For Greeks virtue meant beauty. They admired the beauty of words, the beauty of thought, beauty of war. Above all they admired the beauty of the body, resulting in the invention of Olympics. For the Romans virtue was courage. They built Colosseum where brave gladiators fought for the amusement of spectators. Romans had only one hero: a soldier who longed for the battle field.
Christianity came up and annihilated all these ideas of virtue. Instead, it proposed that the real virtue is charity, the love towards your neighbour.
It may be easy to be beautiful and to be courageous with proper training, but it is quite difficult to be charitable. They are so many reasons to hate your neighbour but not many to love him/her. I found it hard to be good, being good is not my natural disposition. But I have seen people who are naturally good, somehow they can be effortlessly good. But I have this curse of knowing good by doing wrong. I am plagued by these questions: what is great, an effortful good or effortless good? Jesus says that God alone is good, then what is the nature of our good? Now with the invention of social media doing good works have become a fashion. Everyone is ready to be a Good Samaritan if there is a camera to capture. I admire the good works of some people but I I don’t like them personally. It is from them I learnt that being good is more difficult than doing good.
Simon Leys is a well-known writer whose Christian consciousness is evident in his writings. His collected essays “The Hall of Uselessness” changed my perspective about good works. Leys recounts a story which he read in the pages of an obscure and long-forgotten book, dating back to the beginning of the last century. The narrator, D.G. Mukerji, returning home to India after a long stay in the United States, describes his visit to the sage:
“On the floor were seated two young ladies, an old gentleman, their father, and a young monk in yellow, crouching before the Master, as though bowed by his sanctity. The Holy One bade me be seated.
“I am glad,” he said, “that thy feet pain thee. That will start the easing of the pain in thy soul.” . . . He turned to the others. “What was I talking about? . . . I remember: the hospital which is a punishment for doing good.”
“How could that be, my Lord?” questioned the old gentleman.
“Even thou, an old man, dost ask me that question also? Well it all began one day about eleven years ago. I, who was meditating with a brother disciple under a big tree, decided to stop meditating and care for a man who had fallen sick by the roadside. He was a lean moneylender from Marwar and he had come to Benares to make a rich gift to some temple in order to have his way to Heaven paved in solid gold. Poor fellow, he did not know that all the flowery good deeds done to catch the eye of God will in the end become the bitter fruits of desire.
“I ministered to him until he recovered and could return to Marwar, to lend more money, I suppose. But the rascal did me an evil turn. He spread the news all along the way that if people fell sick near my big tree, I took care of them. So very soon, two more people came and fell sick at the pre-arranged place. What else could my brother disciple and I do, but care for them? Hardly had we cured them when we were pelted with more sick folk. It was a blinding shower. I saw in it all a terrible snare: beyond doubt, I felt, if I went on tending the sick, by and by I would lose sight of God.
“Pity can be a ghastly entanglement to those who do not discriminate, and there I stood, with a wall of sick men between me and God. I said to myself: ‘Like Hanuman, the monkey, leap over them and fling thyself upon the Infinite.’ But somehow I could not leap and I felt lame. Just at that juncture, a lay disciple of mine came to see me: he recognised my predicament and, good soul that he was, he at once got hold of a doctor and an architect and set to work to build the hospital. Very strange though it seems, other illusions co-operated with that good man to help him—the moneylender, the first fellow I cured, sent an additional load of gold and built the day clinic. In six years the place was a solid home of delusion where men put their soul-evolution back by doing good. Shiva, Shiva!”
“But, Master, I notice that your own disciples, boys and young girls, work there?” I put in my question.
“Yes, like these two young ladies here, other young people come to me to serve God. Well, youth suffers from a delusion that it can do good. But I have remedied that somewhat; I let them take care of the sick as long as their outlook on God remains vivid and untarnished, but the moment any of my disciples show signs of being caught in the routine of good works—like the scavenger’s cart that follows the routine of removing dirt every morning—I send that person off to our retreat in the Himalayas, there to meditate and purify his soul. When he regains his God-outlook to the fullest, if he wishes, I let him return to the hospital. “Beware, beware: good can choke up a soul as much as evil.”
“But if someone does not do it, how will good be done?” questioned the old gentleman in a voice full of perplexity.
“Live so,” replied the Master in a voice suddenly stern, “live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarily.”
This puzzling story challenges our understanding of good deeds. The story brings home the idea that God is good but good is not God. Sometimes our good deeds can stand between us and God making each other unable to have any relation. In this sense, good works corrupt the doer, “The good deeds done to catch the eye of God in the end becomes the bitter fruits of desire.” One cannot purchase God with his good deeds since those deeds are tainted by a desire. Jesus says “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
Our good works don’t guarantee our goodness. It is here the Althusserian formula of Marxism is a good choice: “everything will be determined in the last instance. “Beware, beware: good can chalk up soul as much as evil.” It is an immense revelation. Simon Weil says the same thing differently: if a person does not have enough spiritual strength, the good deeds he does can turn out to be evil.The good works degrade the person if he does not have the spiritual strength that can match his good work. Some People make this complaint, “I only intended good but still …” The people who have spiritual strength has no such kind of intentions to be sorry about.
We can resist the inclinations and corruptions that our good deeds bring only by disclaiming them. Escape from the good deeds as soon as it is done, remaining in them can spoil you. Another way to escape them is changing the telos. Never do a good deed to inherit God or his kingdom. Elkhart’s radical mysticism rests on similar imperative. He says in his Sermon 5b: “So long as you perform your works for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray.” It is in this context Elkhart defines a poor man as one “who has a will and a longing for nothing.”
Jesus became God by depriving himself fully of God and His ecstasies.