With each contribution show a cheerful countenance, / and pay your tithes in a spirit of joy. / Give to the Most High as he has given to you, / generously, according to your means.Sirach 35: 10-12
Jesus said,”Amen, I tell you, there is no one who gave up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good tidings, who does not —along with persecutions—receive a hundred-fold, in the present time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, as well as, in the Age to come, the life of that Age.”Mark 10: 29-30
For us it is very possible to read the words of Sirach today and to think that they are enjoining us to make sure to smile when we are making a contribution and to willfully make ourselves learn to enjoy giving away our possessions. It seems like a recognition of the experience that by nature we give begrudgingly, and so we must develop the habit of being joyful as we do so. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to say that when we are really giving away all we have and are, we experience the true joy of receiving so much more in return. We don’t need to convince ourselves to enjoy being generous. The more generous we are, the greater the joy we experience in return.
The truth of the matter is that in our experience of giving to others most of us experience at times both joy and a grudging resentment. Of course, our relationship to and sense of the person to whom we are giving makes a difference in our experience, but even more is dependent upon our relationship to that which is our gift. Quite often I have loaned books, for example, to friends. Usually this is quite painless and even enjoyable to do, to share with someone a book that has affected my life in some significant way. It is a way of sharing with another, especially one I care about, something of my own inner life. On the other hand, I can also feel very possessive of certain books in particular. The more that they mean to me, the more that I desire to hold on to them. Thus, when at times such a book is not returned, or when it is returned marked up by the borrower, I tend to rage out of a sense of being somehow disrespected and even violated.
Jesus’ teaching on giving and generosity points towards our spiritual nature as human persons. St. Francis captures the truth most succinctly: “For it is in giving that we receive.” Joy in giving is not something we can create in ourselves; it is rather the very structure of reality. As Martin Heidegger pointed out, it is the very structure of care that we experience being cared for in the act of caring for others. The great obstacle to our receiving the care and joy that come from giving is our possessiveness. The more we identify ourselves with “things” or personal attributes, the more we experience pain and resentment rather than joy in giving of what we have and are.
If we watch a very young child, we could readily infer that human beings are essentially selfish. This is the very experience that gives rise in St. Augustine to the notion of “original sin.” In our time, Augustine’s view has become, to say the least, controversial. Yet, whether our possessiveness is sin or not, there is no doubt that we live with a conflict between selfishness and generosity, self-protection and generativity, fear and love. We live, in the body, as if what we possess of goods, bodily well being, comfort and security, and personal attributes and gifts, are all that we have. As a separate, autonomous, self-ruling individual we live in a world of scarcity where, as the disciples say to Jesus when he wants to feed the crowd, there is not enough for all of us. But for Jesus, there is always surplus. The more that is given away, the more that we discover there is.
Thus, the only deep joy is in giving all away, including our very selves. What stands between the life and joy that Jesus promises and our own experience is our possessiveness. It is whatever we are holding on to that is keeping us from the reception of the hundredfold. Four decades ago, I received one of my deepest personal insights into the nature and effects of sin. A close friend had gone to spend time with another friend, and I was insanely jealous and miserable. I lost all sense of being in the world that was continuing to sustain me and to offer its life to me. All I could know was my own rage and its resultant self-despisal. Later, when my friend returned and we spoke with each other about the experience and I realized more than ever the gift of our friendship, a revelation dawned on me. I expressed this insight in the words: “The world is so large, and I make it so small.” At the level of spirit the world is full; at the level of “survival” at which our bodily and unconscious reactions reside, the world must be reduced to our capacity to manage and control it. Our fundamental struggle is to trust that the Mystery is beneficent rather fearing it is than malevolent. It is to love the world rather than fear it.
When we truly realize how small we are in a world that is so full and great, the more we know joy. When we stop possessing and accumulating, we then receive a hundredfold of what we have let go, “of houses, and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, and in the Age to come the life of that Age.” To let go of whomever and whatever we possess as if it were our own is to realize that in Christ we are all in all. To live in the flow of such continual grace is to know a joy that no one can take from us. All we think we need and want, we have already been given. When we give, when we let go of all we think we have, then we are a space that the life and grace of God, our true life, rushes to fill. And our spontaneous and spirit-filled response to this abundance of life is gratitude and joy.
To reach that primeval poverty, my poverty, which for Eckhart is also God’s poverty, is the goal of the mystical journey. To attain it, the soul must abandon not only its possessions and its self-will, but also its creaturely identity and even its “God.” In his most radical sermon, “Blessed Are the Poor,” Eckhart admonishes, “If one wants to be truly poor, he must be as free from his creature will as when he had not been born.” We must become totally detached from that individual existence to which we are so attached. We know that this little self is insignificant, but we think we had better hold on to it anyway, since without it, we may have nothing left. That is precisely the self we should surrender, according to Eckhart, if we are to partake of the wealth of God’s own poverty.Louis Dupré, The Deeper Life: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism, p. 40