
This Work of Mercy is particularly appropriate in the Lenten season, during which we try to offer up sacrifices or good works to commemorate the life and death of Christ, whose own life was filled with sacrifice and good works.
We often try, during this season, to rid ourselves of our habits and actions that separate us from God. Lent gives us a chance to ritualize that process, to proceed deliberately.
We aren’t likely to say a permanent goodbye to our flaws but we can put behind us our past mistakes through the sacrament of reconciliation, and by becoming determined to continue to look ahead to what is to come; to imagine the new life we might lead in the days to come.
Lent is also a perfect time to remember that the parts of our lives that have begun to feel lifeless can be renewed. It is a time to let go of long held hurts, those grudges that keep us from feeling fully alive because they keep us from loving others fully, as God loves. We must remember to show mercy to ourselves.
Old Calvary Cemetery is a few blocks from my apartment in Queens, New York. The grounds are expansive, and it is, oddly, one of the most beautiful green spaces in the city. On my first visit there, pink blossoms covered the trees and rabbits hopped playfully near the entrance. Huge monuments to the millions of dead below my feet rose from the ground alongside simple worn gravestones. The stones represented people of all ages and backgrounds. And I was struck by the fact that each one represented a life, a person with whom I had nothing and everything in common.
We like to think that we are so very far from death, but realizing its closeness, not in a morbid way, but in a miraculous, interrelated way, helps us to see more Easter moments, in which life and death seem to be swirling around each other and suddenly you’re not sure where one starts and another begins and you know you just have to keep going. The resurrection shows us that there is no need to fear death, because Christ came to give us new life. The death and life of Christ are bound together within us.
The other goldfish — Calvin — lived for a remarkable eight years, despite my constant neglect. Although, he did have his own little Lazarus moment. My mom went into my room to find him floating at the top of the tank. She left to retrieve the small fish net, and when she returned he was swimming happily. Life surprises us; life is resilient. Long or short, each life is valuable and deserves to be recognized as such. This is what we do when we bury the dead. We recognize the wonderful miracle of life, and give thanks to God for our lives and for the knowledge that our lives continue in some strange mysterious way beyond what we know now, and more wonderfully than we can comprehend.