The Pleasure of Charity
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Gregory Pearson asks if we should feel bad about the pleasure that comes from giving true charity to others.
There was a teacher when I was at school who had a sign in his classroom that read, “If you are having fun, you are not learning!” In his case, everyone knew that this was an expression of his rather dry sense of humour, not of his approach to education; nonetheless, the idea that doing what is good must be unenjoyable is a fairly common one, and indeed it might seem to find confirmation in the words of Our Lord in today’s Gospel. Hosting family and friends as part of a cycle of mutual hospitality is too immediately rewarding, in contrast to inviting the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind who cannot make any tangible reciprocation for the hospitality shown to them. Not only does this mean that a host can’t expect a free meal from such guests at a later date, though. Caring for strangers does not come as easily to us as caring for those with whom we are share the connection of kinship or affection. It requires us to step outside our comfort zone and try to empathise with people whose lives might be very different from our own. We might find that aspects of what life for some people entails make us uncomfortable, and perhaps we might rather have remained ignorant of them in our own social bubble.
This care for strangers is of course part of that love of neighbour which lies at the heart of the teaching of the Gospel and which has given its name – charity – to the organisations which try to provide such assistance. However, while people don’t expect any material return from their support for charities, we often do talk of such support, whether through donations or, especially, through volunteering time and skills, as “rewarding”. It is clear from the experience of the great number of people who serve the sick and the needy in so many different ways, whether as paid professionals or volunteers, that having made that step beyond the comfort zone of their own family and friendship groups, there is true joy to be found even now in serving others.
This then brings us back to the question of whether our actions are better if we don’t draw any pleasure from the good we do. If that were the case then the person who dragged themselves out every week to help in a soup kitchen, for example, despite hating every minute of it, would be doing something better than the person who enjoyed their weekly shift helping out there. That would seem to be a rather perverse approach, and indeed contrary to the well-known saying of St Paul that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor 9:7).
So what can we say about this question of immediate non-material reward as a motivation for good deeds? If we accept that love of neighbour is the motivation we ought to have for doing good to others, it might help to consider how that love which Christ commands relates to our experience of helping others as “rewarding”. The difference between loving people and loving things, according to St Thomas Aquinas, is that we love things by wanting the good they provide to us, while we love people by wanting what is good for them. In both cases we would take delight (you might say “feel rewarded”) when that good we want is present: the difference is who we want it for.
It’s quite possible to do things which are objectively good for selfish reasons, treating those for whom we show care as means to make us feel good about ourselves or to attract the praise of others: that’s the insidious danger of pride and vanity which can corrupt even our apparently good deeds, and put us in the position of those in the Gospel who show hospitality in expectation of getting something in return. However, it’s also possible to delight in the good we do others precisely because we see it is good for those we help: this is not some extrinsic recompense for our efforts, but rather an intrinsic consequence of making someone else’s good a goal for ourselves (i.e. loving them).
As we try to be generous, then, whether as hosts or carers or volunteers or however else, we need to be aware of the risk of using the recipients of our generosity as instruments to procure our own satisfaction. At the same time, though, to learn to delight in that selfless generosity of which Christ is our greatest teacher and example is to learn something of that divine charity which he calls us all not only to experience but also, by his grace, to share.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a detail from a carved screen in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.