A story comes to us from the early centuries of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert. Some men came to counsel with Abba Poemen, asking him, “Tell us, when we see brothers dozing when we are at prayer, should we pinch them so they will stay awake?” The Abba said to them, “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.” This is an act of kindness. Kindness is the melding of mercy, and generosity, dignity – our own dignity and others’.
The English word “kind” comes from the same etymological root as “kin.” We are to live kindly with one another because we belong to one another. We are humankind. Now for most of us, living kindly goes without saying – for those whom we cherish and identify with, and to whom we feel a sense of belonging. It is easy (or at least easier) to be kind to someone we love.
Yet the call to kindness that we hear in the Scriptures – over and over again – is much broader and more challenging. The New Testament word for “kindness” can be translated as compassion, love, full of tenderness, gentleness, goodness. This “kindness” reveals the complexity of human relationships.
It also, in certain ways, reveals the complexity of our Scriptures themselves. Reading the scriptures is often like someone’s sharing with us a copy of a letter they have written in response to someone else. We read their letter; however we usually do not have a full picture of why they are saying such-and-such, what they are responding to, or hoping will happen to their correspondent in the future? In the scriptures, we read so many times that we are to be kind. Why? What is the back story? If we do some detective work, we see how kindness redresses how we could otherwise deport ourselves in the presence of those who are different – because of their culture or race, religion, class, education, sexual orientation, appearance, politics, or age – or different because of their hopes or values. In the Hebrew scriptures, we read one time, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; however we read in thirty-six places to “love the stranger.”[i] Kindness is a corrective.
Jesus magnifies this teaching in his own behavior. He does not exclude anyone, even those who were viewed by most people as despicable. The prevailing reason why Jesus said what he said and did what he did was tender loving mercy, which is a compassion: a suffering with another because we belong to one another. Whether to the lame or to the lost, to the pompous or to paupers, Jesus was compassionate.[ii] Jesus learned from the psalms, “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”[iii]
Jesus’ kindness is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.” Philonexia is the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for sharing life, enabling us to living kindly with one another. In the Letter to the Hebfrews we read, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[iv] Philonexia, not xenophobia. Kindness breaks down “the wall of hostility” that otherwise is easily constructed between ourselves and “others.”[v] Kindness arises from compassion, the memory that we are all kin.
Kindness also conveys dignity, by bequeathing worth to others. So many people live their lives with deafening words of criticism, inadequacy, and fear which may echo from their childhoods. They will collude with this indignity unless there is an intervention, an intervention of kindness from someone else. For many people, we must give them dignity before there is dignity in them to respect. There’s an old Swedish proverb: “In every person there is royalty. Address the royalty, and royalty will respond.”
Kindness rescues. Kindness is a lifesaver. I remember one day standing in a hallway at our monastery, trying to make sense of what was posted on a bulletin board. It just so happened, that day I was absolutely miserable, though I had not shared this with anyone. Another Brother was passing by me; he paused, looked into my face, and asked, “Having a difficult day?” How did he know? I don’t know. Somehow. I turned to him, now with tears in my eyes, and nodded. He drew me to himself, gave me an ever-so-brief hug, looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry.” And then he continued on his way. I, meanwhile, was a transformed man. I was immediately fine, just fine. In that momentary encounter with my Brother’s kindness, I had been rescued. The reason why I had found the day so difficult had not changed; however I was no longer alone, facing my troubles alone. The intervention of kindness had taken about 10 seconds… and yet, I was transformed. Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt and a contemporary of Jesus.[vi] Philo said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Kindness rescues.
And this includes yourself. There’s an old proverb that reads, “How you do something is how you do everything.” The proverb applies to the growth of kindness in your own soul. Kindness in some things will lead to kindness in all things – and don’t leave yourself out. Treat yourself kindly. Be generously compassionate toward yourself. You are an amazing person; you are also a mixed bag and, probably, some days you are a mess. An early desert monastic, Abba Mateos admitted that “the nearer we draw to God, the more we see ourselves as sinners.” Don’t let this awareness imprison you; let it liberate you, because God knows and loves you. God reveres you with tender loving mercy, which you need. You need to be saved from yourself every day. Surrender feigning to be your own god. Jesus is your savior, your friend. Cooperate with Jesus by befriending yourself. Practicing this will make a world of difference to you and to others.
Our kindness to ourselves will grow into our kindness to one another. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another.” Start with yourself. Be kind to yourself, and you will “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.”[vii] If those words are too hard for you to receive – about living kindly with yourself from which kindness to others will naturally flow – then reverse the formula. Be kind, generously kind, to those to whom you can be kind. Your repertoire of kindness will grow, and you will eventually catch on. Kindness, even living kindly with yourself, will become irresistible.
One way to cultivate kindness is to use your breathing as respiratory therapy for your soul. Saint Paul writes about “praying without ceasing.”[viii] Use the gift of breathing as way to unclog what is in the way in your soul, and then to help you get on the way to living kindly:
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul. (Name what is obstructing kindness. For example, anger, disappointment, resentment, bitterness, fear).
- Breathe in loving kindness.
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul.
- Breathe in loving kindness.
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul.
- Breathe in loving kindness…
Continue, continue, continue, continue until you come into a clearing.
Don’t wait. Don’t wait to be kind. We only have now. Henri Frédéric Amiel, the 19th century Swiss philosopher and poet, said “Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” Don’t wait to reciprocate kindness. Initiate kindness. If you are living kindly, you won’t be “on the take” for kindness, expecting it, demanding it, resenting when it doesn’t appear. Living kindly generates kindness. You simply cannot give kindness away. There is always more. Live kindly, and you will have enough kindness in your heart so as not to be endlessly shopping for others’ kindness. If you are out of practice with kindness, cultivating kindness is like any other practice, whether learning a sport, or foreign language, or craft, or playing a musical instrument. The words “kind” and “kindle” are cousins. Kindle kindness and you will teem with kindness. Lucy Larcom, the 19th century New England educator, said “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.”
Let kindness flow from you with great generosity. Don’t place any restrictions on the flow of kindness, both the receiving and the giving. Deport yourself with kindness in the face of every living creature, toward the flowers and crops, and trees, to the air and water. In the monastery where I live, I gently touch the flowers and plants as I pass by, and to a number of them I speak to affectionately by name. They are alive! (In my own room, my monastic “cell,” I greet my plant every morning with, “Hello Sweetheart.”) We are living in a time where so many of our values and certainties are being deconstructed. We know too much, and we know too little. We are living on edge. How then shall we live? Round the edges. Live kindly. St. Isaac of Syria, a 7th century monk and bishop, said “Let your heart burn with love for the whole of creation: for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for every creature.”
Kindness will round the hard edges of our life, and fill us to the brim, but it will not make all of life a uniform sunny yellow. Kindness has different hues, different qualities. The kindness we bequeath upon our own selves may be quite different from the kindness we share with a family member or close friend, with a colleague or neighbor, or with a stranger. Kindness toward a child may be different than kindness toward an elder. What fits? Do some detective work. For the people in your life who are “other” – the strangers in your life – what is meaningful to them? What language would convey kindness? What about touch and taste? What about certain dates on the calendar – birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations; religious festivals; cultural celebrations – whose remembrance, on your part, would be received so kindly and thankfully. How will you remember these? Doing some homework will be helpful, lest you unintentionally inflict your own values on another person whose values and customs may be quite different. A fascinating conversation to have with another person is about what gives their life meaning. How do they celebrate? Open your ears and open your heart. The experience of kindness is relational. Through kindness, our human kinship becomes obvious.
Perhaps this is why kindness puts us in touch with its cousin: humility. Humility is not a seed; humility is the soil which we share with all of humankind. Saint Paul writes, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”[ix] The gift of humility will simply come to us in time, in ways in which we are powerless to resist. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” or “near the ground,” humus being the earth. Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond those who otherwise surround us. And we need to know humility. Because there can be an unrecognized pride within ourselves if we are prepared to show kindness to others, but are unprepared to receive their kindness, as if we have the monopoly on kindness.
Saint John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Alexandria, spoke of Jesus who not only poured out love but also made himself dependent on others. He possessed nothing, so for his very survival he had to rely on the kindness of his friends. And in his gratitude for all he received, he affirmed them as true friends and true disciples. It can be a great kindness to receive from others what it empowers and fulfills them to give. To live kindly is to share kindness – giving and receiving – with great generosity. In the early centuries of the church, a brother in the Egyptian desert asked Abba Pimenion, “How should we practice life?” The old man said, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.” Kindness is of our God-created essence, a necessary intervention for our disquieted world.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- Are there relationships in your life where kindness is lacking? Why is that? What is your invitation?
- Draw on your own memory. Reflect on where you were on the receiving end of kindness. Who was kind to you, and why did that make such a difference? Embrace the kindness. It is never too late to be thankful for another’s intervention of kindness in your life. Communicate your gratitude. If they have died, take Jesus at his word that “Whatever we unbind on earth is unbound in heaven.”[x] Let Jesus be your intermediary through whom you whisper your gratitude for the kindness you received from a departed soul.
- Reflect on your own life: “Am I becoming kinder?” If so, why? How? If not, why? How?
The prophet Micah enjoins us:
“What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.”[xi]
[i] See, e.g., Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34.
[ii] See, e.g., Matthew 6:25-34, 9:36, 14:14, 20:34; Mark 1:41, 4:40, 5:36, 6:34, 8:2f, 12:41-44; Luke 7:13, 10:41.
[iii] Psalm 103:8.
[v] Ephesians 2:14.
[vi] Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE).
[vii] Ephesians 4:32.
[viii]1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
[ix] Colossians 3:12.
[x] Matthew 16:19.
[xi] Micah 6:8.