During Christmas we are all made better aware that there is a great deal of loneliness, poverty and suffering in the world, and that we are called to address these through works of generosity and mercy. We donate food for the hungry, clothing and gifts for the poor; we open our churches and our homes to those who have nowhere to go for the holidays.
Yet there is another kind of poverty that often gets neglected: spiritual homelessness.
To many who experience the annual joy of preparing throughout Advent and celebrating the Savior’s birth at Christmas, the plight of the spiritually homeless can almost seem like a joke. Or like a badge of shame.
It’s not uncommon for the devout to look down their noses at the “Christmas and Easter Catholics” who come to Mass only once or twice a year, momentarily warming their spirits at the hearth of the Church before wandering back out into the cold secular streets.
We often assume these people are basically responsible for their plight: “The Church is always available,” we say. “They can come any time.” And then we blithely assume they do not because they are attached to sin, or caught up in worldly affairs, or are not willing to make the sacrifices that the faith demands.
Such judgments extend the logic of modern individualism into the realm of the spiritual life. They’re the religious equivalent of saying the poor and homeless just need to grasp their own bootstraps and pull themselves up out of the gutter.
This is not the message of Scripture. If we look to the Christmas story, we are confronted with two of the holiest human beings who ever lived schlepping through the streets of Bethlehem on a cold night trying to find shelter. They hadn’t done anything wrong, yet at inn after inn they were turned away.
Then, when the Savior of the world was born, he and his parents were forced to flee into exile in Egypt — not because they had failed in any respect but rather because Herod jealously coveted the power of the Messiah.
The flight of the Holy Family points to the numerous exiles endured by the Jewish people throughout their history. Again and again, throughout the Old Testament, Scripture presents us with the idea that being taken away, captive, in chains, the experience of being lost and wandering in the desert, the experience of feeling abandoned by God, are in fact a normal part of the human story.
The Christian response, therefore, to the spiritually homeless who pour into our churches on Christmas day should not be one of disdain and self-congratulation. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for being among the few who will still be in the pews next Sunday. Rather, we should ask ourselves how we can help welcome people home so they will be drawn to stay.
Many priests offer welcome in their Christmas homilies, but the openness that is extended from the pulpit needs to be put into action by the laity if it’s going to bear fruit.
This means that alongside the corporal works of mercy that we perform during the Christmas season, we should also reflect on how we can perform the spiritual works of mercy in order to comfort and shelter those whose souls are in exile.
Catholic tradition suggests seven specific works that we can perform: to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses willingly, to comfort the afflicted and to pray for the living and the dead.
This does not mean we should reprove our relatives over Christmas dinner, or turn the holidays into an occasion for religious confrontation. Like the corporal works of mercy, the spiritual works are most effective when performed in meekness, generosity and humility. Generally, if we perform these works in a way that demands more of the other person than of ourselves, we’re doing them wrong.
The spiritual works of mercy call us to make time and space for others, to listen with compassion, to invite them into our Christian worship, to clarify our beliefs gently and beautifully, to offer ourselves spiritually and emotionally and to do all these things with patience and grace. They remind us to make room within our hearts for Christ, who comes to us both in our own poverty and in the need of our neighbor.
Melinda Selmysis the author ofSexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. She blogs atCatholic Authenticity.