The art of helping

Alice von Hildebrand, DCSG | Special to The Michigan Catholic

When one reaches a certain age, one becomes increasingly dependent on the help and kindness of others, whether family, friends or neighbors. Asking for help and receiving it, have taught me a few lessons which I wish to share.

The art of helping is poignantly expressed in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She relates that in her convent there was a crippled elderly nun who needed help after Mass to go the refectory. Like most elderly people, she lived in a constant state of fear of falling, and was very critical of the services she received from the nuns. Nobody seemed quite capable of living up to her demands. Thérèse lovingly offered her services fully aware that it would be a difficult and demanding task. She writes in her autobiography that this small deed of charity was a real sacrifice, but she never “said no to Jesus.”

She started performing this task of love, and as expected, was constantly criticized for not doing it properly: the sister knew in advance that Thérèse was “too young” to do it well. But St. Thérèse not only doubled her efforts to satisfy Mother St. Pierre, but made a point upon arriving at the refectory to regale her with “her most loving smile.” Never could the elderly nun have suspected that this smile was the supernatural fruit of a sacrifice loving performed. These are the small deeds of love which weave the beautiful tapestry of holiness.

This moving story is a clarion call to shed some light on a most important theme: the art of helping others.

The following distinctions are called for. There are some people – thank God a minority – who seem to consider it to be insulting to be asked for help: “How dare you? I have no obligation toward you; please, do not disturb me.”

Then there are those who when asked for help will accept to give it, making it clear however, that such requests are burdensome, and should not be repeated: it is a “one-time deal” when in dire need, but another similar request will not be welcome. The person in need will accept such help, and say “thank you,” but must inevitably swallow a certain amount of vinegar. It is humbling to ask for help and bitter to be told that one’s request is not welcome. This explains why I have known a couple of people in my life who would rather starve than to ask help from such “Samaritans!”

I have also encountered very many people always willing to help others, and who even have the kindness to volunteer their help. They are good-natured, kind people; for them, it is “no big deal”; it is the sort of things to be expected in this life. I recall saying “thank you” to one of them. He looked at me with surprise, and said, ”You bet.”

Such people, while grateful when receiving a thank you, do not expect one; some are even surprised to be thanked. But one wonders whether such kind and friendly people fully perceive the huge difference between performing a daily chore and an act of charity which brings us closer to God. At any rate, the help of such people should be deeply appreciated and call for gratitude, a gratitude responding to the beauty of kindness.

It is also worth remarking that there are some people who hate to be asked, while from time to time, will volunteer their services. A very wise friend once shed light on the psychology of such “friends”; when one “offers” to do another a favor, one feels noble and generous. In responding to a request, one’s ego is not boosted. “Had such and such not asked me for a favor, I would have gladly offered to do it, but what I do not like is that he ‘forced’ me to help him: it takes away from the generosity of my act.” In such cases it is clear that the “good feeling” of being generous takes precedence over the call of God: “love your neighbor as yourself,” and the gratitude one should feel for being given a chance to glorify God.

 

Serving Christ in others

The real Christian — the one living in the consciousness that it is a privilege to help our brothers — understands that to be asked for help grants us an opportunity of showing our love for Christ, and is also a grace enabling us to pay our own debt toward him: indeed we are all bankrupt, and we should welcome as a grace every single opportunity to pay some of our debt.

My husband relates in his memoirs that he knew a young girl — brought up in a totally secular milieu, even though she was officially Protestant — who from her youth on was well-known for her readiness, at times heroic, to help others. One day, she was given the unfathomable grace of finding the Church and continued devoting herself to others. Someone happened to remark that her life proved that to be charitable and generous one does not need to be a devoted Christian. She just “continued to do what she had always done since her youth.” When she heard this remark she exclaimed: “You are greatly mistaken: while a non-believer I was glad to help my neighbor, but now that I am ardent Catholic, I have discovered to my delight, that in lovingly serving my neighbor, I was even then serving my Lord and Savior” — ‘Whatever you have done to any of these little ones, you have done to me.’ Now I am fully aware that previously in the depth of my soul, I was longing to serve him; now I know his name.”

There is also the interesting case of friends who wrongly assume that it is friendship that prohibits them from sharing their problems, whatever their nature, with their closest friends. The symptom is usually a long period and silence, and when we get worried and ask them for its cause, they will tell you that “they have gone through a dark tunnel, and did not want their friends to worry.” This fundamentally wrong attitude was condemned by a Frenchman of the name of Jean de Rotrou. He tells us that the friend who chooses to suffer alone is in fact offending his friend. This is a beautiful thought which deserves to be meditated on. True, there is one mysterious chamber in the very center of one’s soul to which God alone has the key; but then, according to our ardor of our affection for creatures, each one has access to a particular chamber in our soul — and in the case of a beautiful marriage, it is either the husband or the wife, and there are analogies in other human situations. All friends are loved, but each one has his or her particular niche.

Finally, it should be mentioned that God, in His goodness, does give some of us the grace of meeting people whose heart is so baptized by Christ that they will thank us for the gift of being asked for our help. Such people are saints, and they should be our model.

The beloved St. Francis de Sales — this admirable teacher of virtue — has written some beautiful words on this topic found in his spiritual gem, Introduction to the Devout Life. To give joyously, to give gracefully is the Christian way of giving. Not only is the lover of God fully aware that he, too, is in need of God’s grace and deeply indebted toward his Creator and Savior, and that whatever occasion God sends him to pay his debt toward him should be welcome as a grace. Moreover, when for some objective reason, rendering a service is de facto impossible, much as one wishes to do it, this beloved saint writes that “a loving no” is also a gift of love, and that a “loving no” is infinitely more loving than a sour “yes.”

Our debt to this saint, and to the Little Flower, is great indeed: they teach us how we should help our neighbor. May we all gratefully learn from their example the art of helping others.


Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic author, philosopher and theologian and the wife of late philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand. Her column is distributed by Catholic News Agency.