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.