Kind to Self / Kind to Others

Kindness seems scarcer than ever during these days of pandemic and a pending (impending?) general election here in the United States. A little kindness goes a long way at a time in which divisions and contempt are palpable, and almost all of us feel emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

These past few weeks, I have been astounded and grateful at how frequently a simple kind and empathetic gaze into someone’s eyes elicits tears and a deeper sense of peace.

I wish I could say that it’s always easy to practice empathy and kindness. It is often challenging because I am not being kind to myself – or (to put it more precisely) I am not allowing myself to receive the kindness that I need.

God is eternally kind. That is one way to translate the oft-repeated scriptural refrain “his mercy endures forever.” The Hebrew word hesed can be translated as mercy, love, covenantal love, grace, or kindness.

God’s covenantal love abides. He always gazes upon us with kindness, even when we are at our worst. He loves us “even if…” and “even when…” He does not cease his kindness towards us just because we have ceased our faithfulness to him. “If we are unfaithful, he abides in faithfulness, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

That is what covenantal love (hesed) does. It is an unshakable gaze of kindness that truly “sees” into our brokenness and woundedness, receiving us with blessing and delight. Think of the woman caught in adultery. My friend, Fr. Sean Kilcawley, suggests that Jesus stooped down to write on the ground because that is very likely where she was staring. At last, he catches her eye. She receives a gaze that knows her truthfully and communicates the kindness that her heart so deeply desires.

Matthew the tax collector was transformed by a similar gaze of kindness. This is the origin of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s motto, first as a bishop and then as Pope Francis: Miserando atque Eligendo.

As a 17-year-old, Jorge had a transformational moment in Buenos Aires, on the Feast day of Saint Matthew (Sept 21, 1962). The youth unwittingly stumbled into a church, felt drawn to go to Confession, and deeply experienced the healing power of God’s mercy. He felt “seen” and he felt God’s kindness in the depths of his heart.

In his adult years, Bergoglio fell in love with the Caravaggio painting of the call of Matthew, housed in the church of Saint Louis King of France in Rome. As only art can do, the painting utilizes light and shadows to depict Jesus’ gaze, and Matthew’s shock at being truly seen AND received with kindness. His face shows a battle between hope and fear, leading to a moment of decision that he will begin to follow Jesus.

The motto itself is taken from a homily by St. Bede the Venerable, an early medieval monk in England, and one of my very favorite authors. His commentary on Matthew’s Gospel says in 3 words (miserando atque eligendo) what it takes me 12 words in English to translate (see the bold-faced words below):

“Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: Follow me.  Jesus ‘saw’ Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.  He saw a tax collector, but by looking upon him with a gaze of mercy, by choosing him, He said to him: Follow me.”

And Matthew followed. His life was never the same after receiving a gaze of kindness from Jesus.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus turns and gazes at Peter with kindness right at the moment of Peter’s deepest betrayal (Luke 22:61). In other stories, this eternal kindness of God is depicted in a more visceral way. Luke describes the Good Samaritan or the Merciful Father (of the prodigal son) being “moved with kindness” at the sight – literally, moved in their guts. Both saw a deeply wounded man; both only wanted to show kindness and care – indeed, even feasting and celebration.

Kindness is a gift. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn God’s kindness, mercy, or love. He freely bestows it upon us, choosing and delighting in us, and  calling us into heavenly festal celebration. Unlike the devil and fallen humans, God has no interest whatsoever in condemning us. He desires all human beings to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). But he will not force us.

My fallen human heart deeply desire this kindness – and is often terrified. One would think that receiving kindness would be one of the easiest things to do – and yet my experience tells us that it can be incredibly hard. In my pride and self-protection, I often resist! I am guessing that you do as well.

In recent years, a deep human truth has dawned upon me. Being hard on myself leads me to be hard on others. Being kind to myself frees me to be kind to others. At times I notice myself taking up old and familiar roles – peevishness, fault-finding, blaming, criticizing, or resenting. In those moments, if I let myself be truly present, if I allow myself to receive the gaze of Jesus, if I welcome the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, I often break down and cry. I see the pride and self-reliance that is there, a shame and a relentless cruelty towards myself – thankfully less and less over the years – but still there.

I have begun to probe this hypothesis in the experiences of others, when they have come to me for spiritual counsel. It has proven true every time! If they are struggling with unkindness towards others, it turns out that their heart is itself desperately craving kindness – and often blocking it out.

I think Vincent de Paul discovered the same truth many years ago. He put it this way: “To pardon an injustice received is to heal the wound in your own heart.” As fallen human beings, we bear woundedness in our heart. The devil is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He led Adam and Eve to disobey God, but what is worse, he convinced them that God would no longer be interested in showing kindness to them. So they ran and hid – as though God were a petty tyrant.

The story of salvation throughout the Bible and throughout human history has been one of God eagerly pursuing us with his kindness and love, and our playing hard-to-get with our hardness of heart.

When we stop fighting, lay down our arms, and allow the eternally kind God to tend to our hearts (often by opening ourselves in trust to other human beings who are his chosen instruments!), we will notice a change. We suddenly have a reservoir of kindness within us. The fruits of the Holy Spirit start showing up.

We cannot give what we don’t have. We cannot love our neighbor or show kindness to our neighbor if we do not allow ourselves to receive love and kindness. To try to do otherwise is the detestable heresy of Pelagianism. It’s time to stop being Pelagians and start being kind.

Learning from Lamentations

We are living in days of painful loss and disorienting change. Our grief is great, but we don’t like to enter into it. Jesus teaches us that we will be blessed if we allow ourselves to be poor in spirit, and that we will be comforted if we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn. But we resist.

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to grieve well. We could really learn from Lamentations, that astounding book of the Bible that tells the tale of the woes that God’s people are experiencing in exile.

The Book of Lamentations is a series of intense and heartfelt cries to God, pouring out pain in poetry that is stunningly beautiful. At the time of writing, there is no certainty at all that God will even answer the cries – it feels very possible that the loss of his favor is forever. Yet the poet cries out all the same. He tells his sad story to God, and holds out Hope.

There is one verse that seems especially pertinent to us who are experiencing agony amidst a pandemic, a general election, a cultural collapse, violent divisiveness, and whatever personal problems are unique to me or you:

“Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12).

We tend to minimize our own pain. “I have nothing to complain about – other people have it much worse.” That is a very quantitative way of looking at my suffering. Of course there are always going to be other people who are suffering “more.” That doesn’t negate how authentic my own suffering is!

In truth there is no sad story like my own story, nor like your own story. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, in God’s own image. My story and yours are utterly unique. God deeply desires that our whole story be told – including the sad and painful parts.

Think of a three-year old with intense nausea or a terrible toothache. What mom or dad would scold him, “Stop complaining – there are other people who have it so much worse!” True, the suffering of a toothache or nausea is not nearly as bad as a terrorist bombing or rape or genocide. But all suffering matters! Every hair on our head is numbered, and no problem is too big or too small for the living God.

Lament is a lost art. It is the telling of our sad story in a way that reaches out for comfort and care, and freely invites genuine human connection.

Lament is not to be confused with counterfeits such as self-pity or manipulation. I can think of many moments in my past, and even some in recent days, in which I have not behaved well when overwhelmed with shame or anxiety or fear. I sometimes react with childish outbursts that draw attention to how hard things are for me. In those moments of self-pity, I am not telling the truth about my story. I am grasping or taking, using or manipulating, or perhaps desperately trying to shift the shame I am feeling away from myself and onto someone else. Instead of describing truthfully what is happening inside of me, instead of vulnerably stating a need and freely asking others for kindness, I am playing on their emotions to try to take what I need. It doesn’t work, and it ruptures relationships. It tends to push others further away – which in turn easily feeds the lie in my heart that others will leave me all alone when life gets hard.

In some ways, we can’t help these less-than-kind behaviors. If we do not allow ourselves to grieve and lament, our heart will keep trying. It will come out sideways – in self-pity or manipulation, in blame or resentment, in outbursts of anger, in passive aggression, in depression, or even in bodily ailments. Our story deserves to be told, and our hearts, made in God’s own image, will keep fighting to bring our story to the light of day, even when we resist.

Lament tells our true story. It speaks the truth deeply, not so much about the factual events, but about what the experience was like. It paints a picture with the five senses, engaging the emotions and the imagination. This process takes enormous courage, because it activates our memory and draws us down into the depths. We easily fear we will never find our way out again. Those fears certainly didn’t stop Jeremiah (or whoever it was who poured out his grief in Lamentations).

Lament speaks the truth about the sad parts of our story, about the pain we are carrying. It refuses to lie or minimize. It fights the urge to shift the attention elsewhere. Far from masochism, lament is essential to authentic Hope. Instead of stashing our pain away, instead of living a compartmentalized and fragmented existence, our lamentation reaches out to the faithfulness of God for ultimate rescue and resolution. It complains to God and reminds him of his promises. It freely and meekly invites other human beings to stand with us as willing witnesses to our story, even at the risk of their saying no or bailing out. United in communion with other members of Christ, we willingly suffer and die with him, and watch and wait for the surprise of resurrection to come. As in the Book of Lamentations, we do not know when or how the rescue will come; we sense that some things are gone forever.  But for all that, we hold out Hope. We open ourselves to the possibilities promised by God, which are very well put in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot and the mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”