Some time ago, a woman came up to me after Mass and asked me to bless her three children, “so”, she added, “that they will be good!” I asked her whether, by “being good”, she meant that they would do what they were told and she answered, “Yes”; so I said, “I will bless them so that they may become what God calls them to be, but not that they will “be good”, for the Lord does not call us to be good – he calls us to care and there is a great difference between the two!” If I help someone because I want to “be good” my attention is directed to myself and my supposed spiritual progress, but if I reach out to help someone because I “care”, my attention is on the other person and this is the direction of love, the road along which the Lord is calling us.
It is true, that when we refer to someone as “a good person”, we usually mean that such person is a loving, caring person and shares in God’s compassion and infinite tenderness for the world and its people, but when we say that we want someone “to be good”, we usually mean that we want them to be biddable and do what is expected of them. St Irenaeus, however, says that “the glory of God is when mankind is fully alive!” and just “doing what is expected of us” can hardly be called being “fully alive”. “Being good” usually means “being respectable” and we are tempted to be like this so that people will approve of us – which is hardly the “goodness”, which gives glory to God. The Lord, however, as the Gospels show so clearly, was not considered “respectable”, by the worthy people of his time. He scandalised people because he enjoyed mixing with those whom others considered ‘disreputable” – and it was not just because they needed his care, he really seemed to enjoy their company – maybe because they were truly alive! We see the same in the great saints, such as St Francis, St Vincent de Paul or Mother Teresa of Calcutta; they all did things that were not considered “nice” or “respectable”. They saw people in need of care and they reached out to them – even though “respectable” people disapproved of them.
The New Testament calls us to “Charity”, but when we try to say what this means we tend to get into trouble as to its true Gospel meaning. It defies definition and so we are left trying to explain it through examples; thus the Wikipedia definition says: “it is the voluntary giving of help to those in need”. Such examples, however, often send us off in the wrong direction because they focus on the “what” of charity and not the “why” or “how”. The needs of people are usually complicated and cannot be solved just by a “hand-out”; they need a caring, discerning approach and an effort to discover the best way to help, for there are many people, who have been damaged rather than helped by misplaced charity. A well-known charity once made this point in its slogan: “If I give a hungry man a fish, he will be hungry again tomorrow (and therefore forever dependent and his self-esteem will be destroyed) but if I teach him to fish he will never go hungry again”. However, to see this we need to focus not on what we think is required, but on the person him/herself, who is in need.
This is, in fact, taught by the word itself, for the Latin root of the word for “charity” is “caritas” and in English we have two words which derive from this: the first is “to care”, which means we are focussed on the person – not just on his/her need. The second word is “to caress” and again it points to affection and concern for the person in need, not primarily supplying them with that which is lacking. In other words, “charity” is a call to love a person and to be with them, even when there may be nothing I can do or give to help them – except the gift of myself. Our Lady stood at the foot of the cross, helpless to prevent the sufferings of her son, but not helpless in giving the only gift that could help Jesus at that time – the gift of her tears, her presence and her love. If we really care for someone, there will be times when the greatest and only gift we can give someone is the gift of ourselves and our care – but at such times we may be tempted to run away, because we can’t “be good” and do or give something to make things better.
I have such a case at the moment. You may remember that some 18 years ago I worked in a hostel for street children in India. I got to know the boys there and am still in contact with several. I have had news that one of them fell from a mango tree, while trying to get fruit for his children, and was killed in the fall. He leaves a wife and three school-going children. My friends there tell me that they need help of various kinds, including some money, until she can arrange things for the future. So, I feel helpless and am asking the Lord – “What do you want of me?”
This is a busy week. I go to Sibu for the Golden Jubilee of Father Tom Connors and the 80th birthday of Fr. Ferdinand Vergeer –both Millhillers – and then the next day go to Bali for a wedding and a house-blessing. I should be back next Monday to cut the grass again!
A friend of mine in Bali, Bob, has had a stroke and is struggling to come to terms with it. Please pray for him and all others facing similar situations.