Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
when you already have it with you.
What is the source of so much violence, the death and destruction on the global level and the icy cold resentment at the personal and familial level? How is it that even those who live in relative comfort and affluence seem to have an insatiable desire for more “things” for ourselves and its resultant increase in our suspicion, fear, and violence toward our neighbor? It seems obvious, at this moment in history, that increases in wealth and accumulation of possessions do nothing for our gnawing sense of inadequacy and impotence. For those with billions of dollars to those who have a comfortable enough life, there remains the compulsion to attain yet more by pushing themselves, by bending the rules, by competing with and taking advantage of others. In the United States, thirty-one of the fifty states have “open carry laws,” that is laws that allow citizens to carry guns in public, thus proclaiming to others that I am prepared to kill you if I consider you a threat to myself or my possessions. How do we get to a place where our consciousness of the others is other than of him or her as at best an obstruction and at worst a threat to us.
For the last 22 or 23 years of her life, my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. As all who have experienced the disease in their loved ones know, there are multiple phases of the illness. The early years are characterized by the extreme anxiety of knowing something is horribly wrong, of experiencing the extreme dislocation of having little or no short term memory to situate oneself in the world. As the disease progresses and one becomes less able even to communicate one’s own wishes, desires, and needs, there can occur, as there did with my mother, a violent period, where one physically strikes out at others. I remember speaking at this time to my mother’s specialist who pointed out to me that these reactions are often provoked by the caregivers and others around the person who, by behaving aggressively and forcibly toward him or her, evoke a violent response, as the diseased person can no longer in words assert him or herself. I realized that if someone started pushing me around, I would react in the same way as my mother did. When we are not heard, attended and responded to, we will, by nature, react aggressively.
So, it is by realizing our own physical and spiritual potencies that we overcome our tendencies to rage and violence. Violence is a symptom of impotence. We who live in a secular and non-transcendent age, however, tend to conflate potency with aggression and force. To be sure, being potent does involve the ability to protect ourselves and to assert ourselves in the world. Yet, today’s reading from Proverbs invites us to reflect on our deepest potency, on what it truly is of ourselves that we are to assert in the world. It tells us that we may feel impotent because we are withholding “good from those to whom it is due.” If our life is truly a call from God, then it must be that, at every moment, we are a capacity to offer the good we have and we are in service. The teaching of Proverbs invites us to grow in awareness and to acknowledge the unique power of love that is ours at each and every moment, and to give, not withhold, that good and love at the moment it is due. Perhaps, we so often feel frustrated and impotent not because we lack something but because we have something that we are not giving away.
Part of our difficulty with giving the good we have to give is our “search for glory.” We can be so aware of what we lack, that we pay no heed to what we have to give. We tend to think that the love we are called to share is extraordinary and dramatic. Yet, to have faith is to believe that what each moment asks of us is always something that we have to give. We grow in our sense of spiritual potency by doing what we can in the moment, by giving what we have to give to “those to whom it is due.” Every time we withhold our giving from the person or the situation, our deeper capacities atrophy to some degree. Every time we give away what we have to give, our spiritual potency grows and deepens. “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 25:29) As muscles atrophy through disuse, so does the muscle of our heart, our spiritual capacity for love.
We miss the invitation to offer what we have because usually it comes in such common and ordinary forms. We may be asked to give some extra time or attention, or we may be asked to generously leave someone alone. We may find ourselves thinking about someone, and as a result, are moved to make a call, or write an email, or send a note, or say a prayer. We may, in the face of real tiredness or boredom, realize that we need to extend a bit of extra effort to do the task at hand carefully and well, to give our best to our work for the sake of those who will be affected by it. Every day brings with it countless moments of choice: to “withhold good from, those to whom it is due,” or to offer it. To be an instrument of God’s peace is to realize that we are here to give to others the good that we have that is due them. That is what we are for. We are a potency for love, not in extraordinary but rather in the most common and ordinary of ways. To refuse this capacity is the source of frustration, anger, and violence in us.
When in his Rule St. Benedict speaks of the tools of the monastery, he refers not only to items used in worship, but the housekeeping, farming, and kitchen implements. All are to be blessed before use and treated with care. All are holy.
But it is hard to hold onto this wisdom as we go about our daily chores. It is difficult to love those closest to us at the end of a long day, when, as the poet Kate Daniels writes of her family, “We have all come home to each other to be healed and hailed . . and morally realigned. But we are tired, and we lash out in irritation, frustration, anger.” She laments, “Try as I may—and I do—I have a hard time browning the ground turkey I’m planning to mix with the canned spaghetti sauce for the glory of God. I know that God is here, but in the chaos and the noise, I can’t seem to find him.”
Eventually she realizes that her seeking God at such a time is not futile, for it is in her very drudgery that God wants to find her. It’s not when we think we are most holy, dressed up for church, as it were, that we are most accessible to God, but when we’re sweaty and in a cranky mood, helping an elderly parent with a diaper. God knows and accepts us as we are, and that’s good news.
Kathleen Norris, in Sacred Rhythms: The Monastic Way Every Day, pp. 40-1