Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
In 1 Kings 17:7-16, we read of the Prophet Elijah and his encounter with the Widow of Zarephath.
Perhaps it’s necessary to put this prophet into context, so that we can more fully understand who he is and why his request to this Widow of Zarephath is all the more shocking. Pretty much Elijah is a man of mystery. He is known as a “Tishbite,” basically an immigrant living in a foreign land as a resident. His name means simply “YHWH is my God.”
When we meet Elijah in this story, it’s in medias res. He goes, a foreigner into this Phoenician town of Zarephath, and he is in need. So, to whom does he go? A widow! Recall that, throughout the Bible, when we encounter widows, they represent in themselves someone who is in need. And, to top it all off, she is not an Israelite. Therefore, we have a man in need, a foreigner, going to a woman, a non-Israelite, in need herself for help. Note, too, that this widow is not kidding — she is really in need, desperate need. She soon expects her son and herself to die. (Spoiler: the son will die later on in this chapter.) Still, Elijah is rather pushy and asks her to make him a little cake. (And what is rather charming is that the British English lectionary for Mass has Elijah ask her to prepare him to have a “little scone.” Very British indeed!) This widow does this and she and her son are saved.
Often, this particular passage is used to speak about sacrificial giving — and certainly, it is all about that. However, we rarely speak about what is at the root of this sacrificial giving. I believe it is kindness. Yes, kindness, an often-forgotten trait in our very busy, at times rude and sometimes crude world.
Be kind! What I believe is necessary for a successfully active ministry for all priests is pretty simple: be pleasant, be present, and be prayerful. Kindness is a theme that runs through all of three of these “p’s.” And this is true not just for priests, but indeed for all Christians.
What does it mean to be kind? Well, let’s have a via negativa, stating first what it is not: it’s not always nice, it’s not mushy, it’s not wimpy, it’s not maudlin, and it’s not saccharine. What it is really is nothing less than a fruit of the Holy Spirit as Saint Paul the Apostle instructs us in Galatians 5:22. Paul takes this further in 1 Corinthians 13 — you know, the one used at all those weddings, “the more excellent way.” He states that “Love is patient, love is kind…”
Being kind means doing the right thing, helping out another, and in some cases, if we can’t help, then simply not being a hindrance. Concretely, how is this manifested in our lives? Well, it means being obliging, anticipating the needs of others, basically getting out of ourselves and our own agenda and needs and putting the focus on others. Part of being an adult is triumphing over our own selfishness and recognizing the other in front of us is our brother (and sister). Being kind means being courteous, from something as simple as a “good morning” to holding the door for the other.
Kindness is the hallmark of what Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman described as a gentleman in his work, The Idea of a University. Permit me to let Dr. Newman speak to us for a moment:
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself.
His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature; like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring.
He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp saying for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.
If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.
The widow of Zarephath shows kindness, exceptional kindness. Do we? Even when we are tired, sad, upset? Are we kind? (And recall, I’m not speaking about being saccharinely sweetly “nice”?)
Father William Frederick Faber, a contemporary of Blessed Dr. Newman, stated something that should be apparent to all of us who fret about coming up with programs for pastoral ministry. Perhaps Faber’s words should be the start of a new program for the New Evangelization: “Kindness has converted more sinners than either zeal, eloquence, or learning; and these three last have never converted anyone, unless they were kind also.” You don’t always have to be nice; you always have to be kind. So, be kind.
And now, to speak explicitly to my brother priests (and also as a reminder to myself!):
Dear Fathers, people don’t remember the programs you started after you leave your assignment. People don’t remember the buildings you build, generally.
What they remember is your reverence for the Eucharist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. What they remember is when caught saw you praying the Rosary when walking through the neighborhood. What they remember is seeing you in the supermarket in your clerics, buying groceries like everyone else. What they remember is that you shoveled the snow in front of the school. What they remember is when you, unannounced, brought Holy Communion to their mother in the hospital and didn’t stick around to be thanked. What they remember is when an angry person vented their spleen on you when they were upset with the teachings of the Church, (but were, in fact, angry at something, deeper, something perhaps intangible in their own lives) and you did not get in their face, but listened, really listened with compassion and then taught them the truth from the Church. What they will remember is not the concrete stones you have placed down in the parish hall, which will never last, but Christ the cornerstone, to whom you are configured at your Sacred Ordination. What they remember is that you were kind. That’s the legacy you want to leave behind when you leave your assignment.
To be a bit silly for a moment and quote from the 12th Doctor in TV’s Doctor Who: “Never be cruel and never be cowardly,” and if you are ever cruel or cowardly, apologize, make amends, and move on from there. Be kind. Love your people. Pray for them. Don’t be afraid of burning out from being kind, because that means that you are on fire.