"On [the Exceeding Worth of] Kindness"
by the Very Rev. J. Guibert, S.S.
Taken From CATHOLIC TREASURES, Issue No. 77-78, 1982
ON THE EXCEEDING WORTH OF KINDNESS
HOW KINDNESS IS A VIRTUE OF GREAT PRICE
Kindness is to be felt rather than to be defined. It is better to experience it than to try to explain what it is. Moreover, its home is in the heart rather than in the intellect.
When closely looked at, kindness seems a very complex virtue; or, peradventure with greater truth, we might say that kindness is not so much a single virtue, as a happy admixture of many.
Sometimes it takes the form of a special affection, manifesting itself by gentleness, affability, obligingness, amiability and graciousness. Sometimes it takes a more active form, inspiring zeal, generosity, devotedness and self-denial. But oftener it is externally hardly more than passive, enabling the kind man to practise patience and endurance, to be indulgent and sympathetic with others, to forgive injuries, and humbly to forget himself.
That so many virtues need unite to build it up proves the worth of kindness. Its beauty and its fragrance are enhanced by its coming before us in the guise of a basket of many flowers.
If, nevertheless, it be insisted upon that we define what we mean by kindness, we are content that it be taken as that disposition of soul which inclines a man to wish well to others, and to seek to do them good. We mean, moreover, that it be deeprooted in the innermost being of man, else it must need be insincere. Kindness begins its work by making the kind man think well of others, and feel for others. This is that goodwill which suggests words of sympathy, and has its further expression in devotedness. Absolute unselfishness is its final development, for the thoroughly kind man hardly acts save for the sake of others. A man is kind in proportion as he is forgetful of his own earthly interests; and as he gives himself-----sacrifices himself-----for the good of others.
Kindness is a retiring virtue. It is not striking like genius, nor noisy like martial valour; in silence and in the dark it does good, and therewith is content. Kindness is not of the proud plants which flower only on the heights, it loves the fertile lowliness of hidden valleys, it is among those humble virtues which, in the charming thought of St. Francis de Sales, blossom only at the foot of the Cross.
But, Father Faber says; "The grass of the field is better than the cedars of Lebanon. It feeds more, and it rests the eye better-----that thy my daisy-eyed carpet, making earth sweet and fair and homelike. Kindness is the turf of the spiritual world, whereon the sheep of Christ feed quietly beneath the Shepherd's eye." ["Spiritual Conferences," Chapter I, Section 4.]
That kindness is prone to conceal itself takes nothing from its worth; for if, as a rule, it excites no wondering admiration, it surely wins love. Alone, the kindness of an action reaches down to the innermost fibres of the human soul, and literally seizes the heart of man. And St. Paul puts it above all besides. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels; . . . if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge; and if I should have all faith so that I could remove mountains; . . . and if I should deliver my body to be burned and have not charity" (of which, kindness is the expression), "I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal" (1 Cor, xiii, 1-4).
Of a truth, this lesson the fervent Apostle had learned in the school of his Master. For Jesus Christ, Whom our faith bids us adore as God Incarnate, in coming to us has so veiled all the splendour of His Everlasting Majesty, that our eyes see naught in Him save His goodwill to man. He hides His glory, He puts not forward the deep knowledge of all things which is His, He commands not signs in the heavens, but wills only to be, and to appear good to men. "Come unto Me," He has said, "and I will refresh you; him who cometh to Me I will in no way cast out." Nor, indeed, has He ever rejected anyone, He Who opens His arms to all mankind, to the insignificant, to the poor, to sinners, to all who by any are cast out. He Who, by the splendour of His might, could have dazzled the eyes of all the children of men, His willed one thing only-----to win their love.
Nor on His disciples did He enjoin aught that was striking in the eyes of men. They had but to love one another, to be merciful and meek; on this condition they were to make the conquest of the world. "Love one another," He said; "I send you as lambs among wolves." They will not be worthy of Him except they spare the broken reed, and stay their hands from quenching the smoking flax.
It was with a heart filled with Christ's goodwill to men that Lacordaire said; "It is God's goodwill to men which makes them love Him, and the man who lacks goodwill to others will never gain their love. . . . Goodness to others is that in which man most resembles God, and by which he most easily disarms his fellowman. . . . Neither fame nor the affection of others give the measure of the height reached by a soul, but its own kindliness, and its own kindliness only."
But why borrow from others phrases in praise of kindness? However rarely we may have experienced it at the hands of others, we each one of us realize its supreme worth and feel what it can acheive. We are drawn by it when, coming from the hearts of others, it envelops us in its warm and soothing atmosphere. Again, it makes us happy when it goes out from ourselves as the very purest expression of our souls. In fine, in our endeavour to call other men to a share in our thoughts and in our hopes, it is by the goodwill we show towards them that we shall win over their souls.
HOW ALL MEN LOVE THE KIND-HEARTED
Kindness shown to ourselves attracts and charms us. We are won on the instant by the happy confidence it inspires.
Even as a flower unfolds its petals to the rising sun, or as a bud opens under the soft breath of spring, so does the heart of man open to kindness.
The kindness we experience from others, like the life-giving air our lungs callout for, plunges, as it were, our whole being into an atmosphere of joy.
When we are sad the mere seeing of a kind face cheers us; when we are worried or anxious a kind and encouraging word is often all that is needed to ease our minds; when tortured by fear for our future, a self-sacrificing act of kindness on the part of some friend makes us realize that we have still something to lean upon, and confidence is born anew within us.
As Father Faber very truly remarks; "Kindness makes life bearable." For life, that most precious of gifts, passionately though we love it, weighs as a heavy burden on our shoulders, so great is the proportion of toil and of suffering in each one of our lots.
Under this "cross" (for verily a cross is all life upon earth) some fall to rise no more, others ever march bravely onwards. Why this difference? May it not be that some lose heart because they know not now to hope? Others, their hearts enlarged by happiness, are rushed on by the very joy of their being. Of a truth, facing life, man is strong or weak, according as he is cheerful or sad at heart.
Sadness quenches the living fire within him, happiness is as fuel to it. And what breath better, than that of a kindness received, to fan the flames of joy in a man's heart?
To impart, then, moral strength to thy fellowman, be kind to him.
Hundreds of times each one of us has felt the happy effects of the kindness of others. Their kind looks have cheered us in hours of gloom; their kind words have fallen on our ears like music from Heaven, and gently lulled our pain.
Nor, save when thus made happy, have we undertaken aught of great things for God or for our brethren.
Kindness has this power over us, because it is the expression of the two sentiments that arouse us most effectually to action-----esteem and sympathy; but for these our mind and will are starved.
For just as the humiliating disdain of the rich discourages the poor even more than it makes them suffer, so is it hard for anyone of us to practise virtue when treated with contempt, or to open our hearts to what is good while shivering in an atmosphere of indifferrence.
To the man who feels that he is neither esteemed nor loved the temptation to stop trying is perilously near. Kindnesses received keep us up precisely, because they mean a liking for us, and are themselves a pledge of sympathy. The bearing of the man who acts from kindness is condescending doubtless; but his is a condescension which honours others, which raises them in their own eyes, which betrays affection such as touches the heart and makes it beat the faster for very joy.
When a kindness has been done us, our life is keener, for we have been stirred up, ennobled, heart-warmed. This is why we instinctively like kind people. They are to us a refuge, like the arms of a mother to her child.
HOW HIS OWN KIND-HEARTEDNESS MAKES THE KIND MAN HAPPY
To receive kindnesses from others is not, however, the greatest of all earthly happiness, for there is more joy in being kind oneself than in feeling that our fellowmen are kind to us. It is in the kind man's heart, wherefrom it unceasingly springs, that the stream of kindliness is at its fullest; there its very might enraptures; thence for it to overflow is beneficently to evaporate.
"Happiness," writes Joubert, "means the feeling that one's own soul is full of goodwill; strictly speaking, there is no happiness other than this, against which sorrow itself is powerless." Father Faber has well described the happy effects which kind thoughts and words produce in the soul which inspires them; "The interior beauty of a soul through habitual kindliness of thought is greater than our words can tell. To such a man, life is a perpetual bright evening, with all things calm, and fragrant, and restful. The dust of life is laid, and its fever cool. All sounds are softer, as is the way of evening, and all sights are fairer, and the golden light makes our enjoyment of earth a happily pensive preparation for Heaven." ["Spiritual Conferences," Chapter I, Section 4.] "Kind words," he says again, "produce in us a sense of quiet restfulness, like that which accompanies the consciousness of forgiven sin. They shed abroad the peace of God within our hearts."
"The double reward of kind words is the happiness they cause in others, and the happiness they cause in ourselves. The very process of uttering them is a happiness in itself. Even the imagining of them fills our minds with sweetness, and makes our hearts glow pleasurably."
We all know that man finds his happiness in his power of action; the more he bestirs himself, the more he enjoys his life. Now, among the different sorts of vital action, it is not the ruling over his fellows which make a man happiest, for there is too much bitterness, there are too many deceptions in the honours to which power entitles us. Neither does the receiving of many gifts from our fellowmen mean that we are supremely happy; flattery and self-interest creep in when gifts have to be given. Rather, then, is it to be truly happy to give oneself unselfishly, to outpour of our best-----of the best that is within us. Again, our very best is not our wealth of thought. Hence, to impart knowledge is not the highest happiness of man. Our best is in our hearts, and, as kindness is the virtue which spreads this best abroad, there is no joy to be compared with that of offering to souls thirsting after happiness, of the fullness of a heart overflowing with goodwill to men.
To feel that through us souls have become happier and better is to delight exceedingly; it is as if our life had grown from the adding to it of other happy lives-----in the words of Fenelon, ''as if one had many lives." "For," as Joubert well remarks, "to our faculties and to our enjoyment, our kindness adds the faculties and the enjoyments of all whom it reaches. Man is immense in his possibility of being, he can exist partially, but his existence is the happier, the more it is complete and full." Goodness, while thus enlarging and multiplying our capability of happiness, our consciousness of being kind, does away with any feeling of uselessness, a feeling which, according to Huxley, "is the worst of the disasters that can befall a man, for if it persists, it results in the atrophy of his every function."
As we shall point out later on, kindness stirs up to new life and develops the whole being of man, setting mind, will, feelings, and above all the heart, to steady work. Many are the emotions which a man experiences, but may not manifest without present danger, or at least without the certainty of future remorse; alone, his kind acts are free to range the wide world over; he need fear from them neither pain nor the bitterness of regret.
You are never quite at ease about a new idea born in your own mind, for you do not know in what storms of contradiction it may involve you. Again, the exercise of your authority over others may provoke rebellion and lead to your overthrow. Your passions are blind, and, if you give them a loose rein, may drag you down to the lowest depths. Kindness alone can trust itself in all security; it leaves peace of conscience behind it in the soul whence it issues, and even if no show of gratitude correspond to it, its essentially pacifying nature can at least stir up no storm. Let us then fearlessly cultivate kindliness of heart, for it is its prerogative to confer happiness unalloyed.
HOW KINDNESS OVERCOMES ALL THINGS
The being at peace with himself and with the world does not satisfy the heart of man. A deep and imperious unrest urges him on to battle and to conquest. Stifled as it were in the narrow circle of his own personality, he cannot breathe, he cannot fully live, except he push his activity beyond his immediate surroundings-----nay, even beyond his own time.
This instinctive need of acting, when domin- ant in a human heart, creates a conqueror or an apostle. He who is greedy of earthly power may make of a nation his prey; he who bums with love of God and zeal for the salvation of men, seeks to master souls.
Even in natures the reverse of energetic, whose every ambition is only too modest, the longing to conquer, to proselytize, is never altogether wanting. Every man, then, should be interested in the delicate art of subjugating his fellows.
Now, to use force is not the best way to conquer; force in some way hurts all that it touches, and as Joubert says, "Strength, if it be not applied with kindness, is sure to do some harm."
Brute force can enslave a man; it cannot win him. At the first chance he throws off a yoke which has fettered the body alone and not the heart. Hence, it is not surprising that empires put together by mere force of arms are always ephemeral. Ever true are Christ's words; "The meek shall possess the earth."
Neither does science avail to dominate the will of others. Sometimes it simply dazzles, at others it seems to imprison the mind it addresses, tightly tying it up in the network of its reasonings. Grant that it succeed in mastering the intellect, the heart escapes it. "Man bows before talent; it is at the feet of kindness alone that he freely casts himself down" (Gounod).
The beauty our senses can take note of may captivate the soul; but the emotion it arouses is, strictly speaking, admiration, not love. To move the heart, beauty must have kindliness for its finishing touch. If they be not kindly, neither strength, nor knowledge, nor beauty, avail at all to gain lasting victories in the world of souls.
It is because a man feels that he is and ought to be free, that he hates to yield to force, but gives way easily to kindness. On this subject Henry Perreyve has written some beautiful lines, which apostolic men cannot too often ponder; "Christian souls, you who would work as did the Apostles, understand what that earth is which you have resolved to conquer. It is an earth promised to the meek and to none save the meek; for it is a free earth, an intelligent earth, an earth which is its own master, an earth which surrenders to whom it pleases and to him alone, for, as Fenelon said; 'There is no power that can force the inner citadel of the heart.' Nowhere in the Gospel will you find a warrant for the doing of violence to even one single soul, for the disregarding of the honour or of the rights of the least of your fellowmen, nothing to authorize that haughty and assuming tone of voice, those proud and bitter words, or that overbearing and contemptuous manner, by which certain ministers of the Gospel too often think to impress their
Wherever kindness is the dominant characteristic in a man's dealings with his neighbour, it is sure to make its beneficent influence felt. In all intercourse with others it will insist on courtesy, "that flower of humanity." It will insure peace and good understanding in families, for it makes for constant mutual help, and, in the homely phrase of the proverb, induces everybody "to turn his bristles inwards" (Joubert). We could soothe many sufferings if, as St. Francis de Sales has told us to do, we made of kindness' 'the first dressing for the wounds which we undertake to heal."
Kindness has the secret of correcting faults, for says Joubert, "undue severity freezes them hard and fixes them for good, whereas a wise tolerance will often of itself do away with them. And a good approver is as necessary as a good corrector." In the educating of the young, kindness is all-powerful; for kind words and kind ways attract children, as surely as harshness repels and represses them. "Away with violence and force," says Montaigne on this point; "so far as I can see, nothing is more apt to debase and to stun a generous nature. My experience is that the use of the rod makes a child cowardly and more than ever maliciously obstinate. I object to any force being used in the education of a tender soul which one is training up to honour and to liberty. There is always something of servility in rigour and constraint, and I maintain that what reason, prudence and tact fail in accomplishing can never be brought about by force."
To children in particular Victor Hugo's maxim applies; "If you want to make men better, make them happier." Such words a preacher of the Gospel may well keep before him. Grace indeed moves the heart interiorly, but outwardly kindness alone can induce a man voluntarily to embrace a religious belief or determine him to make a moral effort. Other means are sure to fail.
"It is not possible," says St. Vincent of Paul, "that we preachers should bring forth good fruits, if we, like barren soil, only produce thistles; there must be in us something attractive, something pleasant, or we shall repel everyone." "If we come forward in the likeness of ravening wolves," says in his turn St. John Chrysostom, "we are sure to be beaten." Goodness, on the contrary, never fails to win souls. "The very convicts," says St. Vincent of Paul, "amongst whom I lived can be gained over; and in no other way. When I spoke sharply to them I spoilt everything, and on the contrary, when I praised them for being resigned to their hard lot and pitied their sufferings; when I kissed their chains, and showed that I felt for them, then they listened to me, then they gave glory to God, and then they sought to put themselves into a state of grace."
In the apostle of Christ, kindness, besides its innate attractiveness, is a kind of visible demonstration of the truth of religion; it seems to present all problems ready solved.
Dumas tersely but very clearly sets forth this apologetic value of goodness; "Not even genius avails to explain what God is; but the kindness of men is a proof that He is." And that angelic soul Madame Swetchine [a Russian mystic who converted to Catholicism in the 19th century-----the Web Master], who herself by sheer force of kindness ruled so many, expresses herself admirably; "The practice of virtues, lovable virtues, is the sole language of faith that can inspire any respect for religion in unbelieving or all but unbelieving minds. Hence we are wrong, and very wrong, in not preaching God in the only manner in which He can be understood." And she adds; "If good people were kinder people, there would not be so many sinners." The conclusion we may put as St. John Chrysostom put it; "Throw the net of charity, bait it with kindness. Remain always a lamb and you will always be a conqueror."
In setting forth the excellency of kindness we have shown that alone it makes the kind man perfectly happy; that alone it conquers the souls of men and makes an apostleship fruitful. Truly Montaigne was right when he insisted that "every other science is hurtful to him who is not versed in the science of goodwill to his fellowmen." And with him we may add; "Even if I could make myself feared, I had far rather make myself loved."
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