I used to consider myself a recovering Catholic. When I first discovered her writing, I got quite a chuckle out of Anne Lamott’s reference to recovering Catholics as “incense survivors”.  I still have a favorite saint—St. Francis. I think Frank was probably a cool guy. Who wouldn’t want to hang out in the garden with all the critters coming to visit? I still have a favorite prayer—the prayer of St. Francis, of course.  Make me an instrument of peace.  (And on some days, that thought is followed by Now, please! Before I smack this person with a dead trout!)

Years later, there’s probably too much Eastern philosophy and new age-y concepts wrapped up in my spiritual beliefs  to even consider myself recovering.  The Dalai Lama quote resonates deeply:  “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”  Most days, I dismiss the early teachings from my Catholic school history but there are some pieces that still make too much sense to dismiss.

It would have been early grade school when the nuns taught us about the Works of Mercy.  We had to memorize them, write them down, regurgitate them on a religion test later. It was all work and no mercy. All thirty of us in our blue uniform shirts to the habit-ed IHM nun who oversaw our religious training: “Yes, Sister.”

“Class, name the Corporal Works of Mercy.”

Some struggling because they didn’t remember, some two words ahead, some two words behind, the Corporal Works of Mercy were sketched out in stark classrooms with cinderblock walls painted institutional yellow and asbestos floor tiles, where tendrils of chalk dust flared out from everything we touched at the front of the room. I can still almost do it from memory:

“Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Visit the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead.”

I wouldn’t have known to think of it as such forty-some years ago but those can function like a Pay It Forward system.  In the 80s, everyone I knew got behind the Big Bumper Sticker Idea to practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. And since it was the 80s, they were doing that practice between making their hair bigger and cutting the sleeves and necks off their sweatshirts. Come on. You remember! Now I look back and think the Big Bumper Sticker Idea wasn’t so far removed from what we were taught in…what was that…second grade?…about the Corporal Works of Mercy.

It’s different now though.  Now, it’s not just about being able to repeat it to Sister Mary Margaret Ernest Borgnine or write it all down on the Friday morning religion quiz. Now it plays out in real life and sometimes we get opportunities to do things to enact the Big Bumper Sticker Idea. I don’t think you have to look for those opportunities. I think they find us.

Last summer, I had knee surgery to repair an injury. I worked with an orthopaedic clinic and had to go back several times post-surgery for follow up. It was the kind of place where patients called weeks in advance for their appointments.  My follow up appointments went well into the fall months, and on one particularly grey, gloomy day, I arrived for my scheduled visit. As I checked in at the front desk and paid the requisite copay, I overheard the conversation unfolding in the next line.

“I’m sorry. Unless you can pay the copay, you cannot see the doctor today.”

There was a soft response that I couldn’t make out.

“Yes. I’m sorry. If you can’t pay the copay, you will have to reschedule.”

I looked up from my checkbook. A few feet away stood an elderly African American woman with a cane. Tiny. Stooped. White hair. She looked like someone’s grandma.

It was an ah-ha moment. This woman, who had probably already waited weeks for her appointment, as I had, was being turned away from medical care. This woman who looked like someone’s grandma, who was already in pain (because let’s face it, no one goes to the orthopaedic clinic if they feel well) was being denied a visit to a doctor by the front desk, because hey—that’s policy!

Your policy sucks.

I gripped the pen so tightly my fingertips went white. Through gritted teeth, I asked the reception worker who was processing my copay what the copay was for the woman being turned away. She whispered to me, “It’s $50.”

I flipped to the next blank check and wrote out the amount and quickly headed back to the “pod” where my surgeon’s office was, without speaking. When I came out, the woman had been escorted to her doctor’s pod. She had no idea who paid her copay. I will probably never see her again. No one’s grandma should be turned away from seeing her doctor. We learned this in second grade. Well, wait. SOME of us learned this in second grade. Apparently, the people who set policy at the ortho clinic –who probably make six times what I make in a year–missed that day of class with Sister Mary Margaret Kathleen Patrick Ryan Connor O’Riley.

About a month later, as I sat in my car entering info into the GPS, there was a light tap on my side window.  A woman about my age stood in the street by the side of my car. Her hair was unkept, her clothing wrinkled and it looked like she had had a very rough day, or maybe even series of days. I opened the window and asked if I could help her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just came from my case worker’s office and I need two dollars to get the bus.” She gestured at the building behind us where one of the social services agencies is housed.

I nodded and started to pat my pockets. Of course I had two dollars. It took a moment to realize that whatever cash I had, I had put into one of my back pockets. I asked the woman to back up a step so I could get up and out of the car. I stood, reaching into my left pocket and produced one single and one twenty dollar bill. Well, that wasn’t going to help.

I didn’t even think about it. I gave her the twenty. She burst into tears there on the curb and threw her arms around me. “God bless you! God bless you! Oh my God—God bless you!” I held her hand for a moment, feeling the wave of raw emotion, raw overwhelmed-ness pour off of her.  She turned away and headed for the bus stop down the block. When I passed her a few minutes later, she was still crying. She waved to me and called out again, “God bless you!”

I had a dollar in my pocket the rest of the day. I didn’t care. On the drive home, I found myself contemplating the Corporal Works of Mercy and the privilege of my world. I can’t get behind so much of Catholic teachings, even with the more humane statements coming from Pope Francis’ office, but this piece still resonates so many years later.  Eastern philosophy, new age-y concepts, Catholic school religion classes, Big Bumper Sticker Idea…Mix it up and find the similar message. Practice Random Acts of Corporal Mercy and Senseless Acts of Spiritual Mercy. These opportunities present themselves to us. What change could we affect if we all enacted the Big Bumper Sticker Idea and DID actually feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? What if we all had a chance to make sure that elderly women who were in pain got to see their doctors? Okay, maybe the Catholic Church had this one thing right. It might work better, though, if they put it on a bumper sticker.





  1. Nancy Carlson says:

    You are a beautiful person. Having worked with survivors of Catholic clergy abuse and experiencing a horrendous experience of homophobia in my own church (Methodist), I am impressed with your ability to forgive and see the positive.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Thank you, Nancy! Coming from you–that means a lot!

  3. Mickey Cowles says:

    Your heart & soul are beautiful wish I could spray that on my self & everyone around me!

  4. Babs says:

    I love that you are my friend. The world is a better place with you in it.

  5. Wow, what a beautiful statement! Thank you, B!

  6. Thank you so much, Mickey! That made my night!

You must be logged in to post a comment.