I remember once sitting in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, when a young woman was brought in. She was in a bad state – she was shaking, her nose was running, her clothes were dirty and her hair unkempt. She had come because her two children had been taken away from her that day, due to her drinking, and she was desperate for help. However, despite the state she was in, those around her did not pull away in alarm or disgust, but actually moved closer to her, encouraging her and telling her that she was welcome. They gave her a cup of tea and helped her hold it, when her shaking hands threatened to spill it, and, at the end of the meeting, several people came up to her encouraging her to come back again. She did come back and each time she looked a little better – cleaner and healthier because she had stopped drinking and begun to eat properly. Then, after a couple of months, when she had begun to feel comfortable in the meetings, she was led into the next stage of her recovery. She was encouraged to perform little acts of service, such as coming early to help set out the chairs, make the tea or coffee for people coming to the meeting, or stay behind afterwards to help wash up and help put away the chairs – for these little acts of service are not just kind things to do, but are an essential part of the recovery process, because they strike at the very heart of addiction.
Addiction of any sort, be that alcohol, other drugs, gambling etc., is essentially an act of selfishness, whereby a person is drawn deeper and deeper into being concerned only about their own wants and desires – no matter what the cost to themselves or to others. Thus, even though someone may have managed to stop taking the drug, the deep-rooted selfishness, of which the addiction is an expression, remains – ever ready to drag them back down again – so if a person is to recover then this whole direction of selfishness in their lives has to be reversed. This process of reversal is begun by doing small acts of selflessness – such as making the tea or coffee or washing up afterwards. It is a process that leads us out of ourselves into kindness for others – the kindness which was shown to that young woman, when she first entered the room, the kindness that was seen in the concern that she should come back and the kindness, which, if she lets it grow in her, will lead her into recovery.
Kindness is the opposite of selfishness; it is the antidote of all addiction, all selfishness and indeed all sin – for sin, in its heart, is an act of selfishness. Sin is where others are put second to my own wants and desires; it is an attitude that the only thing that matters is that I get what I want. So, fundamentally, sin is an attitude, not just an action and even if, by God’s grace, I manage to stop the action, the attitude will still be there, unless this is attacked by little acts of kindness, until the direction of my life is gradually changed from focussing on me and my needs to being directed towards the love and service of others.
This understanding can be seen in the Catholic teaching on reconciliation, but it is often overlooked in practice, for we tend to concentrate on expressing sorrow for the sinful acts we have committed and overlook that the root of these lies in an attitude of selfishness – and this also needs to be tackled, if we are to move into newness of life. We come close to this in the case of stealing – for we know we have to return or make good what we have stolen, but, even here, we often tend to concentrate more on the “thing” to be restored and not the change in our attitude, which led us to take the object in the first place.
According to the theology of St Luke, sin is a “disease” and needs to be tackled as a disease – which means not just dealing with the symptoms of the sickness, but also getting to grips with the underlying virus, which is causing the symptoms. This is why, in the Church Document on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the “how” of the sacrament there is a similarity to the practice of Alcoholics Anonymous. The priest is told that he should warmly welcome the penitent – and that this is not just a nice thing to do, but is actually part of the healing process that takes place in the sacrament. Then, when it comes to the giving of penance, it says that it should fit that which the person has confessed and should, in some way, be “medicine” to tackle the sinfulness in the person. Sometimes, it is difficult to find something appropriate, but it should always be an act of kindness towards someone – for the Holy Spirit uses small acts of kindness to move us away from the selfishness that has damaged us and others and towards the selflessness, compassion and mercy that we see in the face of God.
Last summer, I was in Rome for the Mill Hill 65+ course and in the dining room of the convent, where we were staying, there was an elderly sister, who had one of the kindest smiles I have seen for a long time. It was a smile that could only have been formed gradually over the years through many small acts of kindness towards others. I was reminded of her smile last Sunday as I read the Book of Malachi (3:1-4), which says that the Lord, when he comes among us, will “refine us like gold and silver”. That sister showed that work of the Lord – and also showed that the spiritual life is not just avoiding wrong-doing, but is being moulded into godliness – into being kind.
Some years ago now, at “Freshers’ Day” at the University in Reading, where I worked, a smartly dressed, young woman came up to me to say hello. She told me that she had just registered for a degree course, which she would do part-time, so as to be able to care for her two children. She was, of course, the same young woman I had seen led into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous a few years before. I told her how happy I was to see her and as she left I marvelled at the power of God’s grace to be found in small acts of kindness!
Well, it is back to work. The seminary opened again this week with some students from West Malaysia for the first time. So, we have a larger number of seminarians and a greater mixture in ages as well – we have a sprinkling of guys in their 40s – so it should be an interesting year!
I have been out cutting grass again – and enjoying the exercise, but I seem to be getting more aches and pains than I used to have. Maybe it is just getting used to things again after a month or so of doing other things, but it could also be due to the passing of time – for next month I shall reach the age of 70 – which my Dad used to refer to as the number of years the Lord has promised us, and maintained that anything more was a bonus.
I attended the vocations’ Seminar in Sabah, last month, where one hundred and forty young men had come to get to know more about priesthood. I was invited to talk to them about the missionary priesthood, which I did in my broken Malay and to make up for any possible lack of understanding I taught them a song and dance – which left me quite puffed! Afterwards, however, one lad told me that helped him realise that I was human! Maybe, now I think of it, my aches and pains are also a result of that dance – or at least some of them.