The Masquerade of Charity

by markhofreiter

The following is the 8th chapter in, “AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words” by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center.

“Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism. You say that it is very difficult to accept that there may be times when you are not honest to goodness really trying to be loving or trustful. Let me simplify it. Let’s make it as simple as possible. Let’s even make it as blunt and extreme as possible, at least to begin with. There are two types of selfishness. The first type is the one where I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself. That’s what we generally call self-centeredness. The second is when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others. That would be a more refined kind of selfishness.

“The first one is very obvious, but the second one is hidden, very hidden, and for that reason more dangerous, because we get to feel that we’re really great. But maybe we’re not all that great after all. You protest when I say that. That’s great!

“You, madam, you say that, in your case, you live alone, and go to the rectory and give several hours of your time. But you also admit you’re really doing it for a selfish reason —your need to be needed—and you also know you need to be needed in a way that makes you feel like you’re contributing to the world a little bit. But you also claim that, because they also need you to do this, it’s a two-way street.

“You’re almost enlightened! We’ve got to learn from you. That’s right. She is saying, ‘I give something, I get something.’ She is right. I go out to help, I give something, I get something. That’s beautiful. That’s true. That’s real. That isn’t charity, that’s enlightened self-interest.

“And you, sir, you point out that the gospel of Jesus is ultimately a gospel of self-interest. We achieve eternal life by our acts of charity. ‘Come blest of my Father, when I was hungry, you gave me to eat,’ and so on. You say that perfectly confirms what I’ve said. When we look at Jesus, you say, we see that his acts of charity were acts of ultimate self-interest, to win souls for eternal life. And you see that as the whole thrust and meaning of life: the achievement of self-interest by acts of charity.

“All right. But you see, you are cheating a bit because you brought religion into this. It’s legitimate. It’s valid. But how would it be if I deal with the gospels, with the Bible, with Jesus, toward the end of this retreat. I will say this much now to complicate it even more. ‘I was hungry, and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink,’ and what do they reply? ‘When? When did we do it? We didn’t know it.’ They were unconscious! I sometimes have a horrid fantasy where the king says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat,’ and the people on the right side say, ‘That’s right, Lord, we know.’ ‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ the king tells them. ‘It doesn’t follow the script; you’re not supposed to have known.’ Isn’t that interesting? But you know. You know the inner pleasure you have while doing acts of charity. Aha! That’s right! It’s the opposite of someone who says, ‘What’s so great about what I did? I did something, I got something. I had no notion I was doing anything good. My left hand had no idea what my right hand was doing.’ You know, a good is never so good as when you have no awareness that you’re doing good. You are never so good as when you have no consciousness that you’re good. Or as the great Sufi would say, ‘A saint is one until he or she knows it.’ Unselfconscious! Unselfconscious!

“Some of you object to this. You say, ‘Isn’t the pleasure I receive in giving, isn’t that eternal life right here and now?’ I wouldn’t know. I call pleasure, pleasure, and nothing more. For the time being, at least until we get into religion later on. But I want you to understand something right at the beginning, that religion is not—I repeat: not—necessarily connected with spirituality. Please keep religion out of this for the time being.

“All right, you ask, what about the soldier who falls on a grenade to keep it from hurting others? And what about the man who got into a truck full of dynamite and drove into the American camp in Beirut? How about him? ‘Greater love than this no one has.’ But the Americans don’t think so. He did it deliberately. He was terrible, wasn’t he? But he wouldn’t think so, I assure you. He thought he was going to heaven. That’s right. Just like your soldier falling on the grenade.

“I’m trying to get at a picture of an action where there is not self, where you’re awake and what you do is done through you. Your deed in that case becomes a happening. ‘Let it be done to me.’ I’m not excluding that. But when you do it, I’m searching for the selfishness. Even if it is only ‘I’ll be remembered as a great hero,’ or ‘I’d never be able to live if I didn’t do this. I’d never be able to live with the thought if I ran away.’ But remember, I’m not excluding the other kind of act. I didn’t say that there never is any act where there is not self. Maybe there is. We’ll have to explore that. A mother saving a child—saving her child, you say. But how come she’s not saving the neighbor’s child? It’s the hers. It’s the soldier dying for his country. Many such deaths bother me. I ask myself, ‘Are they the result of brainwashing?’ Martyrs bother me. I think they’re often brainwashed. Muslim martyrs, Hindu martyrs, Buddhist martyrs, Christian martyrs, they are brainwashed!

“They’ve got an idea in their heads that they must die, that death is a great thing. They feel nothing, they go right in. But not all of them, so listen to me properly. I didn’t say all of them, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility. Lots of communists get brainwashed (you’re ready to believe that). They’re so brainwashed they’re ready to die. I sometimes say to myself that the process that we use for making, for example, a St. Francis Xavier could be exactly the same process used for producing terrorists. You can have a man go on a thirty-day retreat and come out all aflame with the love of Christ, yet without the slightest bit of self-awareness. None. He could be a big pain. He thinks he’s a great saint. I don’t mean to slander Francis Xavier, who probably was a great saint, but he was a difficult man to live with. You know he was a lousy superior, he really was! Do a historical investigation. Ignatius always had to step in to undo the harm that this good man was doing by his intolerance. You need to be pretty intolerant to achieve what he achieved. Go, go, go, go—no matter how many corpses fall by the wayside. Some critics of Francis Xavier claim exactly that. He used to dismiss men from our Society and they’d appeal to Ignatius, who would say, ‘Come to Rome and we’ll talk about it.’ And Ignatius surreptitiously got them in again. How much self-awareness was there in this situation? Who are we to judge, we don’t know.

“I’m not saying there’s no such thing as pure motivation. I’m saying that ordinarily everything we do is in our self-interest. Everything. When you do something for the love of Christ, is that selfishness? Yes. When you’re doing something for the love of anybody, it is in your self-interest. I’ll have to explain that.

“Suppose you happen to live in Phoenix and you feed over five hundred children a day. That gives you a good feeling? Well, would you expect it to give you a bad feeling? But sometimes it does. And that is because there are some people who do things so that they won’t have to have a bad feeling. And they call that charity. They act out of guilt. That isn’t love. But, thank God, you do things for people and it’s pleasurable. Wonderful! You’re a healthy individual because you’re self-interested. That’s healthy.

“Let me summarize what I was saying about selfless charity. I said there were two types of selfishness; maybe I should have said three. First, when I do something, or rather, when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself; second, when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others. Don’t take pride in that. Don’t think you’re a great person. You’re a very ordinary person, but you’ve got refined tastes. Your taste is good, not the quality of your spirituality. When you were a child, you liked Coca-Cola; now you’ve grown older and you appreciate chilled beer on a hot day. You’ve got better tastes now. When you were a child, you loved chocolates; now you’re older, you enjoy a symphony, you enjoy a poem. You’ve got better tastes. But you’re getting your pleasure all the same, except now it’s in the pleasure of pleasing others. Then you’ve got the third type, which is the worst: when you do something good so that you won’t get a bad feeling. It doesn’t give you a good feeling to do it; it gives you a bad feeling to do it. You hate it. You’re making loving sacrifices but you’re grumbling. Ha! How little you know of yourself if you think you don’t do things this way.

“If I had a dollar for every time I did things that gave me a bad feeling, I’d be a millionaire by now. You know how it goes. ‘Could I meet you tonight, Father?’ ‘Yes, come on in!’ I don’t want to meet him and I hate meeting him. I want to watch that TV show tonight, but how do I say no to him? I don’t have the guts to say no. ‘Come on in,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to put up with this pain.’

“It doesn’t give me a good feeling to meet with him and it doesn’t give me a good feeling to say no to him, so I choose the lesser of the two evils and I say, ‘O.K., come on in.’ I’m going to be happy when this thing is over and I’ll be able to take my smile off, but I start the session with him: ‘How are you?’ ‘Wonderful,’ he says, and he goes on and on about how he loves that workshop, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, when is he going to come to the point?’ Finally he comes to the point, and I metaphorically slam him against the wall and say, ‘Well, any fool could solve that kind of problem,’ and I send him out. ‘Whew! Got rid of him,’ I say. And the next morning at breakfast (because I’m feeling I was so rude) I go up to him and say, ‘How’s life?’ And he answers, ‘Pretty good.’ And he adds, ‘You know, what you said to me last night was a real help. Can I meet you today, after lunch?’ Oh God!

“That’s the worst kind of charity, when you’re doing something so you won’t get a bad feeling. You don’t have the guts to say you want to be left alone. You want people to think you’re a good priest! When you say, ‘I don’t like hurting people,’ I say, ‘Come off it! I don’t believe you.’ I don’t believe anyone who says that he or she does not like hurting people. We love to hurt people, especially some people. We love it. And when someone else is doing the hurting we rejoice in it. But we don’t want to do the hurting ourselves because we’ll get hurt! Ah, there it is. If we do the hurting, others will have a bad opinion of us. They won’t like us, they’ll talk against us and we don’t like that!”