“I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.”
Luke 21: 3-4
The older I get the more central to the gospel teaching the story of the poor widow becomes for me. I suspect the reason for this is that as the time of life I am given begins to run down, I become more and more aware of the poverty of my contribution and the limitations in my work.
Sigmund Freud made note of the fact that there is a restlessness in us, a certain insatiability, that is always, and sometimes painfully, beckoning us to exercise our deepest potency in the world. That deepest potency, what Adrian van Kaam calls our “transcendent form potency,” is our capacity to receive and become aware of the work we are given to do in the world and the ability to do it. This “work” of God is not merely the functional tasks we perform in order to make our living; it is rather the living out of our life call by giving ourselves away in the unique way for which we have been created and to which we are called.
In the course of life we experience how we attempt to give form to that work by trial and error. It is not easy to know what is ours to do, for there are always so many social, cultural, and unconscious drives and forces that are giving us contradictory signals about our call and our work. Yet, when we stumble upon some incarnation and realization of our call, we know a consonance and happiness that is unparalleled by any other. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Cor. 12: 4-7)
St. Paul is illustrating the magnanimity of God in this outpouring of gifts for the world through the unique gift of each human person. Jesus shows that magnanimity in the person of the poor widow. She has given more than all the wealthy have because “she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.” In terms of our personal experience, this is another of the great spiritual paradoxes. When we truly attempt to give all we have, to put our whole life into the work that is ours, we experience how poor we are and how little we have. Yet, despite our poverty and the limits of our efforts, we experience the deep joy which comes with entering into the generosity of God. The great work is our work; it is a common work. So, when I give all I have, as poor as it seems, to that which is really mine to do, I enter into the great flow of the Divine work, the work of creation that is always taking place. To live our call is to respond to the invitation to participate in that work of God by giving, as little as it is, “our whole livelihood.”
So, what is it about aging that increases the significance of the story of the poor widow? In early life, and perhaps even into mid-life, there is the tendency to project into the future, to see what we have done so far as a mere preparation for the greater work or task that lies before us. To this consciousness our limits are obstacles to be overcome. There is always a sense that the poverty we experience will, in due course, be alleviated and our great “untapped potential” will eventually assert itself. From my current vantage point, however, it is difficult to imagine, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, reaching those heights that I used to think attainable. After seven decades, the existential reality of my own poverty is undeniable. I must admit all those ways I lack the discipline I crave and the courage I’ve hoped for, all the psychological “baggage” I bring to my work and relationships, all the infantile needs that influence my mood and quality of presence, all the self-absorption that blurs my awareness and vision, and now I must recognize the physical pains and limits in energy that come with aging.
Brother Francis Xavier Ryken wrote of an experience of conversion at the age of 19. In relating that experience, he describes being brought low, turning toward God, falling in love, and putting himself in God’s service. He came to know God’s love for him and his love for God and then to give himself over to the service of God as he was brought low, as he came to recognize and appropriate his own poverty. As a younger person, I often imagined that somehow I would “grow” to a state where I attained the strength and the worthiness to serve God. Now I am discovering, so much later than Ryken and St. Paul, that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The generous love of God is made all the more manifest in our poverty and weakness.
So, what does this mean for how we do our work? It is a call to give ourselves to the task that is our call not from our wealth but out of our poverty. It is to give to God and God’s service all that we have, as little as it is. The gospel foil of the poor widow is the man who builds barns to store his grain against future deprivation and need. We are always both of these characters. There is forever present in our efforts a withholding to some degree in order to deal with future unknowns. Realizing how little we actually have (and are), we are fearful of giving our all. God, however, does not withhold. As Paul writes:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (Phil. 2: 6-7)
In pointing out the poor widow to us, Jesus offers us more than a moral tale about generosity. He describes for us a sharing in the very life of God. When we serve God by giving all we have, including our very livelihood, we enter into the very work of God. When we share everything we have, we offer more than functional service. Despite our own impoverishment and difficulty in loving, we participate in the very love of God. It is only as we discover our true place and are brought low into the reality of our own poverty that we can know the love of God for us. One of my favorite lines from the Second Eucharistic Prayer, in the former translation, is “We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.” It is an expression of our gratitude for our life and our work. Our worthiness to serve God is a result of God’s love for us. To know that love is to have all we need, and so we can give without withholding. As we do so, we pray with Jesus “that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17: 26).
One day I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach whined. At home the fridge had become a casket bearing nothing. The range and oven had become decorations meant to make a dying box look like a home. Hunger colored those days.
“Where is this from?” I asked, already carving out a healthy portion from a worn gray pot.
My mother pretended she didn’t hear me. She was studying the pages of her massive white Bible at the kitchen table. Wide sheets of light pressed through the window and draped her. She spent her days reading that big Bible. Its pages wore to film as her fingers fluttered from psalm to psalm. She’d be asleep by the splash of dusk. I, on the other hand, would be up for hours. Trying to do homework by the blue glow of my cell phone, clinging to its light until it died. At night hunger and I huddled together. I’d fall asleep thinking one day I would change everything.
That afternoon I ate the chicken and rice. It tasted like pepper and smoke. “How did you make this, Mom?” I asked again. She looked up from her Bible. “Auwrade. Did you pray over your food? Did you say your psalms today?” I ate the food quickly, greedily. I chewed the bones till they splintered in my mouth.
Another thing my mother often said: “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Things My Mother Said” in Friday Black, pp. 27-8