The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

© by Jonathan Montaldo

Bougereau, The First Mourning, 1888

Back in 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky on the downtown corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, after visiting his doctor, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton stepped out onto the busy sidewalk and found himself suddenly in deep communion with the procession of human beings he saw there. In that moment of sunlit clarity, the haze of his monastic separation burned off from his eyes, and Merton discovered a kinship with everyone on the street. “Thank God,” he wrote later in his journals about the event, “I’m a member of the human race just like everyone else. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. …I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race: if only everybody could realize this! There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 156-157, modified by JM).

This paragraph from Merton’s journals is famous, but there is another that follows shortly after that is another powerful revelation of a deep truth about us human beings. On that same afternoon trip in Louisville Merton had bought for fifty cents a book of photographs from Life Magazine called The Family of Man. The Family of Man had photographs of ordinary folk at weddings and funerals, in bars and churches, children at play and elders at rest. Merton reacted powerfully to this book:

“All those fabulous pictures. How scandalized some would be if I said that the whole book is to me a picture of God’s face and yet that is the Truth. There, there is God in my own Kind, my own Kind—“Kind” which means “likeness” and which means “love” and which means “child.” Human kind. Like one another, the dear “Kind” of sinners united and embraced in only one heart, in only one Kindness, which is the Heart and Kindness of God. I do not look for sin in you, Humankind. I do not see sin in you anymore today (though we are all sinners). There is something too real to allow sin any longer to seem important, to seem to exist, for it has been swallowed up, sin has been destroyed, and there is only the great secret between us that we are all one kind. God is seen and reveals God’s self as human, that is, in us and there is no other hope of finding wisdom than in God-human-hood: our own humanity transformed in God. [The Search for Solitude, 182-183 inclusive language added.]

My sister Janet died, it seems like yesterday, a very young sixty-seven year old. Two years before she had discovered a small lump on her left breast. The doctors removed it. Doctors treated her with chemotherapy and radium and pronounced her clear of cancer. A year passed and she became sick again. Doctors told her cancer was now everywhere in her lungs, her liver, and bone system. She lived for seven more months and lived more beautifully than I had ever experienced her living before. It was as if she had surrendered to her life’s end every mask she had worn to protect herself and became the person we had seen before only in glimpses. She reconciled enmities, she drew her children to herself, and she healed long-standing open wounds. We were awed by her kindness to us and by her appreciation of every kindness we were moved to show her, she being so kind. I spoke to her every day for seven months and every day she ended our conversation by telling me she loved me, a mantra ensure I would not forget. She lost consciousness only four days before she died. Her body cremated, this beautiful human being whose depths of kindness I had only just begun to appreciate became fire and disappeared.

Without the graces of palliative medicine, my sister would have been unable so strongly to show her true face as she departed from us. But it was more than medicinal herbs that robbed her death of its sting. It was the epiphany of kindness in the face of sorrow, it was her revelation of kindness in the middle of everything that was failing her, that made her death a final act of compassion for the life she had loved living.

Life and Death are identical twins to every human being of us. At the banquet of human existence to which we have been invited the menu is both sour and sweet. We eat our bread together sometimes celebrating, sometimes in tears. Just as weeds flourish with the wheat, evil in our lives nestles close in the heart of what is good. The climate of our lives is always changing. We are hot, then cold. Now we are happy this month, depressed in the next. This year we are famous, next year, disgraced. In the morning we are kissing our children a good day as we leave for work and, by the afternoon, we are incinerated, disappearing like incense into a blue sky. We are all kin as we suffer the curved streets of this life that every one of us travels.

But being kindred, why are we so unkind to one another? Why are we blind to each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so unrelentingly accept Unkindness as the order of relations among us when it is our Kindness that binds us all together?

To be unkind is to be unnatural. For us to live our lives vis-à-vis one another unkindly is to be sick of soul. Our thoughtless unkindness to one another is a low-grade depression of the spirit that robs us of joy and sanity. Unkindness among us exiles us from the sunlit paradise our lives could more be if the scales of self-interest were to fall from our eyes and we could see everyone bathed in a light revealing them to us as our own precious kind.

How do we relearn kindness in an unkind world? Humility is the mother of Kindness. Humility prevents our taking first places at life’s banquet; humility prevents our hogging resources while sisters on other continents or just down the street cannot feed their children. Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual, unkind destinies to share life with the crowd of us. Humility helps us see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant: our houses, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions of the ten thousand things that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.

Even religious faiths do not insure our kindness. Lives of faith, when most authentic, should reveal our fundamental unity with all human beings. Lives of faith should reorder our usual priorities, should move us to attend to the least privileged first, and should let the sick and the lame lead us in procession through life by their slower pace and with rhythms more appreciative that we must all proceed together carefully or suffer soul-death alone.

For the health of our collective souls, we must uncage our kindness from the narrow cells of our immediate family and friends. We must go off the restricted reservations of our corporate interest groups. We must leap over the wall of the gated communities of our minds that divide our world into the precious few who are saved, while the rest of them, not our kind at all, go unwashed in the Lamb’s blood. Who will deliver us from these narrow-minded perspectives every one of us easily adopts that divide our one humankind into the family and the strangers, into the have’s and have-nots, into tribes of Abel and tribes of Cain, into the descendants of Sarah and the offspring of Hagar?

This virus of irresponsibility for other human beings, our own kind, infects our relationship with all of Nature upon which the health of all creation depends. The circumference of our enacting kindness must, therefore, as Albert Einstein wrote, be as large as planet Earth’s. We must repair our kindness to all beings. We should convert ourselves to fostering ecologies of kindness in all our relationships as a daily spiritual practice.

Now has always been the acceptable time to be kin to one another, not next week, not in our next reincarnation, not in heavens that are elsewhere than where we all are now. This great work of our becoming epiphanies of human kindness in our relationships is the personal inner work that we each must take up more deeply.

I love this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye from her book Words Under the Words. She calls the poem “Kindness”.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a heated broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. …

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I, kindness, you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

[Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under The Words]

My mothers and fathers, my sisters and brothers, dear cousins, we are all one kind: we must recognize ourselves as kin or not be well. Kindness is our only cure. Kindness is the medicine prescribed to be taken every day until its light burns off cataracts on our eyes and everywhere we look we shall see kin, everyone our own kind everywhere. Even in the middle of all that fails us and in full view of Sorrow’s face, may we finally realize an epiphany of our hidden kindness revealed at last.

© Jonathan Montaldo. <montaldo@monksworks.com>

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