Choosing Kindness

He has a soft voice, an easy demeanor and a welcoming manner. “Kindness,” he said, “takes no effort. Meanness takes planning and choices. If it doesn’t, that is just evil.” He spoke in the softest of tones with an incredulity about the choices made to be mean. He listed them with an alarming rapidity: media posts, distortion of truths, neglect of one another, conscious manipulation of others….And so he invited thinking about the place and practice of kindness in a world coping with change, cruelties, coercion and contradictions. Kindness has no frame save civility and courtesy and has no template save the context of the current moment. And yet, its presence flavors every interaction and somehow spills into the next moment. There are examples everywhere.

The 4 year old who takes a treat and asks for one for her twin. The waiter who graciously rearranges chairs to accommodate a wheelchair. The truck driver who pauses to let a compact car squeeze out of a driveway. The cashier who produces a coupon for just the right product. The neighbor who picks up packages, and that guy who holds the door open. It occurs so often we hardly realize that those little miracle moments are occurring, and the roar of social media highlighting the worst of us so easily overwhelms the best of us. The goodness is there, little reflections of the light of life that glows in each of us. And the truth is that kindness demands an attentiveness to each other and to the needs that exist around us as well as our capacity to respond effectively.

Kindness and humility are at the core of what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be human. Sometimes, both are as elusive as they are needed. Being a Catholic offers encouragement on that pathway to kindness and humility in a meaningful way. The Gospel and readings point to the richness of putting others first and not seeking reward or recognition for self, just making good things happen by being fully present in the moment and responding. Practicing kindness is about becoming who we really are as a person and then as a community. Maybe it is easier than we have thought or imagined. Being able to recognize failing in kindness is actually part of the reflection that empowers the next act of kindness. Ultimately, acts of kindness are the clear statement that it is definitely not all about me. Instead, it is about us and who we can be together. Kindnesses are the gentle acts of recognition that, threaded together, create the image of who we really are as persons and as a society.

While we bemoan the negativity of social media, the bullying and violence erupting all over, the scandal-ridden Church and a polarized society, there is celebration to be found in the reality of contemporary practices. The teenager opening a door at a weekday Mass, the priest who leans over to bless a child, the grandparents who are holding hands….Kindness is everywhere. Choosing to practice it, to create and re-generate it, is the call issued to all Christians.

Narrow Gate

There are decades wrapped into her wrinkles, tragedies and triumphs trapped beneath the crepey skin and watery eyes. For the first time, I realize the weight of the world she’s lived in and the critical impact of each event in her life on the next. Tears spill from her eyes and words relay her anger and fears. After her father’s death, she believed she, too, would abandon a family one day as he had done. And so she avoided relationships, commitments, defining purpose and fell into next steps as time marched through the years. He died when she was just 15 and 65 years later, words shaped the anguish anew. Now we are sitting in her living room, and her sharing allows a new empathy where our lives intersect, a connection that did not exist before. We are of different generations in one family and the sharing matters. She matters. For those moments, we have entered the narrow gate, dared to chose the opening rather than walking along outside the wall. The conversation opens up the opportunity for more.

Afterwards, I realize the corporate family memories have gained new dimensions. It is not about who is right or wrong, or which memory is most accurate. It is more about receving the reality a person defines, believes in, lives by. In receiving it, learning it, there is the chance to enter the space another lives in, to mitigate the aloneness and to tenderly carry the burden together. There are multiple benefits for the speaker and the listener: awareness and acknowledgment, remembering and recognition, courage and change. A shared narrative means the distinction of black and white strokes of judgment find the haziness of shades of gray; the past has a new filter that reshapes those black and white images. Lingering there with the story ignites flames of humility and generates a warmth that could not have existed before. It empowers the understanding that each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done and far less than the best thing we have ever done. Stories of lives lived assure us that being human is complicated, events and contexts shape circumstances beyond control and yet there is a precious fragility to be understood, embraced and strengthened by mutual acceptance and the tokens of love that life can offer.

Slipping through the narrow gate is something to strive for. Illusions that we live on one side or the other are simply that. Everyday, human beings have the chance to walk through that gate. Somedays we will find the unfolding of a holy moment in a random conversation; other times, hours of frustration and aggravation will crowd every rational thought to the edge of sanity. The point for the Christian is to continue striving for the narrow gate with full grasp of how challenging that really is, and the sense that the striving is actually what matters. Failing is okay; succeeding is to be treasured. Learning someone’s story is not about judging, condemning or undermining other, but about recognizing flaws and foibles, weaknesses and brokenness and still seeing, accepting one another. It is about getting past who we are to really see and know another. There are dreamers and visionaries who walk among us, hard workers and first responders, deeply needy and overwhelmingly talented persons. There are the selfish and narcissistic, the giving and the crowd pleasers, the humble and the hurried. All human. All complicated. All alone until the narrow gate is passed through.


Sterotypes exist, and they exist for reasons. Like everyone else, Catholics are prey to the reality of stereotyping, and even within that huge umbrella of Catholicism, there are stereotypes about different groups within the whole. It was ironic to me that the realization of that was delivered by a Poor Clare, a contemplative monastic, who challenged me to see the persons who lived behind the walls or wore the veils or crosses, who were anything but stagnant and submissive, reactionary and judgmental. There was a particular moment that exposed my own prejudices. This is that story.

They walked arm in arm, their simple brown dresses swaying with each step and their laughter drifting back to the car. Removing bags from the trunk, I was in awe of the ease of their presence and the ready depth of their conversation. They were two contemplative monastics, one from NYC and the other Chicago; their lives had radically different turns. It had been decades since their last visit. I was simply the driver who delivered a lifelong New Yorker to this quiet corner of Ohio. My passenger was a Poor Clare of NY, and she was visiting a Byzantine rite Poor Clare monastery. Seh had met Sr. Philothea years before at a meeting and friendship was nurtured through handwritten notes of limited frequency. Now they swung into a vibrant conversation comparing the past and preparing for the future. The tone was rich; readiness and optimism brimmed from every word and belied the many decades of their lives.

Over dinner, they opened trajectories of thought and questions that were fascinating. What if, for instance, there actually was no God? What would be the implications of that? What if this, here and now, is eternity? What would that mean? What if the past was really just a springboard for the future? What is lost with the death of a person, of a community, a country? How does history and charism matter? Or does it? How does God love us when we fail? Or are we failing God in making choices or are we instruments? What are we learning?

What was most telling was the absence of all fear in the way they played with ideas, quoted competing philosophies and theologians of all persuasions, drifted from Judeo-Christian tradition to Buddhism and HInduism and Confucianism. No holds barred. All thoughts welcome. They were defying the stereotypes of religious women, of monastics, of the elderly with calm and confident conversation. There was no stagnation of thought, no sanctimonious piety in their unearthing ideas for table talk. They covered it all: tumult and conflict are intrinsic to the human experience. They laced that part of that discussion with examples from their worlds and from history with honesty and only tinges of regret.

They laughed heartily at the idea that any group of persons, any institution, was free of misunderstandings, harmful hypocrisies, untamed anger and dangerous duplicity. To them, complex human emotions and psychological factors were at work in every interaction; that was to be expected, understood, challenged and dealt with. They were realistic, practical, ruggedly honest. This from women who lived in confined settings where prayer, private and communal, devoured eight hours of the day, and the simplicity of manual work several more. There was no confinement of intellect, no spirit chained. It was beyond the scope of my expectations. Theirs was an ultimate freedom: they were without fear of rival ideas, unthreatened by divergent views, and ultimately confident in the trust they placed in God (whoever and whatever that actually was).

Listening that night was an unexpected privilege, something I had never imagined. There was a vitality in their aging, a deep sense of gratitude for the lives they were still living, and a disarming respect for the human person, all persons and ideas. I had not imagined that religious women, much less contemplatives, could court controversy with conversation and confidence and courage. They shared a level of conviction about the mysteries of human life and the validity of each person’s experience, and it was inspiring. I was in awe of their strength as well as their faith, and I knew the humility of standing before giants.

The evening ended, predictably, with prayer and then a shared silence. Two old friends had shown me that there is always more to see in life than we imagine; it is always worth the time to linger there with another, to know the light that shines there, and to appreciate the richness of the gift. Life is to be lived. Fear and prejudice have no place in the home that is friendship, community and the Church.

Practicing kindness

Sunday Mass is a ritual for some Catholics; others make less use of it. Some gather in the wee hours of the morning for the service. There are neighbors greeting one another, updates on families, exchanges about the weather. For some, there is a comfortable familiarity with the celebrant, an appreciation for his presence and humor (somehow linked to the delivery of the sermon). Drawing a laugh this morning, a young priest talked about avoiding extremes, taking a middle way, suggesting that there is much more to Catholicism than the confinement of rules. He was talking about the practical elements of life, about the application of the Gospel in the 21st century rather than adherence to the specific words of the Gospel. SImply put, he was inviting everyone to think about the essence of the message in our times, our lives. In so many ways, it is all about kindness, about attentiveness to one another, about fulfilling the little missions of a day that are part of the much bigger picture. Practicing kindness is the essence of what it means to be a friend, to be a Christian, to be human.

“Practicing kindness” is a phrase that alludes to both the need for kindness and the idea that kindness is only real when it has form and substance, choice and commitment. The phrase implies there are thousands of ways for kindness to find visibility; it rests within the power of every human being to bring it to life. There are the tiny things: allowing a car to merge from another lane; pausing to hold a door, granting a smile to a passerby. There are the larger ones: providing help for the floundering, proposing a new procedure to simplify a process, listening to what is really being communciated rather than what is being said in an argument. Every act of kindness, the spontaneous and the carefully planned, creates ripples in a world that needs those singular moments of hope, those opportunities to celebrate being human, empathetic, together. Kindness does not resort to extremes that divide and exclude persons. Instead, kindness is defined by that quiet presence of one to another, of interaction beyond the surface and of connection between beings. It is the denial of difference and superiority, devoid of discrimination and judgement. Kindness exudes a sense of compassion and care that recognizes the very limits of what it means to be human and gently provides more.

That young priest spoke about Jesus’ converations with the woman at the well and with the disciples about the preparation for the wedding feast. Gesturing with conviction and sparkling with youthful certainty, he described the Jesus he knows as kind, gentle, caring. He invited an early morning congregation to think differently about what it means to read and interpret the Gospel, what it means to share in a Sunday ritual and what can be taken away from that. As the prayers ended, and his listeners gathered in knots of conversation sheltering from the heat and humidity, he took the time to bend down and chat with an elderly woman, held the door for a family, and joked with an usher.