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St. Augustine and the Works of Mercy

Treatise by St. Augustine on the value of mercy

St. Augustine of Ippona, one of the most significant Christian Church Fathers and philosophers, devoted much of his life to exploring the Christian virtues, and among them, mercy was certainly no exception. His theological and philosophical reflection reinforced the Christian understanding of this virtue by positioning it not only as a divine quality but also as an important human practice.

Sermon 358/A

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True mercy is identification with the sorrows of others.

“I wish to give you, O good faithful, some warning about the value of mercy. As much as I have experienced that you are disposed to every good work, nevertheless it is necessary for me to have a particularly committed discourse with you on this subject. Let us see then: what is mercy? It is nothing other than loading your heart with a little of other people’s misery.

The word “mercy” derives its name from sorrow for the “wretched.” Both words are there in that term: misery and heart. When your heart is touched, affected by another’s misery, behold, then that is mercy. Pay attention therefore, my brothers, how all the good works we do in life are really about mercy.

For example: you give bread to one who is hungry; give it to him with participation of heart, not carelessly, lest you treat like a dog the man like you. So when you perform an act of mercy, behave like this: if you give bread, try to be a sharer in the sorrow of the hungry; if you give drink, share in the sorrow of the thirsty; if you give clothing, share in the sorrow of the unclothed; if you give hospitality, share in the sorrow of the pilgrim; if you visit a sick person, that of the sick; if you go to a funeral, you are sorry for the dead; and if you make peace between disputants, think of the distress of the disputant. If we love God and neighbor we cannot do these things without a sorrow in our hearts. These are the good works that prove our being Christians.

For the holy Apostle says: While we have the opportunity, let us work good toward all. Likewise, what does the same Apostle say in the same passage always about doing good works? This I say to you: he who sows sparsely will reap sparsely. He who spoke of sowing, promised the harvest.”

In heaven there will be no works of mercy

The Sowing Commitment and the ungodly of the farmer.

“When you sow, because you do a work of mercy, if you share in the pain of the one who is the object of it, you sow amid tears. But one day, however, having reached our end, there will be no more need for this sowing of mercy; for in that realm there will be no unhappy people who, as here, have suffered distress because of God. For in the place of reward, to whom will you hand bread if no one is hungry? What nakedness will you be able to clothe if everyone is clothed with immortality? To whom do you give hospitality if all live in their homeland? What sick to visit if there is eternal health? What dead to bury there where there is eternal living? What disputants can you bring to agreement there where that peace that is promised here has reached fullness? So there will be no works of mercy there.

Why? Because you no longer sow: you bring in the handfuls of grain. So let us not grow weary in our work. Let us sow amid tears, that is, with toil and pain. Therefore do not fail in works of mercy because you will receive the reward of your sowing. In winter we sow with toil. But the harshness of winter has never deterred the farmer from casting into the ground the fruit selected with such toil. He goes ahead and throws into the ground the seed that he had gathered from the earth, that from the earth had been selected.

He does not stop, he throws it into the ground, shivering with cold, but solicitous. Why solicitous despite the cold? Shaking laziness faith and hope. He certainly does not see the harvest but has faith that it will sprout. He does not already reap the fruit but he hopes to reap it; and he revives himself with this faith, with this hope, so that enduring the great discomfort of the cold, he throws the seed into the ground and is sure to reap with God’s help abundant fruit according to his labor and toil.”

Instruments of mercy

Mercy, according to St. Augustine, is a fundamental virtue that reflects the very essence of God and the heart of Christianity. Through his reflection, Augustine invites us to recognize our own condition of being in need of divine mercy and to become instruments of that same mercy in the world. The practice of mercy not only transforms the Christian’s personal life, but also contributes to building a more just and loving society.



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