The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says this about the Spiritual Works of Mercy:
The Spiritual Works of Mercy have long been a part of the Christian tradition, appearing in the works of theologians and spiritual writers throughout history. Just as Jesus attended to the spiritual well-being of those he ministered to, these Spiritual Works of Mercy guide us to “help our neighbor in their spiritual needs” (USCCA).
Regarding the second of these seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, Instruct the Ignorant, the USCCB further states, “Learn about our faith and be open to talking with others about our beliefs. There is always something more to discover about our faith.”
The beauty of Special Education:
With their good counsel as my point of reference, I began to pray with the experiences in my life which have animated mercy in this particular way. Twelve years ago I began working as a Special Education teacher, and in the years since this work began, I have come to understand the breathtaking beauty in which mercy is exchanged among teachers, catechists, parents, siblings and children with special needs. Although rarely using words, each act of mercy deepens the faith of each individual with each and every encounter.
Although I consider my work rather ordinary, I recognize an extraordinary invitation bestowed upon me to bring together parts of life which had previously been kept separate. In the fall of 2013 I accepted an opportunity to become a Catechist for the Sacraments of Reconciliation and First Communion to two young men with special needs. Calling upon the Holy Spirit to lead me through this process, I was captivated by the grace existing among us at our weekly sessions. Surrendering to the spirit, I watched myself decrease and the manifestation of Christ increase as Jose and Alex came to understand our faith, communicate our faith in their own unique ways and eventually come to fully participate in our acts of faith in their First Confessions and First Communions.
Wanting to go deeper, their families, along with the Director of Religious Education, sought a new way of helping Jose and Alex, and other young people like them, grow in their faith. The movement of Faith and Light Communities proved to be the right next step for our parish to evangelize to individuals with special needs and their families. The mission of Faith and Light is in the society of the church reveal to each person their own unique gifts and beauty. With the blessing our priest, we created a time and space for the new community to grow among us.
An Exchange of Mercy:
One Saturday morning, I found myself sitting with three families and their children, some with special needs and some without. Our topic of discussion that day centered on the challenges each of us face in our day to day lives of living with disabilities as well as the transformation which occurs in others as they observe our way of living. One mother shared of her challenge to fully understand what makes her son mad at times, further expressing her desire to know so that she can take that anger away from him. Another mother went on to share of her desire to make life easier for her son, wishing that he could speak his feelings, wants, and needs to her.
Pausing for a moment, allowing the weight of our shared experiences to settle, what happened next could only be attributed to the real presence of Christ among us as tears began to fall. An encouraging word from one mother to another, telling her that her son knows she does her best, then a sister gentle rubbing her mother’s back as she expressed such love for her son next to her. Suddenly the absence of words became more profound as we looked at one another realizing almost simultaneously how little our frustrations seemed next to the presence of these unique, gifted children we care for.
In the post-Synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on love in the family, Pope Francis quotes the Synod Father’s when describing what we experienced in that moment:
“Families of persons with special needs, where the unexpected challenge of dealing with a disability can upset a family’s equilibrium, desires and expectations… Families who lovingly accept the difficult trial of a child with special needs are greatly to be admired.
They render the Church and society an invaluable witness of faithfulness to the gift of life. In these situations, the family can discover, together with the Christian community, new approaches, new ways of acting, a different way of understanding and identifying with others, by welcoming and caring for the mystery of the frailty of human life. People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity…
If the family, in the light of the faith, accepts the presence of persons with special needs, they will be able to recognize and ensure the quality and value of every human life, with its proper needs, rights and opportunities. This approach will promote care and services on behalf of these disadvantaged persons and will encourage people to draw near to them and provide affection at every stage of their life”.
I am the ignorant:
Leaning into this experience in our Faith and Light community, and considering the Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Holy Spirit illuminated this for me. Most often in the instances in which I find myself in the presence of a person with special needs, it is I, undoubtedly, being instructed, I am the ignorant.
Looking back at the table where those mothers and I shared of our challenges, the boys, their sons, my students, were blissfully unaware. From their eyes, the world around them is absolutely normal. They don’t know that it could be different and therefore embrace the life they have.
Sensing a shift in the air between us, Alex leaned closer to his mother, placing his hand on her face, touching the tear on her cheek. Mercy. Unconditional acceptance, love. Her desire to make the world better and his showing her in this real human gesture, his desire to make her world better, wipe away the tear and bring a smile to her face.