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Carrying Out Works of Mercy


AMedicalMissionaryAttendingToASickAfricanWellcomeImagesL0076177MercyDear Fr. John, Sometimes, when I set out to do some work of mercy, such as go to a funeral or help someone out, all of a sudden, I feel ill. I have the good intention but feel physically lousy and not able to carry it out. In other words, this is not coming from me but it makes me wonder… Ruling out medical issues, how do I know whether this is an indication from the Lord to stay away (for whatever His reason may be) or if it something from the evil spirit and I should press on with my intention, no matter how bad I feel? My only desire here is to follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings and do God’s will. Any light you can shed on this is greatly appreciated as it is a mystery to me. Thank you.

It’s hard to give a precise answer to this question. Multiple factors are in play, and each factor would have to be reflected on deeply before being able to give a truly satisfying answer, I think. Ideally you would be able to reflect on the factors in the ongoing conversation that takes place inside a spiritual direction relationship. Since we can’t do that in this forum, I will simply try to offer some observations that may shed a little bit of light on the issue.

Following Through
In general, spiritual writers recommend that in moments of interior turbulence we shouldn't change good resolutions that were made in moments of interior peace and clarity. What you describe as “feeling physically lousy” could be interpreted as a kind of turbulence. If we only follow through on our good resolutions when all our emotions and biorhythms are in full gear, we probably won’t follow through on very many good resolutions – emotions and biorhythms are simply not very dependable. That’s the first consideration to keep in mind, and it may be enough. (Of course, I am assuming that “feeling lousy” is not a full—fledged sickness, which would require specific attention and curtailment of even normal activities.)

Sometimes the reason behind this kind of turbulence is simply the reluctance of our fallen human nature to engage in acts of generosity. Other times, this kind of turbulence can be a smokescreen thrown up by the enemy of our soul. In either of those cases, allowing the turbulence to inhibit following through on good resolutions will impede spiritual growth and fruitfulness.

Looking for Patterns
You say that this happens “sometimes.” If we were able to have a conversation about it, I would ask you to describe the circumstances surrounding these “sometimes.” It may be that there are certain types of good resolutions, or certain situations or people associated with them, that consistently spark this kind of feeling-lousy. If that’s the case, then it would be worthwhile to think deeply about those patterns. Your reaction may be a psychosomatic response to some specific persons, issues, or situations. Discovering that could be illuminating.

Learning from Experience
You suspect that this feeling of illness may be an indication from the Lord that he doesn’t want you to follow through on your good resolution. Certainly, this is possible. And yet, in that case there should be some other indications as well. What are the various motives behind your good resolutions? Are your good resolutions taking you away from the normal duties of your state in life (family responsibilities, work responsibilities)? Are they a subconscious attempt on your part to avoid something else that the Lord is really asking of you? If God is trying to obstruct you from following through on some good resolutions, it would be good to find out why. Since, however, this kind of physical reaction only occurs “sometimes,” I would suspect that one of the earlier explanations is closer to the bull’s eye, at least judging from what you have written.

At times, the only way to fully discern what is happening in circumstances like this is through trial and error. How does your spirit react when you push through this physical debilitation in order to follow through on your resolutions? How does your spirit react when you don’t follow through on them? The lingering effect of these decisions, whether they strengthen or weaken your connection with the Lord, can be a good indicator as to the origin of the negative feeling. In the discernment of spirits, as in so many other areas of life, we learn by experience.

If you want to read further this aspect of the spiritual life, I can recommend a couple of books: In the School of the Holy Spirit, by Fr. Jacques Philippe, and The Discernment of Spirits, by Fr. Timothy Gallagher. I hope this helped, at least a little bit.

God bless you! Fr. John


Art: A medical missionary attending to a sick African, Harold Copping (1863-1932), undated, CCA, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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