Our generosity makes us more God-like

  • August 29, 2012
In our city, we make the most of friendly summer weather to treat ourselves to much-needed holidays — escape from the routine, time with family or friends, exploring new places, enjoying a hobby.

This August, I observed a different vacation plan. A friend spent two weeks teaching teenagers at a “youth camp with a difference” to hammer, saw, assemble, paint, create and perfect. Together they built a handsome outbuilding which will stand for years to come as a manifestation of the power of community (for more, see The Register's coverage of the camp at www.catholicregister.org). The camp gave priority to families who might have had trouble affording such an opportunity for their kids. The out-building they built contributes to the site so that next year's kids will have an even better place to stay. 

The youth, rather than being given entertainment, were asked to learn, create and contribute. And, as they were able and willing, to pray. I watched them blossom under the opportunity.

It was a good experience. How much of its goodness arose from my friend's gift of time and self? He voluntarily spent two weeks of his vacation time to lead the camp, as well as giving his expertise, enthusiasm and love of building and creating. The kids received all this, without necessarily being aware of it. It's good to be paid for our work, as St. Paul reminds us; but something irreplaceable comes through simple generosity.

Something else happens when we close in on ourselves and refuse to be generous. I've felt the pull of stinginess, self-protection, closing down, looking inward, being careful, cautious, safe. These impulses aren't in themselves negative; they can be tools that help us recognize necessity, and do what we need to do. But they can also be the other side of an invitation to generosity.

Lately, I've repeatedly heard the expression, “he can afford to be generous.” This sentence fills me with wonder: what does generosity have to do with affordability? Each has its own value, but they are quite different. Affordability is about measuring, counting and weighing — all necessary skills. Generosity has to do with an inner space and an openness to someone else's need. We must have an awareness that the world doesn't begin and end with our own stomachs, a sense that we've received and have something to give, something desirable and helpful to give. Generosity and joy are cousins. As my friend kept telling me during the youth camp, he was enjoying himself. 

Generosity can be difficult to the point of painfulness. Think of what it's like to be in a spat with your spouse or other intimate. You know you're right; you have a just complaint; what you're saying and doing is perfectly fair and reasonable. And you know that in this moment of struggle, you can speak to your spouse a word of kindness, forgiveness, mercy, tenderness — or you can withhold it. What a difference it can make, to offer or withhold such a word at such a moment. How hard it can be, to be generous in this way rather than cling to justice. 

It's astonishing that we do perform acts of generosity, given human nature and life's hardships — all of us struggling to survive, in a world that often seems harsh and unforgiving. Frequently, even. Unseen, un-repaid, unsung. The poet William Wordsworth referred to “those best portions of a good man's life: his little, nameless, unremember'd acts of kindness and of love.”  Where do they come from? How did we get that way?

In our impulse to generosity — and even more, in our acts of generosity — we discover something about ourselves. We learn that we're more than we know, more than an instinct to survive, more than our stomachs and bodies, more even than reason and justice. There's something limitless about us.

“The measure of love,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, “is to love without measure.” We're capable of loving beyond measure, beyond reason. How could we do this if we hadn't first been given it? How can we discover our generosity without discovering our likeness to One whose generosity has no limits? Still, He limits Himself to our size so that we can discover our built-in connection to Him. And so we can exceed our limits, and find we’re bigger than we dream.

“I measure and count myself, my God,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “But you have the right to squander me.”

This is the triumph of the cross: the lived witness of the God who squanders Himself, who abandons infinity to be affixed to a piece of wood by His own creatures. And so gives us a glimpse of the infinite power of love and generosity.

It's a power we too can wield, as my friend did in his generous self-gift for other people's children. Once we start to perceive it, we might find it's far more common than we suspect. All round us and within us. Giving us life. Helping us become better, bigger, more human, more God-like.

Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Sept. 14.

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