"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 WAY TO BECOME KIND, PART 2
HOW TRUE KINDLINESS IS A QUALITY OF THE HEART
However true it be that both clearness of intellect and strength of will must contribute to make a man considerate of others and good to them, nevertheless, kindliness, to deserve its name, must strike its roots deep down in the heart. His understanding shows a man how and where to be kind; by his will he stimulates or restrains as needed the impulse he feels to be kind to his fellow-men; but it is only because he is by nature or by grace kind-hearted that a man can be truly and perseveringly kind.
We speak of a man's mind as being enlightened, of his will as being strong, but only of his heart as being kind.
Words of comfort, good advice, helpful gifts, unless coming from the heart, move us not at all. This is so true that to say a man has no heart, and to say that he is unkind, is one and the same thing.
When, without thinking, you assert quite naturally that such and such a person is kind-hearted, if you just ask yourself how you know he is is kind, and why precisely you call him kind, you will see at once that it is at his sensitiveness to the pain of others, at his generous forgetfulness of self, at his affectionateness of disposition-----all qualities of the heart -----that you have been looking.
A kind heart is easily moved; every sort of distress touches it; tears it can rarely resist; it is, in a word, wholly sympathetic, wholly pitiful.
On the other hand, kind people are themselves easily pleased; every little show of attentiveness wins them over; they are the firmest of friends, in a word, impressionable beings with feelings so marvellously adjusted as to be sensitive to every least breath, whether of sorrow or of joy. The truly kind heart is quick to act; it is fruitful in good works; it delights in noble thoughts, generous designs, daring inspirations-----often, maybe, impossible to actuate-----but worthier far of human nature than the carefully calculated projects of the cold-hearted.
Feeling and persuasive words come quite naturally to the kind man; he is convincing, comforting-----at times even eloquent. If you want a man to resolve upon following your advice, speak to him kindly.
In his eagerness to do good to others, a truly kind-hearted man will spend and sacrifice himself unsparingly, and will show himself equally fearless in dangers, and self-effacing where there is question of praise or reward.
The kind-hearted, as we have said before, quickly come to feel positive affection for all those they benefit. Their kind acts are not only unselfish because disinterested, but lack the inevitable coldness of a mere doing of duty.
To be kind, even if the thing to be done be of its nature irksome, comes easy to them; for it is inspired by affection, and their kindness is sure to be welcomed, if only because it bears the stamp of a kind heart. When you speak of a man of good heart, you rightly mean a kind man, for, as we have now shown, to be good-hearted and to be kind is one and the same thing.
But why, after all, should kindness and generosity be said to have their seat or their root in the heart? Is the heart of flesh which beats within our breast anything more in this respect than a symbol agreed upon to stand for kindness? We know that physically it is the faithful echo of all our emotions. May it not likewise in a certain sense be their organ and their instrument? Surely the wise ancients were not altogether wrong in insisting on the very certain close dependence of the moral inclinations of a man and the condition, whether organic or functional, of his material heart. The material heart is sensitive to a degree. Like the delicate instruments which faithfully register the slightest trembling of the surface of the globe, the heart notes and measures the faintest emotion agitating the human soul.
When a man is astonished his heart beats more slowly; when he is violently startled it may even stop; the hearing of good news accelerates its movement; strong passion makes it throb madly; to no mental impression is it indifferent. If you want to know exactly what a person is feeling, place your hand on his heart; his face will not betray him nearly so surely or so readily. Besides, the heart does not keep its secrets; it passes them on to the rest of man. Formed to draw into itself and to pump out the blood in which is the life of man, the heart directs the vivifying stream into every single member, and all bodily well-being depends upon the accurate regulation of this supply. From a well-formed heart the vital fluid gushes healthily; through shrivelled heart-valves it merely trickles; according as the heart is strong or weak, its blood output is generous or poor; according as it beats quickly or slowly, the flow is rapid or sluggish. When the pulsations of the heart are above the normal, all the functions of the body are excited; the images in the fancy are more vivid, thoughts are quicker, the passions are more ardent, and action more energetic. On the contrary, if the heart beats over-slowly, the intellect seems dulled, the will becomes irresolute, the feelings are depressed, and activity in general is lowered.
From this dependence of the whole man on the physical action of his heart, we can easily gather how the health of this organ tends to influence, through his feelings, his whole moral nature, and especially how it may incline him to be generally kind or the reverse. If our heart-action is dull, the sight of suffering will make physically an abnormally slight impression on us; the feeling of pity excited in the sensitive part of our nature will be too weak to quicken our pulse; we shall not by sheer instinct experience that drawing towards distress to which compassionate souls have accustomed themselves to yield; no really effective words of comfort will occur to us-----no way of helping suggest itself spontaneously and insistently. We shall seem cold, indifferent, possibly harsh. We may cry out and struggle against ourselves; but it will be hard for us to avoid seeming selfish.
On the contrary, if physically our heart is normal, and if we have schooled ourselves to be kind to all about us, the sight of suffering will always touch us; pity, the mother of kindness, will be natural to us; any cry of distress will be loudly echoed in our ears; the least emotion will cause our hearts to beat faster, and will increase our power of action. Tenderness of feeling, gentle and kind words, generous inspirations, willingness to make even costly sacrifices; in fine, all that betokens a kindly spirit will well up from our heart as water from an unfailing spring; all with whom we have to deal will feel, and will say, that we are genuinely kind, or, as they put it, that our heart is in the right place.
It is from the persuasion that goodness, and especially kindliness, have to do with the material heart, that in our own day has originated among Christians the religious movement urging them to be specially devout to the Heart of their Master.
For of all the genuine kindlinesses which have ever brightened the world of others, there are none so deep, none so all-embracing, none that have so touched the hearts of men, as the kindness of the Heart of Jesus. Christ on earth was invariably kind to everybody; He died out of sheer kindness to men; to those who seek to be His very own, there is no thought so comforting as the remembrance that He is essentially kind. No wonder that men and women, grateful for the great gifts bestowed upon them by the goodness of Christ, should love to trace these gifts to their source and come adoringly to slake their thirst at the Sacred Heart.
If of kindliness we only possess and can only give out what our own heart contains, our wish to acquire the virtue of kindness must needs make us wish for a feeling heart. Now, can we do anything at all to our own hearts? Must we not rather resign ourselves to remaining for always kind-hearted or the reverse as fate has made us? In other words, what is the essence of kind-heartedness?
Both the material organ termed the heart and the moral tendencies somehow bound up with it, are fashioned by the successive action of three distinct forces-----Birth, Education, Free-will.
Man's lot on earth is outlined from his birth. Far from being like a blank canvas on which, with a free hand, he can trace the plan of his destiny, the salient features of his life were settled without him, and the years that pass will simply throw those features into bolder relief.
Just as the cutting we plant, once it has taken root, reproduces as it grows the characteristics of the parent stem, so it is with the human being. From the rose bush we have roses, and from the vine we have grapes; even so the child sooner or later surely brings forth the fruits the history of its race teaches us to look for.
The child has, as it were, existed again and again before in its parents and far-off ancestors, and so far the past can tell us what the future is likely to be. For heredity not only conditions the physical organism, but influences the moral dispositions consequent upon it. Children, before coming to the use of reason and far too young to have been taught, show themselves virtuously or viciously inclined; by a sort of natural instinct they are good or bad. Happy they who, like St. Vincent of Paul, or St. Francis de Sales, come of a stock which Christian kindliness has impregnated for generations, who for this reason show in their earliest gestures that they can pity, and whose very first words are kind and gracious for all their artlessness.
"For good or for evil," says Joseph de Maistre, "at three years old a child's character is formed." If we like we may say rather that it is completely outlined, though not yet filled in, since education and environment have still to do their work upon it, and since, in fine, every man's personality is in his own power.
However fixed the species of plants, everybody knows that care and skilled culture can modify their qualities and produce them in pleasing variations.
In the same way the child is susceptible to influences brought to bear upon it, and whatever its inheritance of character, it responds energetically to the action of the physical or moral forces to which it is subjected. Climate, food, exercise, build up its organism, interior and exterior; the city-bred differs from the country-bred child; the child who day after day breathes the foul air of a factory seems an inferior being to the little creature who revels from morning to night in the sun-kissed air of the fields.
Nor do moral surroundings tell less on the formation of character. Some homes seem made on purpose to develop selfishness in a child, while in others everything tends to the awakening and encouraging of generous feelings.
Take a child who gets everything it wants, whose whims are studied so that they may be at once gratified, for whom all suffering vigilantly guarded against, who is allowed to think that the world is made for it alone, almost perforce it becomes exacting to those who wait upon it, passionately violent if one of its whims is resisted. Again, those around it show themselves cold and indifferent to the sufferings of other people; the child hears those whom misfortune has overtaken more blamed than pitied; no one teaches it by example how to pity or to sympathize; no one suggests to it that there are hungry children to be fed, and that it becomes the well-to-do to speak kindly to and to help the poor.
In a school such as this the unfortunate child literally cannot learn to be kind. It has no chance of so much as practising that goodness of heart which may be innate in it. On the other hand, a child brought up by parents who are themselves affectionate and charitable, who at an early age is taught to feel that it is loved, but that gratitude is expected from it in return; who is forced to learn from experience what it is to suffer and to work; who shares privations with its parents; who is taught to visit those poorer than itself, and to pity their hard lot, and to help them with alms at some little cost to itself; who hears those in trouble through their own fault spoken of with compassion instead of with severity; and who by all these means has, almost from its cradle, had kindly thoughts and sentiments of good feeling towards others day after day stirred up in its soul-----a child so truly fortunate is bound to develop into a kindly man, owing a tender heart to the surroundings of his earliest years.
In fine, there comes to all a day when conscience is sufficiently developed, and when, feeling that we are answerable for the use we make of our powers, we enter into possession of ourselves. Henceforth we are emancipated, free to do with ourselves what we like, and no longer like soft wax, or damp clay, to be fashioned at the will of others.
Birth and education have left ineffaceable marks on us; moreover, certain propensities have become ineradicable from the heart, into the very substance of which they have grown in the course of the long years during which that heart was not its own master.
Yet, even when thus left to ourselves, our formation is not complete, and it is for us to master evil tendencies however fully formed and firmly established within us. Of course, we cannot quite uproot them, but we can and we ought to control them. If we set to work manfully we can both give ourselves a new character and create a new heart in ourselves.
To effect this we must begin by studying ourselves, in order to know our faults and our resources. We must have an ideal, fitting us individually to look up to, for the plan of life varies from man to man according to his aptitudes and circumstances. Lastly, we must set bravely to work, and by uninterrupted efforts repress our instincts for evIl, and develop our tendencies for good.
If we bear in mind that, as faith and reason tell us, goodwill to our fellowmen is both the most Divine and most human of all virtues, and that it is, moreover, the fairest flower and the most fruitful joy of life, we shall school ourselves to banish all harshness from our thoughts, words, or acts; we shall of set purpose be unselfish, and grow accustomed to consider people and things otherwise than merely in their relation to ourselves; our favourite sights and our favourite books will be those which move the heart, inclining it to be indulgent, pitiful, generous, and affectionate. Our one pleasure and our constant aim will be to lessen suffering and to increase happiness. Happily, there is no single human heart, however handicapped by birth or evil surroundings, which cannot by dint of persevering acquire kindliness for its second nature.
HOW IT IS RELIGION THAT MAKES US KIND
The heart is like a spring-----it only gives out what it has received. No spring produces the water that flows from it; from whatever depth it wells up, it has begun by falling as rain from heaven. Even so, the kindliness which overflows a human heart comes from above, and should the heavenly rains cease to water that heart, its wealth would soon be spent. In truth, "none is good save God alone," none other is essentially kind; Angels and men are good and kind only so far as they partake of the Divine goodness and of the Divine kindness. Thus Father Faber rightly said that' 'kindness is the occupation of our whole nature by the atmosphere and spirit of heaven. Nature cannot do the work by herself, nor can she do it with ordinary succours." ["Spiritual Conferences," Chapter II, p. 22.]
"No one is good," remarks another writer; "no one deserves to be loved unless there are either Heaven-sent thoughts in his mind or Heaven-directed affections in his will."
God in the beginning endowed man with kindliness of heart. In creating us to His own image He gave to what in us is lofty and good the absolute supremacy over all base and evil instincts. But sin, by overthrowing the order established in man by God, and by drying up the kindly streams which flowed from the Heart of God to the heart of man, brought about the successful mutiny of his less noble inclinations. His animal nature triumphed, or at least boldly asserted itself. Henceforth in every single one of us there have been two beings, two laws-----the one of the flesh, undisciplined, savage; the other of the spirit, reasonable, gentle. The warfare between them is unceasing, and the issue always doubtful. When the flesh gets the upper hand, we cease to feel for our fellow-creatures, we sacrifice anything and everything to the gratifying of our own appetites, we quickly become utterly selfish, imperious, exacting, jealous, vindictive. When the spirit prevails, we cannot but be compassionate, generous, grateful, humble, affectionate, obliging, faithful. His will enfeebled by sin, man could rarely count upon assuring the victory of his better nature. And, as a matter of fact, evil desires let loose, soon gained the mastery in the majority of souls. Mankind became cruel, and the peoples of the world sank into heartless barbarism.
But God, in His mercy, had pity on His creatures thus enslaved to their own evil instincts. He resolved to set up anew in the human heart His kingdom of kindness. To work at this, as it were, with His own hands, God made Himself man like unto us. The Incarnation and the Redemption are in two senses mysteries of kindness, for they are the visible expression of the All-Kind Heart, and they tend essentially to fill anew with goodwill the heart of man. Christ coming among us brought back to this earth the kindness of thought, word and action, which long since had vanished from it.
He began by showing how kindness was literally incarnate in His own Person. In His perfectly balanced nature the spirit ruled over the flesh absolutely and the flesh uncomplainingly obeyed. He set up in the world the one great example of unvarying nobleness of thought, of imperturbable presence of mind, of supreme tranquillity of soul.
Further, by persistent example, he taught pity for the suffering, mercy for sinners, tender love of the poor, patience under persecution, silence when outraged, until His love of men made Him lay down His very life to save them. No words can describe Him so truly as His own; "I am the Good Shepherd." His dying on the Cross was a free act of compassionate and generous goodness to men. His last words were the kindest, the most considerate ever uttered by the lips of man; "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." His teaching He summed up in what we may call His sermon on goodwill to men. "This," He said, "is My commandment, that you love one another, . . . for by this shall all men know that you are My disciples if you have love one for the other."
A kindly and affectionate manner is therefore the distinguishing mark of a Christian. He who does not love his neighbour, even though he be always praying, is not a Christian! He only who is good and kind to all is truly Christ's, for Christ has made him what he is.
Imbued with this doctrine, His disciples went forth to conquer the world to charity. They wanted nothing in return. They did not say to their converts, "You shall be our subjects; and we will together set up a great empire, and together will in the end possess the whole earth."
Their message was; "Up to now you have been the slaves of your own flesh, you have served in shame, and in your turn have been cruelly hard to your fellow-creatures; but now that kindliness has once more sprung up on earth in the human nature of Jesus Christ our Saviour, shake off your chains, free yourselves, respect your own selves, and be good to all others. The Master's whole law comes to this, 'that you love one another.' Do so as you should; and no more will be asked from you."
So spoke in their day the first messengers of Christ. Their words penetrated the hearts of all who heard them, and forgetfulness of self in the interest of others became the ruling passion of the early Christians. Not only day by day were fervent prayers for the growth of mutual love among them put up but each morning a table was spread before them that they might each one of them feast on a food, itself the Incarnate Love of God. The Eucharist is at once the symbol and the source of all goodwill to men, and they who eat of It make their very own the charity of Christ Himself. Hence it has come about that where these heavenly influences have had scope for their play, human nature has grown refined and sympathetic; and men and women have learned to treat one another like brethren, instead of hating each other like enemies. The transformation of mankind has indeed been slow, and is assuredly still far from complete; nevertheless, it is real and palpable enough amongst Christian nations.
The more a nation comes under the influence of Christ, the more striking and more universal the spirit of kindliness which pervades it; the greater everyone's respect for the lives and interests of others, the more general are gentleness and courtesy of manner, and the more elaborate and extensive the machinery for the relief of distress.
On the contrary, a people that has either remained a stranger to Christ, or has thrown off "His sweet yoke," is sure to be a prey to savagery, either in its old and repulsively brutal form, or disguised as a heartless refinement of modem civilization.
God, Who in the beginning implanted goodwill to his fellows in the heart of man, and Who by means of the Christian religion has willed to restore its kindly reign upon earth, must ever be the one inexhaustible principle of all kindliness of heart; and to Him, he who wants to learn to be kind must have recourse.
In the Catholic Church, the Heart of Christ is the ever-flowing fountain of all goodness, and gives of its treasures of kindliness to all who reverently and trustfully come to It to slake their thirst.
People are to be met with, who, whilst giving themselves to the practices of religion, offend seriously against kindness, either by unworthy thoughts of others, or by indiscreet talk, or by harsh action. But the lives of such persons are in plain contradiction to their pious professions; either they have acquired not more than the outermost shell of piety, and aim at nothing more real, or, however sincere their piety so far as it goes, it is not strong enough to silence the noisy pretensions of a still half-untrained nature.
On the other hand, it is not to be denied that some men, dead to religion, give frequent practical proofs of kind-heartedness. For some souls are of their very nature gentle and disposed to oblige; and there are others who, all unconsciously, have retained an imprint of Christian charity so deep that it must not surprise us if instances of perfect kindliness of heart be from time to time met with in what seem utterly heathen surroundings.
Nevertheless, these are only welcome exceptions, and by no means the rule; for the fact remains that religion is the only power in the world really efficacious for the subjugating of unkindly natures; and that for a determined soul a frankly religious life will, by the graces which it calls down from Heaven and by the efforts of the will which it imposes, always be the only proper means for the acquiring of the virtues of gentleness, compassionateness, generosity, and self-sacrifice.
Montalembert, in his "Monks of the West," has ably set forth this aptitude of religion for making men kind to one another; "The happiness of belonging to God," he says, "in no way shuts up a noble heart against the sufferings of others, not hinders it from sharing any generous emotion. . . . On the contrary, such a heart becomes more tender, and more intimately sympathetic with the hearts of the sorrowful in proportion as it entwines itself more passionately round the Heart of Jesus. . . . Any spirituality which renders the soul hard, arrogant, and devoid of pity is essentially false, as is every religion which dries up or hardens the hearts of its followers. . . ."
Indeed, in taking possession of a soul, piety imprints its distinctive seal of goodwill to men on every single faculty. The lessons which it teaches, the graces which it communicates, the duties which it imposes, combine to make kindliness the dominating characteristic of the Christian life.
The pious soul is in an especial manner learning its lesson in its Master's school in time of prayer and of spiritual reading. And of all the words of Jesus, it loves to repeat those insisting on gentleness and kindness; "Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart. I send you as lambs amongst wolves . . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. . . . In your patience you shall possess your souls." The Catholic Church is always repeating her Divine Founder's words, and needs must that a docile mind, fed on like maxims, sooner or later will conceive a dislike for any sort of hardness, and will set its true value upon kindness.
To the lessons He vouchsafes to give, God adds the grace of His own visits to hearts that are kind. For He makes Himself present to all those who invoke Him. The Prophets even of the old law proclaimed, "Neither is there any other nation so great, that hath gods so nigh them, as our God is present to all our petitions" (Deut. iv. 7).
The intimate intercourse between God and him that prays is much more clearly affirmed in the Gospel: "For where there are two or three gathered together in My name," said Our Lord, "there am I in the midst of them." "If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him."
The union of the Christian with his God is still more sensible in Holy Communion, since therein the living Body of Christ, filled with the treasures of the Divinity, becomes the food of man. In this mysterious joining together of man and God, man necessarily utterly submits to his Creator, and God takes absolute possession of His creature. The one is wholly immolated to the other. And interpenetrated in its inmost being by Divine Love, as metal melts in a furnace, the hardest of human hearts softens and emerges meek and gracious to all.
Again, as hard and barren lands are in time softened and made fruitful by a moist and genial climate, so do the streams of grace infallibly soften the human heart, and make to germinate the seeds of kindliness buried in it.
Or, as a wild beast which has found its tamer unresistingly suffers itself to be mastered, so our nature, when subdued by God, silently submits and puts itself wholly in His hands.
The result of the coming of God into a soul is the re-establishment of order among its powers, the vindication of the right of the mind to rule over the passions, the giving to kindness the upper hand in our judgments of others and in our way of acting toward them. Nay, since in giving us Christ Himself for our food our religion makes us "eat of goodness, meekness, mercy, and love," our whole moral temperament must of necessity be changed for the better.
Lastly, religion imposes tasks in return for the heavenly gifts it bestows; it asks for acts implying moral effort. Nor is it other than just that, after admitting us to a Divinely spread board, it should require something from us. Now the acts of virtue in relation to our fellowmen which religion asks the practise of from us are chiefly, that we quench in our hearts the fires of hatred and jealousy, that we forgive injuries, that we refrain from cutting words, that we be kind to others, and that we, even at the cost of time and trouble, endeavour to succour them in their needs. Note how in making of these things duties for us religion is simply bidding us to be kind and good one to the other.
Religion and kindness go, therefore, hand-in-hand. So great, indeed, is this mutual dependence that there can be no true kindness without God, neither can God be where kindness is not.
You, then, who want to be kind of heart, go and by prayer draw kindness from its source, which is the Heart of God. You, again, who try to be kind and good to your fellowmen and yet fancy that God is far from you, search more deeply into your own soul; God is surely there, hidden though He be, and the day will come when you will reach Him. You, lastly, who flatter yourself that you possess God, and yet are pitiless, unkind, harsh, I say to you that your so-called religiousness is an illusion, for as long as kindness is not in you, God is not with you. The fundamental principle of Christianity and the unmistakable mark of a religious-minded man is his charity to all.
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