There is a rabbinic precept that relates to the moral conduct of the Jews called performing a mitzvah. It encourages good deeds. It is also part of the Christian tradition which requires good actions or acts of charity on the part of believers. Recognizing the importance of doing good things for others, the Boy Scouts of America incorporated this Judeo-Christian teaching into their program for character development among the members of their organization.
The performance of a good deed always has immediate, usually unforeseen and sometimes eternal effects.
First, a good deed certainly helps the person who is its recipient; second, it helps to build virtue in the person who performs it; third, it has a far reaching and a long lasting impact.
There is no civil law or, for that matter, there is no societal expectation for a person to go out of his or her way to perform an act of charity or kindness. However, when it does happen that a person goes above and beyond expectations to help someone else, the good act usually garners gratitude, applause (if it becomes public) and unfortunately – surprise that some would actually do it.
For the most part, many good deeds go undetected. Our Lord said this is best since, “God who sees in secret will reward in secret.” Nevertheless, for the recipient of the good deed the immediate benefit of the kind act is obvious.
I was the recipient of a mitzvah at last year’s March for Life, in Washington, D.C.
For those who attend the event it seems to be the coldest time of the year, in Washington. I normally concelebrate Mass in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception the night before the March. I have very little difficulty getting a cab ride to the Basilica from my hotel. But, finding a cab after the Mass is almost impossible.
Last year, because I was tired, freezing and desperate I made a bold gesture. There was a van stuck in the usual bus traffic tie-up in front of the Basilica. I noticed a statue of our Lady laying across the back of the vehicle and extending onto the front passenger seat. I decided to knock on the window and ask the driver if he could drop me off at any hotel so I could get a cab. He rolled down his window, heard my plea and immediately said, “Of course Father, hop in just move Mary toward me.”
The driver introduced himself as Joe DeVito. He said he was an artist, from Pennsylvania. Both of us were unfamiliar with the DC streets. But, that did not deter him from promising me a drop-off at the very hotel where I was staying. He quickly punched the name of my hotel into his GPS and we began a two hour journey around the District. A ride that should have taken no more than fifteen minutes.
During our meandering we engaged in some very interesting conversation. Surprisingly, we had some things in common. We both hailed from New York City. And, he had two uncles who were priests who I had known. Joe talked to me about his family and his work – and asked for prayers. In him I had encountered a man of deep faith – who “put his money where his mouth was”, as the saying goes.
Joe could have easily dumped me off at any hotel and I could have been left to fend for myself. As a matter of fact, I implored him to do so a number of times. He wouldn’t hear of it! He was going to see his good deed through to the end! When we parted I promised to offer a Mass for his intentions. He was delighted. And, so was I.
I went to bed that night exhausted but marveling at Joe’s goodness. I wondered whether I would have done the same for a complete stranger? Then out of my subconscious rose what I had been taught in grammar school; when we do a good work we can gain merit for heaven. A teaching of the church that seems to have gone by the wayside.
This of course does not mean that by a good work we are buying our way into heaven. That would be Pelaginisim, a heresy which holds that we can gain our own salvation. Gaining merit for heaven is different. It is a way in which the supernatural grace (God’s life) within us expresses itself in love of our neighbor. It is also a way by which we strengthen the virtuous life we are called to live in Christ for our own perfection in his image. This cooperation with sanctifying grace makes us more pleasing to the Father.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.”( n.2008)
“The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.” (n.2011)
The thought of the importance of doing good deeds remained with me for a while. But, like everything else, once I got back into my daily routine I again practiced them only on those occasions when a specific favor was asked. I certainly wasn’t volunteering anything!
A light went on one day, however, when I was visiting someone in the hospital. An act of charity, for sure, but also my job. Nothing above and beyond the call of my priestly duty.
While in the parking lot I noticed a very heavy set woman carrying two shopping bags going into the hospital. Her legs were terribly swollen, edema, no doubt. She was probably going in to be admitted. Another woman who was walking behind her said, “Let me carry those bags.” After a short protest the woman relented. Now I got it; seek opportunities to do good! That’s what I needed to do. God spoke to me loudly and clearly. I was struck by the light.
My chance to do good and receive merit for heaven came rather quickly. As I was leaving the hospital I saw an old man looking befuddled wandering around the parking lot. I asked him if there was something wrong? He said “I can’t find my car.” I told him to get into mine and we would search together. While cruising around the different lots surrounding the hospital he told me that he was visiting his wife, that he was 90 years old and that they had no other family. In a little while we found his vehicle. He was so appreciative and thanked me profusely. Upon exiting my car he said, “God bless you. I hope when you are my age there is someone to help you.” I felt like a million dollars and resolved not to ever again miss an opportunity to do good and receive heavenly merit.
I learned three things from Joe, the lady who helped carry the bags and from the old man:
- Never miss an opportunity to do a good deed.
- A good deed is beneficial to the doer and the receiver.
- Good deeds are contagious.
The greatest thing about doing a good deed, however, is what I relearned, good deeds not only make this world a better place, but pay dividends for our eternal life.