The scriptural basis traditionally assigned to this spiritual work of mercy is the book of Deuteronomy: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'” What is interesting is that this very concrete advice is taken as the source of a spiritual work of mercy.

As human beings, body and spirit, we are very much influenced by our physical surroundings, which include food, shelter, clothing, and the proximity of loved ones. To become sensitive to those who surround us and who may be in need is a very worthy quality to cultivate. One certain way to do this is by learning to listen well to those around us—and this can demand courage on our part. To comfort those in distress can involve us taking on some of their burden—compassion, which literally means to suffer with another.

Back in the early 1960s, the widow of a man who died was astounded at his wake by the sheer number of people who lined up to pay their respects to her husband, many of them complete strangers to her. One of the most frequent comments these mourners made was, “He was the best listener I have ever met. He truly listened to me, and I will miss that so.” Small things, a smile, a kind gesture, listening to others: These can have a giant effect.