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Being merciful

Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS
…and that’s the truth

 

TWO lines in the Parable of the Good Samaritan spur me on to recall a shift in my perception of mercy: “And who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29) and “…The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37).

When in the course of my work as a journalist I discovered long ago that beggars were actually used by syndicates to make easy money for themselves, I started thinking twice before giving alms to them.

I was a greenhorn then, on my first job as a feature writer for the pre-martial law Manila Times, focusing on social problems. This was before “investigative journalism” came into the picture; in accomplishing their tasks, journalists were left to do their own research or “investigation”.

 

 

Assigned to write on the perennial beggar problem in the metropolis, I would do personal interviews with both authorities and the beggars themselves. Long story short, I found out that those scraggly-looking men sleeping the whole day on the sidewalks beside their can of coins were actually drugged by syndicate operatives. They had to be asleep for as long as possible in order to eliminate the need to feed them. This imposed starvation also ensured their famished appearance which tugged at the heartstrings of God-fearing alms-giving passersby.

I learned that even infants were not spared—they were “hired” as accessories to be in the arms of their “mothers”, the professional beggars (as we called them in the newsroom)—and that the formula bottles beside them were mere props. No wonder these infants (often with bloated bellies) were forever asleep, and never at their surrogate mothers’ breasts. When these “mothers” would tell me they only begged to buy milk for their babies (“Pambili lang po ng gatas”), I would not doubt because these women, veritable bags of bones, looked incapable of lactation. Then I was told by social welfare officers that these beggars made more money a day than I did at my full time job. My (secret) gut reaction was: “Ha? Awang-awa ako sa kanila, mas mayaman pa pala sila sa akin!” (What? I so pitied them, but I learn they’re richer than me!) They make a lot, but what hurts is the lion’s share went to the syndicate bosses; the beggars were given just enough to keep them on the streets.

From then on, I stopped giving them alms, thinking my compassion would just keep them in misery. I steeled myself against their pleadings, simply saying “Patatawarin po” as I avoided their eyes, but a mixed feeling of sadness and guilt would sneak up on me whenever I did so. The little I could spare, I donated to charitable institutions, etc. I continued, however, to do other works of mercy like serving the sick and the dying (in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitute in Tayuman). I was in my element there, so to speak—as a volunteer I would bathe the patients, clean the wards, trim their hair and nails, give them a neck rub, massage their hands or feet, listen to their woes, etc.

Then, one day, still as an essential part of my job as an editor, I was surprised to read (in Vatican-issued teachings) that works of mercy are not just corporal but also spiritual, attending to the needs of the spirit, not just of the body. Nobody told me before that there was such a thing as “Spiritual Works of Mercy”! Pondering these—“counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearings wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead”—I realized that in and through my work I was unwittingly performing acts of mercy: writing and publishing materials that help those in crisis, call attention to wrongs in society and in ourselves, promote prayer as a way of life, witness to the love of God for us all, etc. If by simply doing my job as a communicator I am already doing works of mercy, then being merciful is not an exclusive privilege of the rich—even virtual paupers sworn to embrace poverty (like me) qualify as “donors” or “benefactors”. The question I ask myself is: am I being merciful for sheer love of God, or for vainglory? I cannot fully trust my answer to that, and so I tell myself to just be grateful to have asked. And that’s the truth.

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