by Shelley Douglass
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace
“Each morning, Lord, you fill us with your kindness.” That antiphon has been a favorite of mine for years. Every time it rolls around in morning prayer I savor it again, as prayer and as promise. Sometimes it seems to go with a day’s events – sometimes not.
Now, when it’s hot and muggy and everything always feels sticky, my personal kindness level is about as low as it gets. When we have difficult guests in the house – arguments before 9 am about the simplest things – my kindness bottoms out. When people argue about what they’ve already agreed to, put me in the place of their mothers and rebel against simple rules – my patience gets pretty thin. It is so easy to snap at someone and feel perfectly justified. As hospitaller I wield a huge amount of power in this house. I try to be aware of it always so that I don’t misuse it. We do sometimes ask people to leave, but rarely, and never (I hope) for petty reasons. Still the potential is there – and it would basically be my decision.
Along with most Catholic Workers, I love the Last Judgment from Matthew’s Gospel, which reminds me of Christ present in the “least of these”. Also (I imagine) along with most Workers, I feel very inadequate to that Gospel – judged for all the times I turn people away, all the times I don’t stretch for one more. Judged also for my relations with those who do move in. It’s all very well to say that Christ is in each guest, but what happens when Christ repeatedly leaves the sink full of greasy pans, or consistently comes home late? What happens when Christ seems to be deliberately pushing to be asked to leave? My patience definitely does not suffice.
Each morning Lord, you fill us with your kindness. The dictionary defines “kind” as “sympathetic, gentle, benevolent”. Kindness is a homely side of love. It doesn’t have a noble sound to it, doesn’t call to mind trumpets or angels, and yet – kindness fills a multitude of gaps. I wish I were sympathetic, gentle, and benevolent – most of the time I just manage to be tolerant. True kindness, if I manage it, definitely wells up from an outside Source. I can only try to get out of the way, and hope it doesn’t drain away too soon.
Each morning Lord, fill us with your kindness. In the canticle we pray the promise to Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart…. Place a new spirit within you….taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.” Given the stoniness of my own heart, I shouldn’t be surprised at other people’s stony hearts. I’m quite good at recognizing stone hearts in other people. It’s my own that eludes me.
I can see stony hearts especially in public policies and places. A few days ago there was a headline in the local paper trumpeting higher dividends achieved by a local bank – and adding that 300 employees were being laid off. Stone. Last night we had a gathering with the Nuns on the Bus, religious women making a tour across the country to promote comprehensive immigration reform. Alabama has one of the most anti-immigrant laws in the country, passed explicitly to make people afraid so that they would leave our state. Stone. The Federal budget contains 10.17 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for the oil-gas-coal industries. To cut Federal spending, it is proposed to take 3.86 billion from safety net programs for poor folks – in a country where one in three people lives at or near the poverty line. Stony hearts. And then there’s the use of drones, ongoing warfare, Guantanamo, the prosecution of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, assassinations abroad – stone, stone hearts!
I’m sure that, just as my own stony heart escapes my notice, those who enact these laws do not see themselves as stony-hearted. Just as I want the rules to be followed, they want the budget to be balanced. Just as I want people to keep their agreements, they want people to follow the laws.
Sometimes it’s right to stand by the rules and enforce the agreements. Sometimes it’s not. When we operate out of our stony hearts we’re putting the laws, rules, agreements – and profits – ahead of human beings and the common good. A more political way of saying it is that when we get caught up in corporate power or in empire, our hearts turn to stone. Empire is not intent upon kindness – it intends domination. Corporate power intends profits. Neither is conducive to the survival of kind hearts, or of the common good.
When I pray that we be filled with God’s kindness each morning, I am certainly praying for my own heart, and my own patience, that I can fill my niche here in a humane and human way. I’m asking for more, though – I’m asking for a revolution. My political activity can be directed toward gentling the effects of empire and profit – preventing cuts to SNAP and TANF, supporting a better immigration policy – but I know that what we need is much deeper. We need an actual change in the system, a change that makes kindness, the common good, our focus. We need to dethrone profit and to think instead about human needs. Maybe it’s better for a bank to have a lower stock payoff, and keep 300 people employed – what about that? Maybe our goal should not be to control the world’s oil – perhaps peoples should control their own resources. Maybe we should be more focused on sustainability, not growth.
Personally I’m waiting for the old movement to revive in a new contemporary form. Dr. King was deadly serious when he called for a poor peoples’ campaign in which all poor folk would converge on Washington, D.C. to tie it up until Congress enacted legislation to end poverty; he intended for the peace movement to join in until the war (then in Viet Nam) was ended, and he hoped that peoples all over the world would join in such a transformative movement to create global change. He was deadly serious, and it led to his death. A nonviolent revolution will lead to some deaths – but it will not lead us to the taking of life. Instead, if we can persevere, it will lead to new life, and a life of kindness.
In the morning, Lord, fill us with your kindness.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.
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Thought for today