While doing my errands the other day I ended up in line at a local store with my cart full of items. In front of me was a man who had one item to purchase. When he was being checked out the clerk said, "That comes to $5.07." The man had a five dollar bill in his hand, and began fishing in his pocket for change. He pulled out a twenty, but obviously had no change. Since I already had my wallet in my hand, I dug out seven cents and handed it to the cashier saying as I did so, "Take this. There is no sense breaking a twenty for a few cents. What's seven cents between friends, anyway?" The man was so stunned that he barely knew what to say. He was not a poor man; it was just that I saw that he had no change and there was really no point in the clerk breaking a twenty for seven cents! It was simply a gesture of friendliness on my part. However, the man was apparently bewildered that a total stranger would do this, though he did manage a small smile as he left.
It was not a big deal. It was only seven cents and it was not an act of charity in terms of whether or not he could afford it. But it was an act of charity insofar as it was intended as a small act of love, (caritas). It affected everyone who was aware of it. The lady in line behind me smiled. The cashier and I ended up having a small conversation about it, and when I left we were both smiling, too. It obviously made her day, and hopefully the man's day, as well. And it made me feel good because I did something really small, but it changed the rest of my day in ways I had not anticipated. I ended up realizing that it does not take much to live lovingly. There was nothing heroic in what I did. It was simply a small act of kindness directed at the man and at the cashier.
February 11 is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Massabielle in 1858. Mary eventually identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, but we also refer to her as Our Lady of Lourdes since this is where her appearances and her messages took place. Though we associate Lourdes with physical and spiritual healing, Our Lady called for repentance and charity, especially given to the sick and the poor. We often associate works of charity as "the big stuff" such as donations of money, or goods or really big gestures of kindness. While that is true and we should do those things, it is important to have an attitude of charity, such that we realize even the smallest of gestures can be important. I am sure that Our Lady intended us to cultivate such an attitude. If one can do the big things it is usually because one has learned how to do the small, almost unnoticed things.
It really does not take much to have a charitable attitude. I wish I could claim to have that kind of attitude in every encounter, but certainly it was nicer to have that attitude at the moment in the store, then to be impatient about who was in front of me in line when I wanted to get on my way. I attribute that to grace. And surely the one action of something small like that, leads us to do it again and again, which is what opening our hearts to grace does. It seems that when we intentionally try to be disciples and we pray for the grace to do it, the Holy Spirit does give us what we need. Any time we pray we are opening up the door to grace, which then comes to us all day long. The prayer helps us to know what to ask for and then to know what it is we are looking for when an opportunity presents itself. Prayer cultivates an attitude of being a disciple and hence an attitude of love.
To be a disciple means to put God first in all things and it means to be one who loves just as Jesus is one who loves. In the Gospels we hear Jesus speak of love as agapè; that is, He teaches us to love those who are hardest to love. That is the same love God has for us. He loves us no matter what we do and it is heroic when we imitate this. Loving those who have hurt us is probably the most challenging form of love, but I believe that loving the strangers around us can also be challenging. This is mostly because they are people we may never see again and so we can develop an attitude of not really caring how we behave since they are not part of our day to day lives.
On the contrary, the stranger is part of our day to day, even if we only meet once in this life. This is why it is heroic to develop an attitude of charity. We do affect one another, often more deeply than we will ever know. We know how little acts affect us, so we need to keep in mind how our actions affect others. An attitude of charity is related to putting God first in our lives. If God is first, then we are attempting to love Him in all others. We need to lose our self-centeredness and practice other-centeredness. In other words, being a loving person means being humble. I know who I am; I am not greater or more important than others. Who I am is a disciple. I am here to serve and to put God first by loving Him in others.
Small acts of love are important because they are little and almost unnoticeable. These acts help others and cost us little. But when they add up, they do become heroic insofar as we develop the attitude of love that Christians should be known for. At the end of Matthew's gospel (Matthew 25) Jesus tells a sort of parable about the sheep and the goats. The sheep are the ones at His right side who will be in Heaven because they did acts of love, such as visiting the sick or giving food, drink, or clothes to the poor. They are the ones who did little acts that were loving and which led to the bigger actions. The goats on the left are the ones who never developed that attitude of charity. It seems that what Jesus is teaching is that at the end of our lives we will be judged on the quality of our love. That does not mean just the big stuff, but the attitude we had about everything we did in our lives. Heroic love is not just the love that saves people by giving all our money to the poor or other similar "huge" gestures: it is about having an attitude of love towards everyone we meet, especially the stranger.
Let us heed the message of Our Lady of Lourdes and be charitable in everything we do. Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the graces we need to develop such an attitude. All it takes are a few small gestures to make it habitual. As we enter Lent we are more conscious of growing as disciples; let us create the fertile ground for growing in the heroic love in doing the small things by prayer, fasting and abstinence, alms-giving and repentance.
May we grow in discipleship, asking for the graces to be more loving in the day to day events of our lives! May we spend the time in prayer cultivating our hearts as fertile ground for the Spirit to offer graces for charitable living! May we let God’s grace move us to change our attitudes and do more of those little acts of love! May we continue allowing His Heart to speak to our heart! Let us ask the Lord to make our heart His home. Let us meet in the Lord, as always. Peace!
(The two photos are from Lourdes, France which I took while on pilgrimage there in the summer of 2012.)
Heart Speaks to Heart