Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.
2 Cor 9:6-8
The Xaverian Fundamental Principles remind us that the heart of discipleship, of the call of Jesus to each of us, is to recognize that all is gift. The “secret” of life, from the Christian perspective is that our very life is a gift to us, and, because it is a gift, it is given to us that we might give it away.
you will realize
that the cost of your discipleship
is your very life . . . .
. . . offered to the world
as a sign of His love and care.
The gift you have received
give as a gift.
This dynamic of Christian living requires of us the ongoing formation of our hearts in two key dispositions: gratitude and generosity. These dispositions are inextricably bound to each other. Growth in one results in growth in the other, and depletion in one will always mean depletion in the other.
Most of us in our ethical and religious formation have been taught of the importance of being generous rather than selfish. As a result, we tend by adulthood (unless we suffer from narcissistic personality disorder) to have a fairly developed conscience that registers when we are being generous and when we are being selfish. What may be more difficult to appraise are the deep rooted and often unconscious limits we place on our generosity. It is this deeper level of awareness to which the great spiritual traditions summon us. Thus, we read in today’s gospel: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:25). As the Fundamental Principles point out, “the cost of your discipleship is your very life.”
As we read in the Fundamental Principles, however, the life dynamic that allows us to give over our very life is the principle enunciated in Matthew 10:8: “The gift you have received give as a gift,” or, as more typically now translated: “Freely you have received, freely give.” Our life has been freely given to us as a gift, and so we are to give it away as a gift. The generosity, and even self-oblation, to which the gospel calls us is possible to us when we receive our life from God as a gift. We are stopped short, we are inhibited in that giving to the degree that we have not yet received our life as a gift to us — and so to the world.
How are we called to live, what dispositions of heart must we acquire and strengthen in order to grow in gratitude for our life? Our humanity has been greatly enriched by the insights of psychology and psychotherapy. We have come to value, in a way some preceding times had forgotten, the significance of our own emotions. Being aware of what we feel gives us an access to dimensions of our experience that awareness of our thinking alone cannot. As with any perspective, however, there are limits and even dangers to this insight. Our emotions are, at their core, unconscious judgments. Our emotional reaction is a judgment of the person, situation, or thing before us, or in our memory or anticipation. Our emotions tell us our judgment of the other, not their entire truth. This is also true of ourselves. We have judgments about various aspects of our own selves, our lives, our experiences, our tendencies, our weaknesses, and our strengths. These very powerful judgments and feelings determine our sense of gratitude for our lives, as well as our sense of fear, rejection, disappointment, and even rejection of aspects of our lives and experiences. We have gratitude, then, for what we appreciate and resentment and even self-hatred, perhaps, for what we depreciate.
The life that we are called to give away to the world, however, is not merely the life of our superego, or the life we wish we had, or the life of which we approve. It is the life which is the gift that God has given us in its entirety. We can never give our whole lives away until we receive our lives, as they truly are, in gratitude. This process of “formation-in-depth” is a difficult one for us. As Jesus puts it, we can only truly live and know “eternal life” to the degree that we “hate our lives in this world.” The life we are to “hate,” that is to reject, is the life we wish we had, the person we want ourselves to be. Instead, we are called to come to know the person that we are and to discover how great a gift we are. Our own emotional life, then, begins to be changed and transformed in such a way that we do not only “feel” gratitude for what we like and approve of, but rather we experience gratitude born of awe for ourselves as we are, and so for the other as he or she is.
Theodore James Ryken writes that at the moment of a profound conversion he was put in his place. It was this that allowed him to turn toward God and fall in love, and thus place himself in God’s service. As long as the life we are living is one “in this world” that is based on our own desires and our cultural aspirations for glory, we are still turned toward ourselves. Until we know in the core of our being a gratitude to God for the gift that we are, we are still worshipping an idol of our own creation. Our access to and participation in life, and so in God, is our own small life, as it has been given to us. We tend to reject our own smallness because we have greater plans for ourselves. We long for a significance that “the world” recognizes and appreciates. Our turn toward God, our actual loving of God happens when we become thankful to God for the small, humble, yet unique person that we are.
It is difficult to be generous, but it is also difficult to receive wholeheartedly the gifts that are given to us. When a person receives a gift we offer to them openly, warmly, and gratefully, they give us, in return, the greatest gift we could receive. When we fully receive a gift, we experience an overflowing of gratitude which becomes in turn a gift to the person who had gifted us. This morning a friend sent me a copy of an email he had received in response to his expression of appreciation to a valued colleague in the face of a past and potentially future misunderstanding in the workplace. As I read her response I was deeply moved by its directness, warmth, and simplicity. She mentions the past misunderstanding, and then says “but in the end everything was fine. . . . We will be glad, as always to work for and with you. Warm regards and thanks again.” The gift of concern in my friend’s communication to his colleague had been fully received, and, in return, she offered not a mere willingness but a desire to gladly work for and with.
When we gratefully receive all of our life as the gift from and of God that it is, we are “compelled” as St. Paul says, by the love that gratitude evokes in us “to work for and with” that God who has gifted, “in common,” everyone else as well. Thus, our generosity toward the world requires also a generosity to enter into the silence and solitude of our own being. It requires real faith, hope, and love to face our own illusions about ourselves and to be willing to give them up in favor of “being put in our place.”
Many years ago when we were doing retreats with young people, we would engage them in “trust walks.” They were to each have a partner and one of the two would be blindfolded and the other would lead her or him. It was illuminating to see how some would quite readily give themselves over to the person leading them, while others would remain for a good while very rigid and tentative. In time, providing they weren’t led into a wall, they would relax into the hand of the one leading them, but the process of doing so taught them the tentativeness and continual negotiation that trust involves. It takes a great deal of trust to believe that we shall be safe as we dare to enter into the silence and solitude in which we will admit what we have spent our lives avoiding, what our emotions have led us to fear and reject in ourselves. The promise of faith, however, is that what we see as our smallness and insignificance, and even our darkness and sinfulness, is God’s gift to us.
The most powerful limit on our generosity is our fear of ourselves. As that fear becomes first a willing acceptance and then a wholehearted gratitude, our hearts expand and we give of ourselves cheerfully, for we have nothing to lose. All we are has been given to us, and the more of it we give away, the greater the gift we receive in return.
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.
It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows. In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 25