Friday, January 19, 2007

Kindness: An essential part of agape

Dear friends it is Friday once again. This day finds us firmly in Ordinary Time, moving rapidly toward Lent. It is with this in mind that I turn to thoughts of what we have to abstain, fast, pray, and do penance about, both individually and corporately. Earlier this week I uploaded and then deleted a post on kindness and its role in Christian life. I know my takes on these matters are kind of abstract and are certainly theological. I make no apologies for this, as I am firmly convinced that, just as how we pray forms and informs what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi), what we believe forms and informs how we act. In other words, orthopraxis (correct practice) flows from orthodoxy (correct belief). I also know that the connection is not always obvious and that integrating what we believe with what we do in our everyday life is the challenge for all Christians, that is what it means to have integrity, or, to use a good old fashioned term, to be perfect, for which we need God's gracious help. What makes the connection discernible or even perceivable is love- agape. Agape is the kind of love we are to have one for another, it is the subject for our Holy Father’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

In St. John’s Gospel, in his Last Supper discourse, Jesus tells the twelve: "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13, 34b-35). In this passage the word love, in the original Greek, is a form of the word agape. In my deleted post I wrote that as regards the relationship between kindness and agape, we must resist two temptations. The first temptation that needs to be resisted is conflating agape and kindness, thus mistaking a part for the whole. We must also resist reacting to the first tendency, which is to dismiss kindness from comprising any part of agape. To be kind means to be of a sympathetic or helpful nature, to be forbearing, and to be gentle. Hence, kindness is the quality or state being kind. As with any polarizing tendency, sticking with the spectrum metaphor, the truth lies somewhere between the two poles. Put simply, kindness is only one aspect, a very crucial aspect, of agape, which is multifaceted.

This is worth exploring because far too often at Church, sometimes even more than in our other activities; we are petty, unkind, dismissive, and neglectful of one another. Like the ancient Israelites, we sometimes get too focused on correct liturgy and ritual to the neglect of the poor and needy, not to mention each other. If we are not a community of kindness, along with being a community of justice, peace, honesty, etc., everything we do is a lie, a charade, mere lip service. One cause for the paucity of kindness is that, even as Christians, we tend to have as the focus of our faith ourselves, our own fulfillment, and our own happiness. We think, pray, and worry about what we, individually, are getting out of being Christian, out of going to Mass, out of whatever activities we are engaged in at Church. Nothing could be more anti-thetical to following Christ than being so self-focused. We are taught by the Master himself that "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 10,39). How we discuss altruism is indicative of our tendency to focus on ourselves. "It feels so good to help people," we often hear people say after dishing up a few plates of food at the soup kitchen. Now, God bless such people for doing something good, whatever their motivation. However, what about helping, assisting, loving when it doesn’t feel good, or when we don’t want to? Do we get a free pass if we are quite convinced we are going to get nothing out of it? If we serve others when we don't feel like it, is it okay to be uppity, condescending, or unkind? I hope these are all rhetorical questions, the answer to all being a resounding No!

Is this to write that we should never get anything, personally, from the practice of our faith? No! It is to write that it is not always the case that we do, or should. If the only way we listen to God's voice is in the warm fuzzy, we will miss much of what God is telling us, both individually and corporately. If we only attune ourselves to the warm fuzzy, we will miss the most important things God is trying to tell us. However, we can be confident that God, our loving Father, will give us what we need. Such consolations do not come by us seeking them. Often what we receive is what the widow of Zarephath received by agreeing to feed the prophet Elijah during a period of drought and famine, just enough for that day’s need (1 Kgs 17). Of course, this is echoed in the Prayer of the Kingdom, taught us by Christ, "give us this day our daily bread" (Matt 6, 9-13). For our part, we must "seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness," and God will provide what we need (Matt 6,33).

This Friday I am doing penance for not bearing wrongs, or perceived wrongs, patiently. For bearing grudges and even nursing grudges. I am also mindful of those times when I am not as kind, or giving, or attentive as I should be to other people. I am praying for better awareness of my weaknesses and areas of immaturity. For what it is worth, that is what is on my mind this Friday.

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