Kindness - a Word of Mercy

In English, the collective generic term for a group of birds is a flock. In addition, the English language has a rich history of collective names for specific types of birds, some of which quite fascinatingly evoke aspects of the birds’ appearance or behaviours. For example, we find a flamboyance of flamingos, a blush of robins, a murmuration of starlings, a mob of emus, a charm of hummingbirds, an exultation of larks, a murder of crows, and an unkindness of ravens.

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Kindness - a Word of Mercy

Kindness - a Word of Mercy

In English, the collective generic term for a group of birds is a flock. In addition, the English language has a rich history of collective names for specific types of birds, some of which quite fascinatingly evoke aspects of the birds’ appearance or behaviours. For example, we find a flamboyance of flamingos, a blush of robins, a murmuration of starlings, a mob of emus, a charm of hummingbirds, an exultation of larks, a murder of crows, and an unkindness of ravens.

I don’t know a lot about ravens, which are a type of crow, but the term an unkindness of ravens conjures up some nasty images of them as predatory, threatening, malevolent, sinister, cruel, self-seeking, devoid of care.

Sometimes it is useful to approach a word by its opposite. Unkindness has powerful negative connotations. It can help us appreciate the true nobility and richness of the word kindness. The word kindness probably suffers a little these days from seeming to be soppy, soft, middle of the range. Domesticated. It’s not out there on the frontier where the talk at the barricades is more of justice, advocacy, and eco-spirituality. Or so it seems. We may be tempted to regard it as a shallow attribute. It doesn’t present itself as heroic or of a grand scale.

That is a temptation that we must not be seduced by. Kindness, when you regard it from the perspective of its opposite, yields some interesting complexities. It can of course be tamed down and domesticated, but at its truest, kindness emanates from strength and courage. It is not cruel, it is never threatening, it is not predatory or self-seeking. Nor is kindness simply about doing things, necessarily. It is more than the sum of its parts. It is more properly regarded as a disposition, a quality that flows from a profound gift of the Spirit.

There is a blessing prayer from the Celtic tradition which captures the resonances of the meaning of kindness. This prayer, which probably dates from the 17th or 18th century, created in the oral tradition by crofters and fisherfolk of the western isles of Scotland, would traditionally be recited as the person crouched at the hearth at the beginning of a new day stoking the embers of the fire back to life. The context is revealing because the fire in the hearth of course was vital for warmth, cooking, healing for both human beings and animals. It was the focus of gathering where stories, songs and memories were shared. This blessing, murmured quietly and rhythmically as the householder stirred the fire, emanates from the source.

BLESSING OF THE KINDLING

I will kindle my fire this morning

In presence of the holy angels of heaven,

In presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,

In presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,

Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,

Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun,

But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

God, kindle Thou in my heart within

A flame of love to my neighbour,

To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,

To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the Name that is highest of all.

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the name that is highest of all.

(from the collection Carmina Gadelica)

This prayer is superbly and purely magnanimous, inclusive of all that lives. It sweeps from the highest realms of the spirit world to the tiniest creature of the earth. It is an amazing expression of the theology and spirituality indigenous to the Celtic lands. It is easy to be well-disposed towards those who are well-disposed towards us, but to pray from the heart for the ones who actively do us or wish us ill is remarkable. It is easy to pray for those who favour and care for us, but to pray from the heart, the hearth, for those who may intentionally take advantage of us, exploit or mislead us, those whose behaviour is abhorrent to us, is noble, and the essence of the Christian vocation, the essence of Mercy. It does not mean we allow ourselves to be exploited or abused, we do not condone harm and malice, but we pray for the offenders. Kindness is surely the sister of Forgiveness. It is easy for us to be complacent in our freedoms and safety, but the prayer reminds us to pray for those in “thrall”, those held captive by poverty, disease, oppression or abuse. There is a natural integrity in the person murmuring by the embers of the hearth, asking for the blessing of the flame of love towards all. Daily tasks, the ordinary day, become the medium for spiritual truth and conviction, a natural flow. Can we say that of our days?

If you have ever experienced an implacable wall of unkindness you will know how formidable it can be. You become depersonalised by the other’s expression of unkindness. It is interesting to ponder what sometimes prevents us from being kind, what fosters unkindness in our homes and work environments. Jealousy, conformity, ambition, fear of criticism may all be enemies of kindness. It is a sad indictment on us if our environments stifle kindness and allow or even covertly promote unkindness.

Kindness sometimes demands risk and places us in danger, or at least in the realm of misunderstanding. I read a true story about kindness recently. The elderly writer recalled as a small child during the Holocaust being rounded up and incarcerated by soldiers. One soldier noticed the child had a button missing from the top of her coat. He gave her a safety pin to secure the top, to protect against the bitter winter. This was an act of kindness in the maelstrom of cruelty and inhumanity, and a gesture that was treasured for decades. That sort of kindness is born of a courageous conscience. Kindness is greater than law or duty.

We may lose our sight, our mobility, our home, our land, our job. But, for as long as we have free will and consciousness, no-one can ever take our capacity for kindness from us. Recently I returned from an outing to an aged care facility where an elderly friend of mine, a Sister of Mercy, lives. We had gone for a drive to the sea- that is a simple kindness that only costs me fuel for the car. When we came back we bumped into a lady called Helen who had been visiting her husband. She greeted my friend and then explained to me how significant her daily interactions with Patricia were. Helen has to summon all her courage to enter into the trauma of the dementia unit to spend time with her husband who no longer recognises her. Patricia would normally greet her or smile at her and farewell her with her trademark “God bless you”. Patricia has advanced Alzheimer’s, is heading for ninety two, cannot tell you what day it is, but is still essentially a woman of profound kindness. To the visitor, Patricia’s kindness was healing balm and a blessing.

The reception and the donation of kindness are amazingly efficacious. Kindness can transform a fraught situation, it can bring ease and comfort to the distressed and wary. It is at the heart of our humanity.

Kindness was a quality fostered by and valued highly by Catherine McAuley. For her it was the bedrock, the sine qua non of the expression of Mercy. In Catherine’s lexicon, you might have to be firm to be kind, but you would never be cruel. Mercy does not exist without kindness. Mercy cannot find expression without kindness. Kindness is intrinsic to Mercy. One of its Hebrew renditions- Hesed- is often translated into English as loving-kindness. It is Hesed that God speaks through the prophets Isaiah and Hosea and Jeremiah. Kindness in the Old Testament literature walks in the company of Faithfulness and Empathy.

We began with considering the collective names for birds. Is it too whimsical to ponder what the collective name for those engaged in a life dedicated to Mercy might be? A mob of Mercies, a murmuration of Mercies, a marvel, a magnificence? Would you consider a Kindness of Mercies? It is a solemn name to aspire to and achieve, but one I think Catherine McAuley would smile at and own, don’t you think? A Kindness of Mercies…

This reflection is dedicated to the memory of Sr Patricia Kenny of Adelaide, Australia, who died on August 27th, 2018

Resources

  1. Scripture: Isaiah 46:3-4; Hosea 11: 1-4; Luke 7:36-50; Luke 10:29-37.
  2. Article: Andy Hamilton, *Whatever happened to ‘kindness to strangers’?*
  3. Article: University of Stanford research on the efficacy of kindness https://www.huffingtonpost.com/project-compassion-stanford/the-healing-power-of-kindness_b_6136272.html
  4. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaks about the genesis of her poem Kindness in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_RAFdZHGoo
  5. Book: *The Kindness of God* by Janet Martin Soskice (Oxford University Press, 2007.) Subtitled Metaphor, Gender and Religious Language. Of particular relevance are the final chapters which deal with the metaphor of friendship with God, and the writings of Julian of Norwich. The last sentence of the book, referring to the eschatological transformation we shall all experience reads: We shall not only be loved, but “lovely be” through the kindness of God.
  6. Movie: Paddington 1&2. Based on the stories of Michael Bond, and produced by Heyday Films and Studio Canal. A story for all ages, not just children. The two recent films, available on DVD, charmingly convey the risks and rewards of kindness from the perspective of the adoptive Brown family. The character of Paddington himself exemplifies how kindness and openheartedness can bring communities together and transform lives.
  7. Book: *The Blessing of Mercy* by Veronica Lawson rsm, explains and explores the biblical words of Mercy, such as Hesed, with clarity and numerous scriptural examples. (Morning Star Publishing, Melbourne, 2015)
  8. Article: Mary Wickham rsm- *Exploring the Big M -* an exploration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan story through the artwork of Sr Clare Augustine Moore.

For Reflection & Action

Is it too whimsical to ponder what the collective name for those engaged in a life dedicated to Mercy might be? A mob of Mercies, a murmuration of Mercies, a marvel, a magnificence? Would you consider a Kindness of Mercies? It is a solemn name to aspire to and achieve, but one I think Catherine McAuley would smile at and own, don’t you think? A Kindness of Mercies…

Words to Ponder

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
-Aesop

All through her life Catherine showed herself to be intelligent, practical and prayerful and above all, deeply kind to others.
-Brenda Dolphin rsm

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.
-Lao Tzu

Prayer Services

BLESSING OF THE KINDLING

I will kindle my fire this morning

In presence of the holy angels of heaven,

In presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,

In presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,

Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,

Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun,

But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

God, kindle Thou in my heart within

A flame of love to my neighbour,

To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,

To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the Name that is highest of all.

O Son of the loveliest Mary,

From the lowliest thing that liveth,

To the name that is highest of all.

(from the collection Carmina Gadelica)

Join the Conversation

Having explored the topic of Kindness through Sr Mary’s reflection and the additional resources she provided, we invite you to share your response for the benefit of other readers.

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