Posted by: matt25 | October 16, 2009

Never Underestimate A Small Act of Kindness

When I read Christi Derr’s post I was immediately drawn into it.  The point of how a small, seemingly insignificant, act of kindness changed Oscar Wilde’s life is one that I must always strive to remember as I engage in ministry in the prison system.  But it goes far beyond that.. into every part of life.

I am sure that I won’t say it as well as Christi did, so here is her post.

Love is Kind

Posted By Christi Derr On October 16, 2009 

“Men have gone to Heaven for smaller things than that,” wrote Oscar Wilde in De Profundis . He was referring to an act of kindness done to Wilde in a moment of humiliation on a world stage.  This gesture of love and respect, though it was indeed very small, opened the door of Wilde’s heart to Jesus.  I was so struck by the beauty of this story that it got me thinking about how enormously powerful are the very small and humble actions we do purely out of love of God or our neighbor.  But first, as they say, the rest of the story…

At the height of Oscar Wilde’s popularity and acclaim as an art critic, novelist, poet, playwright, and delightful dinner guest, he was convicted of and sent to prison for crimes of “gross indecency.”  The fall from the pinnacle of world renown and success was a terrible one.  The rejection and disgust of England, which had previously embraced him, was keenly felt by Wilde.  One man, Robert Ross, proved to be a friend through the acclaim and the downfall.  I will let Wilde take it from here:

When I was brought down from my prison… between two policemen, Robbie waited in the long corridor, that before the whole crowd…he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and with bowed head I passed him by…

The poet reveals something a few sentences later that all of us should keep in mind when what we do appears to go unnoticed:

I have never said one word to him about what he did… I store it in the treasury-house of my heart.  I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay.

Throughout his life, Wilde had always been torn between two strong attractions, decadence and Catholicism.  In prison, where he “found his soul”, Catholicism began to get the upper hand in that battle.  He attributes Robbie’s small “act of Love,” just a tip of his hat, as being the genesis of that conversion:
When Wisdom has been profitless to me, and philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little lowly silent act of Love has …brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken great heart of the world.

And later he asks, “How else but through a broken heart can the dear Christ enter in?” ( “Ballad of Reading Gaol” ).

Robert Ross’s action toward Oscar Wilde was beautiful because it was small and kind.  Sometimes people, especially Christians like to think of themselves as nice.  This man was kind to Wilde, not nice.  Kindness involves a bit more than niceness.  It needs to be remembered that at the time of Wilde’s imprisonment, he was a social pariah.  When Ross was publicly courteous to Oscar Wilde, he risked his own reputation.  That is the difference between being nice and being kind.  Kindness costs something.  Kindness feels solidarity with one who is struggling.  St. Paul lists kindness as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Niceness waves from afar, kindness stoops.  The popular teenager who greets the unpopular one in the hall is nice.  The teen that joins the lonely kid’s table at lunch is kind.   Niceness holds the new born baby.  Kindness folds the load of laundry.   A nice co-worker advises the new guy.  A kind one mentors him.  Niceness points out a path.  Kindness accompanies the traveler.  It is important to the nice someone to look like a “good person.”  Kindness thinks of the other.  Niceness is a cousin of human respect.  Kindness is a sister of mercy.

The other thing about acts of kindness is that they are small.  I remember once when I was job hunting, the kindness of a waiter literally changed my life.  There is nothing more exasperating, and disheartening than looking for a job in a tough market.  After a day of trudging from interview to interview, I was feeling something less than human.  I stopped by a small French style café for a latte – a sure remedy for any sorrow!  The waiter there was so very kind, sincere and cheerful that had I gone on a trip to the islands it would not have done me more good than just being served coffee by this man.  I walked back up to my full stature upon leaving the café, not the subhuman manner in which I had crawled in.  I ended up having a career in hotel management.  I endeavored to treat every guest in the same way that waiter had treated me.  As is often the case, he never knew just how much his kindness truly inspired me to do the same to others.

My sister once told me about a minister’s wife who shined the shoes of Church members who had just lost a loved one.  This woman was keenly aware that a soul steeped in mourning needs the presence of someone there.  She also knew that the man or woman would have to attend the funeral.  The minister’s wife would silently shine the shoes of the bereaved.  She performed a helpful service but she also just had an excuse to be physically near them. In this way she was a silent presence – a comfort in itself.  And while she was there, otherwise occupied, if the person wanted to talk he/she could.  If not, she was just “there for them” for a set time, easing their immediate sense of loss.

The smallness of these sorts of acts accomplishes two wonderful things at once.  First of all the act is too small for the one shown kindness to feel indebted to the other.  The waiter didn’t buy me a house, he poured me coffee.  Even though his graciousness is always remembered by me, I did not feel a sense of burden when I left.  It was a free gift.  Secondly, small acts of kindness allow the giver to be a vehicle of charity without incurring a temptation to pride.  I am guessing that Robbie did not run home and brag to friends that he had tipped his hat to Oscar Wilde.  I am sure that the Minister’s wife never interrupts dramatic tales of early Christian Martyrs with “yeah, well I shine shoes for funerals.”

Scripture reveals to us the remarkable kindness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is always the perfect example of every Christian virtue.  Her thoughtfulness is first manifested in the story of the Visitation.  Mary finds out about St. Elizabeth’s pregnancy at the same time she hears that she is to be the Mother of the Messiah.   We can assume that she was overjoyed by the news that she would be the Mother of Jesus, but here she does something very different from the what rest of us would do.  At the time that I would be running from house to house in Nazareth letting all the neighbors know how special I was, Mary is packing to make the journey to Elizabeth’s house.  Mary did not send a card of congratulations to Elizabeth.  Mary sent herself to help Elizabeth.

We read another example of Mary’s compassionate heart at the wedding at Cana.  Have you ever noticed when reading this story that no one tells Mary that the newlyweds have run out of wine?  She seems to have overheard complaints from other guests or perhaps seen the couple looking a bit panicked.  Either way, she immediately acts to help them.  We know now, but no one knew then, just what the miraculous answer to her request would cost her.  Jesus performs his first public miracle which inaugurates his public ministry.  The culmination of that ministry would be his crucifixion.  Scripture scholars rightly teach us the much deeper the meaning of the miracle of Cana is the symbol of the bridegroom, Christ and His bride, the Church.  It also symbolizes the renewal of the Covenant, and has many other deeper meanings.  But frankly, the story on its most basic, simple level is also true.  A couple ran out of wine for their guests – not a worldwide catastrophe, but enough of problem to catch the attention of the kind heart of Mary, who then interceded with God for them and obtained the greatest possible blessing for their wedding, the first miracle of the Messiah.

The common thread in all of these stories of kindness is how much Our Lord does with so little.  Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism began with the smallest act of respect.  Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, Robert Ross was also the man who ran and got a priest to administer late rites to Oscar Wilde.  Ross saw Wilde received into the Church on his deathbed.  Mary asked Jesus to help out an embarrassed bride and groom.  She is answered with Jesus’ first miracle.  God seems to delight in this way of doing things.  Just think of the little boy in the Gospels who offered a couple fish and a little bread to Our Lord.  He witnessed Jesus turn a mouthful for one into a feast for thousands.

While we live in this world we are ambassadors for Christ.  We daily represent Jesus to others; Jesus, who describes Himself as meek and humble of heart.  We stand for the Father who is “kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”  We are representatives of Him who “causes it to rain on the just and unjust.”  Words fail us in describing the goodness of God.  Sometimes, though, small acts of kindness can give us and others glimpses of the overwhelming goodness of God, and make that goodness present, if just for a moment, in this valley of tears.   I know of an Archbishop who answers every e-mail he receives within a day at most.  That is no small thing; it is kind.  He is an ambassador for Christ.  Every time we patiently listen to someone who bores us, cook a healthy meal for a family, console a burdened friend, quietly and without fanfare forgive an offense, smile, or in any way help or recognize another we are introducing that soul to Christ or making His goodness present for a time.   And if that vision of goodness opens the door of a heart even a little, “the dear Christ can enter in.”

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