Demands of Charity

“Life is a chance of learning how to love” (A.E. Brooke). When he was very ill, St. Francis of Assisi asked that a message be sent to a certain Countess in Rome, asking her to come and bring some of her honey-cakes which he so liked. She came.

There is a lovely simplicity about this story. I see it as an example of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “delicious kindness.” The distance from Rome to Assisi is 109 miles, or 174 km., a long trip in the days before cars, trains and planes. The Countess comes with her honey-cakes and affection.

That tale is contrasted with something Claire Booth Luce told when she was 75 years old and was asked: “Do you have any regrets?” She answered, “Yes, I should have been a better person, kinder, more tolerant. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I remember a girlhood friend of mine who had a brain tumor and called me three times to come and see her. I was always too busy, and when she died I was profoundly ashamed. I remember that after 56 years.”

As I get older, faces come back to me from the past. There are tears I would like to dry and ask forgiveness for the favor that I didn’t do that I ought to have done. There were the opportunities for charity that I put off.

It is the small everyday kindnesses which count for so much; kindness expressed in small things, in the quite ordinary, banal daily life. As someone put it, it’s our “little nameless unremembered acts of kindness” that are so important.

There are two explicit dictums given by Christ. The first is that ours is not to judge or condemn, but to love and be merciful. The second is that whenever our neighbor has need of us, he or she takes on a mysterious likeness to Christ.

Let me string out a series of quotations that relate to the demands of charity.

Ephesians 4:32: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”

2Timothy 2:24-25: “Act kindly to everyone…forbearing, correcting an opponent with gentleness.”

“You must become gentle; never any harsh words, never a harsh tone; never take on a harsh look, always be gentle.” (Therese of Lisieux)

“Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.”
(St. Vincent de Paul)

“Charity consists in bearing with those who are unbearable.”
(St. Alphonsus Liguori)

“Try never to say an unkind word. It can do so much damage.”
(Father Walter Burghardt, S.J.)

Related to that last quote, one can note that the word “benediction” means to “speak well.”

When we speak well of someone we bless them. How important an encouraging word is. We are all starved for affirmation. One of the deepest of human needs is the desire for acceptance and approval by others. What a kindness it is to make people feel they are important. We can do this by giving a person the spotlight when we can. Find something right about things she or he says or does. Support someone’s dreams and plans. Say words like “right”; “sure”; “of course”; “you’re right”; “good idea”; “I’m with you.”; “you bet.”. (Cf. Patricia R. Madison, Improv Wisdom, p.31)

It takes so little to compliment. Mark Twain said “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” There is the Spanish proverb: “one compliment can warm three winter months.”

St. Benedict put it this way: “One complimentary word is more valuable than the most precious gift.”

“Be kind” wrote Philo of Alexandria, “for everyone is fighting a great battle.” There are those private worlds of suffering around us, there is the suffering that inevitably touches all human life. We can come to the point when having seen so much unhappiness and misery in the world that we can’t bring ourselves to cause any more sorrow, even a minor sorrow.

It was Sigmund Freud who said “If we cannot remove all suffering, we can remove some, and mitigate some.” A wise woman said to me, “in times of suffering, don’t say ‘call me if there’s anything I can do’; make concrete offers.”

Listening attentively is an important part of Christian charity. “If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself” (St. Peter Chrysologus).

Christian charity is not an easy matter. Here are some of the demands of Christian charity.

We do not get even; we take no opportunities for small revenges; we do not reciprocate; we let go of resentments; we forget insults; we bear wrongs patiently without causing more suffering and evil; we bear no grudges; we don’t indulge in the luxury of “feeling hurt”; we make excuses for people; we are not envious, we rejoice in the good fortune of others without envy; etc.

Sometimes charity shows itself if one just doesn’t make things any worse, and sometimes it shows itself by learning when to let other people alone.

The Catholic writer, Hillaire Belloc, wrote someplace that we must be unfailingly courteous.

Courtesy is something less than courageous holiness yet it seemed to him that the grace of God is in courtesy. Much the same could be said of good manners, it shows respect.

To end: two more quotes. Pope John XXIII, when asked what his most important function was, said “I learned that my most important function was to be a steady source of kindness.”

And finally, John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

The only question asked will be ‘have you loved well?’ Learn then to love and forget yourself.”