A while back, on the fateful day of April 15 that reminds each of us how much worse off we are than medieval serfs — whose "tax" to the feudal lord was typically capped at 10 percent — I promised to counterbalance my consideration of the Seven Deadly Sins with the Seven Contrary Virtues. Then, like a good serf, I promptly let the field run to fallow, distracted as I was by current events. And isn’t that right there a pretty little microcosm of the problem — the way ephemera and chatter can drive the virtues straight out of our thoughts? Indeed, the list of virtues I haven’t properly cultivated usually rings in my mind like the tally of gorgeous foreign cities I’ve never visited, and evokes the same reaction: Temperance, Humility, Dubrovnik, Vienna, Chastity, Venice. Yep, I’m adding them to my Bucket List. On the flip side, I run through the Deadly Sins and they remind me of places where I lived but wished I didn’t: Anger, Lust, Midtown Manhattan, Gluttony, and a steamy dorm room under the bleachers of LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Well, tonight, having hoarded my quarters, I’m heading off to knock a few major destinations off my list. En route to two friends’ wedding in Frankfurt, I’m visiting London to hear Mass at its famous Oratory, trekking up the Rhine in search of the perfect lager, then after the nuptials sung by a priest of the Fraternity of St. Peter, I’m making a patriotic pilgrimage to the tombs of the Habsburg emperors — whose descendant, Archduke Otto, is still my rightful sovereign. In that same spirit, I thought I’d return to the list of Virtues it’s still not too late to cultivate, and start with the one that most men find the hardest.
By which I mean Kindness, of course.
Whatever problems we have with lusty thoughts, I’m willing to bet that any man who drives in traffic spends less time picturing Hillary Duff in a French Maid’s outfit than he does daydreaming about ripping off the heads of his fellow motorists. One guy who’d blocked an entire lane of traffic in Nashua, New Hampshire, greeted my toot of the horn by leaning his crewcut out of the cockpit and threatening to "get outa this car and rip your head off," and I knew that if he came within ten feet of the front of my car, I would use every ounce of steel in my 1990 Chevy to send him flying through the air at 30 mph. In which case I would be writing these columns from prison. But it seemed like my only option at the time since, you know . . . I don’t own a handgun.
Of all the "hard sayings" in the Bible, the one I have the most trouble with is "turn the other cheek" (Mt 5:38-42). For one thing, we aren’t wired this way, and I doubt that this is entirely the fruit of Adam’s Fall. Most animals aren’t pacifists but rather defend themselves from harm. The only exception I can think of is apes or dogs in hierarchies that meekly accept abuse from higher-ups, merely cringing or showing their bellies to beg for mercy. Is that what God wants of us?
Somehow, I can’t believe that this is the answer to a question I often ask myself: What Would Unfallen Adam Do (WWUAD)? That’s a worthy inquiry, since it helps us distinguish between the demands of natural justice (WWUAD) and the higher call of Grace. We need a higher call, since our darkened reason is all too ready to tell us what our fallen will would like to hear — that the guy who’s making me late for work really does deserve to spend the rest of his life in one of those nifty paraplegic scooters. And it’s my job to put him there, to stop him before he blocks traffic again.
The upward call we find in Jesus’ words is (just barely, just sometimes) enough to counteract the gravity into the gutter exerted by our fallen will, and goad us to act perhaps as well as Adam would have without even breaking a sweat. Or as Our Lady would have, untainted as she was by the sin of our First Schlemiel. I imagine the Blessed Virgin piloting a dirt-brown minivan with Rosary bumper stickers through clotted New Hampshire traffic, equably navigating the jittery teens, slow-motion retirees, and pro-choice Massholes in Volvos. As a model for ordinary Christian behavior, I think that Mary works a good deal better than Christ Himself — since few of us are really called to serve as itinerant rabbis, much less wonder-working sacrificial redeemers who make astounding and innovative theological claims, arguing from personal authority.
What’s more, Our Lord was only meek and mild, so far as I can see, for a week or so of His life — at other times needling Pharisees, confronting demons, and cleansing the Temple of liturgical abuses. (What would Jesus do to the drum kit in the sanctuary?) The Second Person of the Trinity knew how to dispense tough love when it was called for.
So how can we practice Kindness, the opposite virtue to Envy? Perhaps by imagining what Mary might do in a given situation. That makes a nice Ignatian starting point, anyway — to visualize her facial expression, the tone of voice she’d use, the wry humor and sober solicitude that got her through difficult days. Her most famous prayer, the Magnificat, was called a poisonous instance of envy by the French pro-Catholic atheist Charles Maurras, but an unjaundiced eye sees something very different. Our Lady exclaims:
He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Her sentiment in this prayer isn’t grim satisfaction at the rectification of historic inequalities. It’s simple awe — wonderment at the power of God to overturn the carefully built-up, crushing hierarchies man sets up in his vain imagining, a world where we learn to be proud of ourselves for being born prettier, richer, smarter, or whiter than other people. Our Lady, a peaceable Jewish nobody living in the middle of nowhere under foreign occupation looks at what the Lord has done for her — and her reaction to it boils down to: "Wow."
And that’s the key to Kindness, I think. As Chesterton said, we need a sense of wonder that anything exists at all, and that so many good things have rained down upon us undeserved. The natural beauty that man hasn’t yet chewed up, the innocence of animals, the penitence of children. The peace and relative order still remaining in our country, and the liberties we have left. The clarity that comes from struggling against the passions, and the blessings of mental health. The fact that J. S. Bach was ever born in the first place, much less that his music pours forth freely from the HD radio I saved up to install in a 19-year-old car.
That’s enough, if I think about it, to let me offer unearned mercy to the lunatic in the SUV who’s threatening my life. I can drive away with a smile. Which only, by the way, makes him madder. Some virtues are their own reward.