Encountering Goodness: God in our Midst
Now we will turn our attention to Goodness, perhaps the simplest of the transcendentals to understand, yet the most complex to apply because of its many moral implications.
What is Goodness?
What does it mean to be ‘good’? We often say things like, “He’s a good-natured baby” or “you’re a good friend.” But what do we really mean? Is goodness merely meeting someone else’s expectations of us or following some prescribed definition?
Essentially, Goodness is: How well something (or someone) fulfills its purpose. In order to know how “good” something is, then, we must understand its essence – its nature and purpose, the reason it exists in the first place. For example, a good pair of scissors cuts, good eyes have 20/20 vision, and a good movie entertains. In other words, it does what it’s made for. But this definition only takes us so far. For what constitutes a good law, or good government? What makes someone a good father or mother? You can see how quickly this discussion becomes deeper and more complex.
To complicate things even further, we must distinguish not only between Good and Evil, but amongst varying degrees of Goodness: good, better, and best. For instance, I rented a car the other day and was given those same three options: Did I want a good car, a better car, or the best car? Of course, in my mind, ‘the best’ car came with a rather pricey, not-so-good rate, and ultimately the ‘good’ car was good enough.
Choosing the Good
We’re faced with choices like this all this time, most of which are rather mundane and inconsequential (such as which car to rent), but the most important decisions in life matter greatly and have lasting effects. Goodness implies morality, making moral decisions – not in the sense of bending to authority or following a particular set of rules, but in choosing the Good and not settling for less what God intends for us.
God, in His essence, is Good – not just good to us, but the epitome of Goodness: the perfection of being. All Goodness flows from Him. Because we are created in God’s image, we have an innate sense of the Good. We were made from Goodness, for Goodness. So why, then, don’t we always choose the Good?
One of the greatest gifts we have been given is the gift of free will – the ability to choose and set the course of our own lives. No other creature has this ability. God gives us intellect and reason to know and experience His love. We were made for love, by love, and through love. But God doesn’t force us to love Him. If He did, it wouldn’t be love. Most people like the idea of freedom and choice, but not the responsibility part – the consequences that go along with it.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons we make bad choices: our fallen human nature, which distorts and disorders our relationships with others; the influence of our mixed-up, modern culture; misguided notions about what makes us happy, or what constitutes a ‘good life’, and so on. Yet even when we make mistakes or settle for less than the Good that God intends, He doesn’t give up on us. He doesn’t write us off as a “lost cause,” but continues to seek us out, gently calling us back.
When my brothers and I were little, my parents taught us this prayer: God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hands, we are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. As I grew older I came to see this prayer as simplistic and redundant. I mean, God is great, God is good – isn’t that really saying just the same thing? Now I know that what it’s trying to get at is the idea that God, in His infinite wisdom, knows what we need and wants to give it to us – whatever that may be. Because God operates outside of time, He looks at things from an eternal perspective.
In my family, we have a theory: Regardless of what happens, it all good – it either makes for good memories or good stories. God certainly doesn’t cause bad things to happen to us, but He finds a way to bring Good out of each and every situation. This is precisely what St. Paul meant when he said, “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord” (Romans 8:28).
Living out Goodness in the world
How do we live out Goodness in the world? Why does anyone do anything good? The Gospels tell us that Jesus “went about doing good,” that He did “everything well.” This is our model. Where do we get it wrong? Busyness, which is the Devil’s business. Work for its own sake, or for our own glory… Work without prayer is mere activism, and it’s harmful to our souls. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve gotten up and just plunged into my day without giving a second thought to how God would want me to live it. Then, when things start to go wrong, or I’m frustrated and exhausted, it dawns on me to ask Him… Lord, what do you want of me?
Bishop Henry, the former bishop of the Calgary Diocese, said something once that really struck me and I think about a lot. He said that the interruptions in our day, in our plans, is God’s will for us. Think about that for a moment. You might have a To-Do list with 10 things on it. But then your child is sick that day or the washer goes out or a friend calls in desperate need of help. What do you do? What about that list? You respond to the need in front of you. That’s the right thing to do – what God wants. Be peaceful that it’s exactly His will for you.
When Jesus “went about doing good,” what kinds of things did He do? He healed, taught, fed, counseled, and comforted. This is what He calls us to do, too – especially as wives and mothers. Think of that. Your vocation (and mine) is to do precisely the things that Jesus did. When we take care of those around us, we participate in His life and mission.
When my husband and I were in university and first dating, I wanted to make him dinner one night. But since I was living in the dorms, my options were pretty limited – I owned a toaster oven and a hot pot. For whatever reason, I decided to cook a steak…in a toaster oven. It was terrible, as you can imagine. Tasted like a piece of leather. But he ate it happily and said it was great. Why? He could see the intent, the love that went into it.
That’s what God does: He sees our good intentions, not our failings.
Fr. Robert Barron suggests that “performing even one truly noble act is a participation in the Good itself,” in the very life of God. We discover our dignity and fulfill our purpose in meaningful work, whatever that might be: raising children, taking care of our home, helping our parents, running a retreat centre, reaching out to a neighbour, and so on.
We are meant to touch lives and open hearts… On Father’s Day weekend, my family and I had the opportunity to serve the poor in our city through a program called Feed the Hungry. In case you’re not familiar with it, the idea is to serve a meal every Sunday to individuals, mainly the working poor and homeless, who otherwise would go hungry. We joined other members of our parish to prepare the meal and serve it, and then sent these people on their way with full bellies, but also full hearts. I have to tell you that there was a lot of Goodness in that room that day; it was an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance, and love.
Or, I think about my recent student teaching experience. I just got recertified to teach, after having been out of the classroom for more than 20 years. Though I had asked for an assignment in a Catholic school, I ended up getting placed in a public elementary school. It was a very secular environment, and I was clearly out of my comfort zone. But it ended up being a perfect assignment for me. I was able to truly serve others. And I could see the good in these people – Christ in them.
Think about the story of the Good Samaritan…all the people who passed that poor man on the road and never stopped. In fact, they went out of their way to avoid him. What makes the Christian message so radical and revolutionary is this idea of universal goodness. Everyone is your neighbour, not just the people you like, even those you know – it could be a total stranger. What makes us neighbours? Our common humanity. “The Christian life concretely and heroically lived out, has a convincing power.”
One way to understand the impact that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness have on us is this: Beauty draws us in, Truth equips us, and Goodness sends us on our way. This is what it means to be a disciple. To encounter God in a real way and want to share that Goodness with others.
We needn’t look further than the radical example of the saints – like Mother Teresa, a saint of our own times. Her virtue/goodness was self-evident, awe-inspiring. But, in her own words, she was just “a small instrument in God’s hands.” Everything she did was for God’s glory, to spread His love to all those she met, especially the poorest of the poor, those forgotten and forsaken by the world. Actions speak louder than words.
Or what about St. Andre Bessette, who was really just a doorman. He lived Goodness with simplicity and sincerity, with great kindness, radiating joy to all those with whom he came in contact. St. Francis also comes to mind – how he stripped down in the streets in order to reject the life he been living, and so begin anew. He wanted to sell literally everything and give it to the poor.
The world needs a few more do-gooders. What happens when we fail to respond to God’s love? The result is less Goodness, what we might consider “sins of omission.” If you don’t do the good you are called to do, no one else can take your place. No one can be a better daughter than you or a better sister than you. What constitutes a ‘good life’? Fulfilling our purpose – using our gifts and talents to the best of our abilities. A life directed toward the Good – towards God and others. I want to stress the uniqueness of each life, the importance of each vocation – God needs each and every one of us to do something that no one else can do.
Think about what that word ‘omission’ means. It’s literally “no mission”: the good we fail to do – missed opportunities. Avoiding sin isn’t enough. Like Jesus, we must go about doing good, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Saint Pope JPII suggested that we “vanquish evil with good.” Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone did all the good they were meant to do?
But let’s not forget that Jesus also turned things upside down: He upset the status quo; He questioned and challenged all those He came in contact with. This is also Good.
Peter Kreeft described what he called the Good/Bad Paradox: Our fallen world is made for goodness, rife with opportunities for creating saints (“a saint-making machine”). Look at the recent floods in Texas. People were lined up to volunteer. This is when we see the Goodness in people – when there are catastrophes and natural disasters.
St. Pope John Paul II once said that beauty is “the good made visible.” That’s what saints like Mother Teresa did – she made God’s beauty visible. She was keenly aware that our actions have a profound impact on others and went on to say that, “If we do not radiate the love of Christ around us, the sense of darkness that prevails in the world will increase.” Like Mother Teresa, each of us is called to bring Goodness to all those we meet, to bring light to each and every situation – what I like to call love in the details. She says, “Kindness has converted more people than zeal, science, or eloquence.” Little acts of kindness go a long way – things like flowers, chocolates, or words of encouragement.
I’m not sure where it came from, but I have a motto – a philosophy, of sorts – that I try to live by: “Leave things better than you found them.” Spread God’s fragrance wherever you go. Which also happens to be the philosophy of the Missionaries of Charity. Here’s a beautiful little prayer they say every day:
Help me to spread your fragrance wherever I go.
Flood my soul with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see you no longer me, but only you, O Lord!
Stay with me, then I shall begin to shine as you do; so to shine as to be a light to others.
The light, O Lord, will be all from you; none of it will be mine; it will be you shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around me.
Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you. Amen.
(Composed by Blessed John Henry Newman)
– Kelley Holy