A fire in people’s hearts


25 Mar 2022

It’s the Gospel stories underpinned by God’s fathomless love that inspire great acts of compassion, love and charity.

In the Gospels charity is as close to sacred as a word can be. But like many sacred words it can come into disrepute. Take the popular saying, ‘She (or it) is as cold as charity’. It suggests someone is acting out of duty but without feeling. Their actions may seem kind and generous, but the reality is the opposite.

Words that imply care for people especially risk losing their sheen. Places that gave protection to people, for example, were once called asylums. The word now often has a negative vibe. Similarly places for people who were mentally ill were named after Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born and was serenaded by angels. The word was shortened to bedlam, a place of disorder. Magdalene, who was long identified with the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, became associated with sadness. Her name was enshrined in the word ‘maudlin’.

Desire to care

In many of these cases charity inspired the desire to care for people who were neglected. But the practice turned into something insipid or even toxic. Or perhaps the original claim to charity itself hid a self-centred attitude. As the saying goes, charity covered a multitude of sins. Or in Oscar Wilde’s more pointed line, ‘charity created a multitude of sins’.  

All holy words suffer from being tarnished in use. Take love, the little sister of charity. Even Christian writers criticise its descent in popular culture to ‘lurv’, a sentimental and superficial feeling of desire and attachment. It is stripped of its associations with depth, faithfulness and self-sacrifice. In church usage, too, it can be stripped of any association with joy and friendship, as in the case of the parish priest who, in the long past days when curates existed, said of his own curate ‘I love him with a love that is entirely supernatural’. Such a love, we might suspect, really was as cold as charity and created a multitude of sins in the presbytery and beyond.

Hunger for justice

This suggests that even the most precious of words need constantly to be purified and repolished by re-enacting the stories that embody them. For Christians these are the Gospel stories. Underneath them is the large and incredible story of a God who so loves the world and each person so deeply and passionately that he comes into our world on our human conditions, shares our hunger for love and justice, shares the exclusion and tortured death that we so often inflict on good people and opens for us a better and lasting world. That story is the measuring stick of charity.

The stories of the Gospels are sparks from the fire of the larger story of God’s love for us in Jesus. They almost always tell of love for the stranger who is thought to be unlovable. They include extortionists, foreigners, prostitutes, soldiers of an occupying power, and people who are impoverished. They also highlight love from strangers who are thought to be incurably unloving: Samaritans, for example, and Roman officers. The test of charity is that it crosses boundaries and dismantles border fences, shining on people in all their differences and seeing each person as precious. It is compassionate.

The sparks of the Gospel, of course, don’t remain there. They light fires in people’s hearts. Most of us have had the privilege of knowing people with a simple and strong faith whose warmth, generosity and compassion encouraged and shamed us. Their lives radiated blessings in every direction and brought the stories of the Gospel to life. Other people have brought home to us the sharp edge of the Gospel. Although they were perhaps not Catholics, nor even Christian, we could only describe as Christ-like their generosity to people who are suffering and their untiring advocacy for those unjustly treated. As with the Samaritan in the Gospel story they took the response to God’s love for us out of all the safe boxes in which we instinctively keep it.

Great compassion

Charitable institutions have often been begun by people of great compassion who were inspired by the story of Jesus. The stories of their founding remain a compass for them in the different circumstances of our world today. In their struggle to survive they have had to work hard to make central the defining charity of their founders. In some instances, of course, they failed. A school inspired by people whose heart went out to children who had no access to education, and whose educational vision was based on love could become a narrow and punitive institution in which control and compliance with rule substituted for compassion and charity. It did become as cold as charity. In our world, too, hospitals which in their beginnings were found especially to welcome people who were destitute, usually depend on government funding. Under the pressure of financial need and of government regulation it is challenging to give priority to compassion over financial efficiency.

That for all their natural human failings Catholic hospitals and schools and other institutions continue to reflect so faithfully the compassion of the Gospel is remarkable. They put the warmth back into charity.

This article first appeared in the Madonna magazine Autumn 2022 edition. SUBSCRIBE HERE for a quarterly magazine that emphasises spirituality in daily lives. Through is reflections on the scripture readings for the day and articles that seek to demonstrate the presence of God in our everyday lives, Madonna magazine aims to enrich the spiritual lives of its readers.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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