April 2008

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In the last months, we noted how a spirit of simplicity and gratitude are essential to living in a state of joy.

How, then, can we know that true gratitude exists in ourselves or in another?

Ever-expanding gratitude produces generosity, which we also call love or charity. Generosity is the active, forward-looking, hopeful and joyful expression of love. It understands that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Jm.2:17) Like Saint Francis, one can be “poorer in wealth …richer in generosity.” (Cf. Celano, Life of St. Francis) In a way, that’s the whole purpose of evangelical poverty. If voluntary poverty does not increase generosity of spirit, it is not being lived authentically. Gratitude produces generosity through a profound sense of plenitude, not deprivation. Literally, we come to feel that we are being filled to overflowing. (Cf. Ps.23:5)

That is why true generosity is closely related to authenticity. Without a healthy appreciation of our giftedness and woundedness, we cannot behave freely and intentionally. Rather, our words and actions are largely guided by invisible strings that run deep into our subconscious. We know neither their origin nor their direction. As long as this is the case, we operate out of need, not abundance. Deeds that can appear to be generous are at risk of being thinly veiled manipulation or, at the very least, constructed as self-serving.

A generous spirit, therefore, expresses joy because its purpose is other-serving and favours the blossoming of love. Moreover, the fearless and free action that expresses this generosity in turn produces even more joy because it builds up relationships that are vital and essential to our well-being.

True generosity is neither a duty nor a need. It is a desire that springs from gratitude. Regardless of where the gratitude is directed, generosity is generally scattered more widely. If it is sincere, generosity is expressed almost recklessly as random acts of kindness. True generosity is generative.

The 1988 movie “Pay It Forward”, with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, made a gripping point of this principle. The sum of all of this generosity is a world in which we are all better off. Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of the book on which the movie was based, wrote from a lived experience of gratitude paid forward to someone, and concluded, “I spent the next 20 years wondering what kind of world it would be if an idea like that caught fire.”

It is in giving that we receive.

– Prayer of Saint Francis

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Luke’s Gospel points to a revealing perspective on generosity. In the story sometimes called “The Widow’s Mite,” rich men offer “gifts from what they had to spare of their riches,” while the widow deposits two little copper coins, “all that she had to live on.” (Cf. 21: 1-4) The widow gives away not only her whole livelihood, but the core of who she is.

William Yeomans, in an article entitled “The Divine Generosity” (The Way, 1977), comments, “Her generosity generated the Life of the world, and her awareness of her poverty permitted the fulfillment of the Magnificat.” He explains, “Generosity has to do with a particular quality of giving. It is the giving of self out of love, and out of awareness that all we have to give is self, in such a way that new life is born out of our giving.”

Like so many authors, Yeomans remarks that we learn about generosity from God but suggests that we often fail to see the true nature of God’s giving, because “our understanding is clouded by an imagination of God as some sort of super-millionaire dispensing largesse out of his treasury…too, we are so infected by this materialistic age as to imagine that God gives us things.” These models fail to reveal God’s self-giving, particularly in Creation, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit: “The only God we know is a God who is an immense movement of giving….His gift is not things but a person, a communication of himself and his being….Jesus is the generosity of God, of his free giving, come to give us life…. ‘This is my body which is given for you.’…To receive the Spirit whom Jesus gives is to enter into and become part of that great movement of the givingness of God.”

The kind of generous spirit that leads to true joy is a divine principle. It is not managed philanthropy that merely gives away the interest on hoarded wealth but gives away ourselves fully invested in an exciting dynamism of giving and receiving—of self-giving without expectation of return but in the certain knowledge that we are fulfilled. Inevitably, with that spirit, we end up receiving more than we give, not necessarily then and there but sometime, somewhere.

Because this is a divine principle, it is best learned directly by observation of God’s action in the world. In human history, God has spared no effort to give and forgive, literally until it hurt and then gave and forgave again, and again, and again. God emptied himself into the Son. Christ emptied himself. (Cf. Phil. 2: 7) Again, God emptied himself by returning Christ’s Holy Spirit to us that we may not be alone in our perennial and often-misguided quest for true joy. By example, God says, “If you truly want joy, then truly love as Jesus did.”

The link between God-modeled generosity and joy is evident. Where Saint Paul explains Christ’s self-emptying, he adds in the next two verses, Christ “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” In that moment there was a new beginning of God’s glory in human history, the glory and the joy of Christ, his Son made man.

Jesus was obedient to the Father’s generative goodness and love. From the Life of the Trinity, we learn the fecundity and joy of generosity. From God’s grace, we make this mystical dance the pattern for our life.

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not count the cost;
to fight and not heed the wounds; to toil and not seek for rest;
to labour and not ask for reward, except to know
that I am doing your will.

– Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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Simplicity, gratitude and generosity, with God’s grace, lead to a state of joy. This is possible because peaceful simplicity leads to consciousness of reality and the benevolence of God as expressed in Life itself, in community and in creation. In turn, gratitude, especially directed at the giver, leads to generosity or love, which is the source of resilient and consoling joy. Saint Thomas Aquinas argued explicitly that joy is the fruit of love. (Cf. Summa Theologica II, Q28) Ultimately, generosity of spirit disposes the heart to the Holy Spirit’s gift of joy, which God is eager to share. With Saint Paul, we can “be joyful always, pray at all times.” (1Thes.5:16) We can accept the fullness of the good news that John wrote of so “that our joy may be complete.” (1Jn.1:4)

When I was in my twenties, I met an older man whom I came to know rather well. I took an interest in him because of his seemingly irrepressible joy. Circumstances did not readily justify his zest for life and spontaneous generosity. He was poor. His parents had struggled to house and feed a family, and so had he. His meagre farm did not suffice in providing for them. To supplement his income, he took jobs here and there. Work was scarce and wages were inadequate. The financial stress alone would have given most of us a sour disposition, if not cause for full-blown depression.

What he had, he shared without hesitation. If you commented that something looked nice or useful, you’d find it at the door as you were leaving, then he’d insist that he’d be offended if you didn’t take it as a gift. (You soon learned to avoid making such comments!) He cheered those who worried; encouraged those who struggled—always with an understated wisdom and self-deprecating humour. He loved without reservation. Wildflowers picked from the work fields were gathered and handed to his wife. No favour was unreasonable; no neighbour would do without his help. No visitor could leave without a meal, even in times of scarcity.

This man whom I came to deeply admire and regard as a saintly man, despite his coarse manner and lack of obvious piety, walked in joy along the path of simplicity, gratitude and generosity. To this day, it is his image that springs to mind when I consider the nature of true joy. The divine principle of self-emptying was incarnate in the spirit of this uneducated, un-theologized, unassuming, unpretentious and unselfish disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead, he was filled with faith, hope and love; with gentle kindness and patient confidence.

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

– Colossians 1: 11-12

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May God grant you the faith and courage to live in holy simplicity; the hope and wisdom to live in sacred gratitude; the love and joy to reach out with a generous heart to those around you.

Fraternally,

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries