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.

Forgiveness: Counting the Cost

Jesus teaches us to be merciful like the Father, to forgive from our heart. The “Our Father” is a daily reminder that we must seek to forgive if we ourselves desire to be forgiven. Easier said than done!

Sometimes we just don’t want to forgive. The hurt can be so deep. The damage can be so lasting – or perhaps ongoing.

Even those determined to forgive can feel stuck. Just when we think we have finally let it go, some little event of daily life sets off a reaction in us, exposing new layers of bitterness and resentment. Will it never end?

Today I suggest a shocking concept: in order to forgive, we must learn to count the cost, yes, even when counting the cost involves feeling angry. Allow me to explain.

The Bible often describes forgiveness in terms of writing off a debt. In the Old Testament, God instructed the Jews to observe a Year of Jubilee every 50 years. It was to be a year of liberation and consolation, a year of setting slaves free and writing off old debts.

In Matthew 18, Jesus offers us the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owes his master a vast sum of money, impossible to pay back, and his master writes off the entire debt. The same servant goes out and throttles a fellow servant who owes him a mere pittance. Jesus offers the moral of the story: that we who are forgiven so much by God must go forth and forgive from our heart.

But let’s not lose the image of writing off a debt. To write off a debt, I must name what is owed. Then I can declare that I release the other person from the debt.

This is where so many of us get stuck in our unforgiveness. When it comes to serious betrayal, cruelty, abuse, or neglect, the wound can be so deep and painful that we prefer to ignore it. It’s so much easier to turn to a cliché like “forgive and forget” or “move on with life” or “water under a bridge.” But if we minimize or deny just how serious the pain is, we leave ourselves unfree to write off the debt. Part of us will hold on to the resentment and bitterness. It will keep leaking out until we finally face it. If we are obstinate, it may even lead us to harden our heart and block ourselves from ever receiving or giving love again.

“Counting the cost” means giving ourselves permission to feel deeply angry at those who have hurt us and (-gasp-) even at God himself. He can handle it! If a flawed parent can handle the anger of an unruly child, surely our heavenly Father will love us tenderly when we come to him upset and in pain. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to read the Book of Job or to pray some of the Psalms. God delighted in Job and David precisely because they came to him with an open heart: no wearing of masks, no pretending or protecting. God healed their hearts.

Unfortunately, in the name of being Christian, many make the mistake of viewing anger as a bad thing, a shameful thing, an unacceptable thing. It is not uncommon for Christian families to train their children that they must never express anger. So the children learn from their parents to minimize or deny, to pretend like they’re not actually angry. Their anger turns to passive aggression and breeds toxic relationships that never seem happy.

Yes, there are destructive ways of expressing anger that we should avoid. Lashing out at others physically or verbally is a bad thing. Damaging people or property is a bad thing. Stubbornly holding a lifelong grudge is a bad thing.

But anger can also be a healthy emotion, an important part of the human experience. Like it or not, it is often there – and will stay there – until we finally face it and resolve it. The same holds true for even more painful emotions such as shame or fear, which often lurk beneath our anger and fuel it.

It is so much easier to avoid our wounds – especially for those of us who pretend that we are in control.  If we have been hurt, and hurt badly, we instinctively resist and avoid the prospect of going toward the painful emotions. We fear that once we start feeling them we may never stop. We will lose control. The pain will never end. And so forth.

That is why it is so important to draw close to God and others in our pain – not just anyone, but those who are truly trustworthy – those who will empathize and encourage and accompany, challenging us without trying to “fix” us. With communal support, our wounds will not be too much for us. We can face them. We can name them. We can claim them. Then we can call upon Jesus to heal us and set us free.

All too often, our Christian communities have been dysfunctional, not seeking to heal the whole person. Instead of showing empathy and accompaniment to the broken-hearted, instead of weeping with those who weep, we try to fix them with rule-following. We tell them what they should feel and think. Or we help them numb their pain with more socially acceptable drugs like busyness or volunteering. Like Job, they just need someone to acknowledge their pain and be with them. God will provide the healing. But we are saved as a believing community, not as isolated individuals.

When we find authentic community with others and with God, we can probe the depths of our wounds. We can “count the cost.” And then – calling on Jesus – we can truly release it all. We can forgive from our heart.

The Lost Coin – Wisdom from Gregory of Nyssa

You are a beloved child of God. He made you good and beautiful, in his own image and likeness. You are cherished by him, chosen by him, and precious to him. He desires your heart and longs for you to be intimately close to him. He doesn’t want your achievements and accomplishments; he wants you – all of you. His greatest joy, shared by the angels and saints in heaven, is when you turn to him with all your heart and receive his total and unconditional Fatherly love for you.

If you are like me, you know those truths on an intellectual and theological level, but struggle to believe them and receive them with all your heart. In our more reflective moments, we painfully realize the magnitude of our sinful choices. We have damaged our relationships with God and others and self. We have become lost. There is, in the end, no denying that painful truth.

In the menacing shadow of our sinfulness, we fear that we are no longer lovable. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hide from love and protect ourselves. We minimize our struggle and our pain in the presence of others and of God. In resisting vulnerability, we “safely” block out the love that is being freely offered to us. Then we end up feeling even more alone and unloved, and the cycle of sin begins anew. In the depths of our heart we yearn to be loved for who we are, but in our fear of rejection we dare not dream that dream.

In the 300’s, Saint Gregory of Nyssa offered a profound reflection on the parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15. Gregory has to be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated Christian authors of all time. He was an intellectual giant in the fields of philosophy and theology. In an age that was much confused about the Trinity, he offered keen insight into how it is possible for God to be an eternal communion of love, three persons yet truly one God. Others were thinking in terms of separate substances; he was thinking in terms of relationship and an eternal communion of love. He “got it” about God.

He also really “got” the full truth of what it means to be human beings made in God’s image. He takes sin quite seriously, yet views our sinfulness as our condition. It is not who we are. It is not our identity. In our brokenness and distress, we tend to identify ourselves with our sins – but that is not how God sees us. We remain his precious children. The divine likeness that we bear is smeared and soiled, buried and hidden – yet remains what it always was. We are always God’s precious children.

That is where the image of the Lost Coin comes in. We are made in the likeness of God. Just as a coin is stamped with the image of the emperor or king, so are we stamped with God’s own likeness. Just as a coin is made from precious metal, so are we made “very good” in God’s design.

He entrusts us with a universe that is resplendent with truth and goodness and beauty. And we soil and tarnish it. By our own free choices, we choose lesser goods rather than real relationships, and we sully ourselves.

Yes, the shiny coin held proudly in God’s hands chooses to slip out and dive deeply into the muck. In its outward filth and stench, the coin becomes lost and barely recognizable for what it is. Yet inside it remains what it always was. In the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Without the grace of Jesus, we cannot recover that lost coin, that inner goodness and truth and beauty that is yet within us. Like the woman in the parable, we can find other coins. We can do good and grow in virtues. We can achieve and accomplish and serve. But, unaided by grace and faith, that one coin will always elude us. Only when we light the lamp of faith and call on the aid of Jesus can we find that lost coin.

Even though sin is secondary, its effects are very real. We will need the purifying grace to Jesus to cleanse the mire and filth that has covered over the coin. It can be quite painful to be vulnerable and surrender ourselves to that purification and cleansing. But then the inner beauty of the coin – always there and never really lost – shines forth once again. At its core it remains the precious metal that it always was. It has lost none of its true worth. It still bears the mark of the King of Kings.

As Luke tells us, the angels and saints are eagerly cheering us on. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over all the others who (think they) have no need of repentance. The citizens of heaven yearn for those moments when the light of Christ breaks through, when we “come to our senses” like the prodigal son and surrender ourselves to our Father’s love. They erupt into joyful cheers when we once again believe the full truth about ourselves – that we are precious and beloved children of God, who belong in the house of our Father. Then the healing grace of Christ restores us, and his glory shines forth for all to see.


(For those wanting to read more, Gregory’s reflection on the Lost Coin is found in Chapter 12 of his work On Virginity)