Sr. Carmelina spent 24 years in hospital. Photo courtesy of the Passionist Sisters

Mary Marrocco: The priceless power of the gift of self

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  • February 11, 2019

Our collective annual engagement in gifts at Christmas-time has wound up for the year. Consumer Christmas can be frustrating and painful, but still it recognizes and develops in us the power of gift. 

Giving, and being given to, are somehow a core aspect of human being and relationships. Have you ever given a gift to someone and been hurt when they rejected or disliked it? We may wrestle with the feeling, but there’s something natural about associating ourselves with what we give. This is true of a gift purchased, and even more of one created, or a gift of time, labour or service. We put something of ourselves in it. Anyone who cooks for others knows this is the nature of gift: the only gift is gift of self. 

Gift, given, giver, are priceless words. At times, they are subsumed by buying and selling, the value placed on things and people according to “how much they are worth.” To some extent, we need to think this way to function in the world. Work is sacred and being remunerated for our work is necessary, just and useful. Yet if commerce and trade are our only measure, this kind of value invites comparison: Who is worth more, or less? Who matters and who does not?

The folly of our need to price absolutely everything and everyone is revealed in the price paid for Jesus’ life: 30 silver pieces, the price of a field, and “the value of a man with a price on His head” (Matthew 27:10).

It’s hard to understand how to value ourselves outside this way of thinking. When we are not earning money or dealing in commerce, we may feel worthless. Conversely, when people give or do things for us at no cost, it’s easy to take them for granted or distrust them.

Why, then, should we give generously, especially when generosity and giving bring with them the possibility of rejection? They bring the chance of discovering we really didn’t have much to give. We risk discovering our own nothingness.

We can bear that discovery only in the presence of the One “whose gift is the Giver,” and who drew us out of nothingness into being. It’s true we are nothing and have nothing. Paradoxically, it’s also true that we are of infinite value — each of us, not just some elite group — and have everything to give. The person who has been given to is the one who can give. That’s why giving is Godly, as well as human. Could this be the meaning of divinization, the early Church’s expression for becoming like God? Not to give is to wither away and return towards nothingness.  

Deep down, though, we fear we have nothing to give and, if so, we will be rejected and left out in the cold. The only way to find out is to take the risk.

One Feb. 7, a girl-child, born in a small village in the south of Italy, was given the name Carmelina. Eighth of 11 children, she didn’t have much in worldly terms. Nobody predicted she’d be known, one day, for her generosity and self-giving, nor honoured by thousands for how much they received from her. She never held a job, earned money, graduated elementary school, had an Instagram account, met the mayor. 

At 25 she moved to Toronto, where her brothers lived, seeking medical help.  For the last 24 years of her life, till her death in 1992 (by then a Canadian citizen), she never got out of her hospital bed. She died at 55 in one of the saddest places in Canada — a long-term/palliative care hospital in a dilapidated building since demolished and rebuilt under a new name. She was not paid for anything she produced or did. She had nothing.  She is remembered for giving everything. 

Sr. Carmelina — she was given special dispensation to become a Passionist sister, without ever being able to sit up or leave her room — gives hope when we wonder if we have anything to give, or if it matters whether we give or not. Suffering from a rare cancer which cost her body parts, and a lifetime of surgeries and pain, she is remembered for having given joy to the thousands who came to her for sustenance and guidance. They are said to have queued up daily, for years, down the hospital corridor. A life given is a life.

The doctrine of the Divine Trinity has been called the “grammar of gift.”

“By the Spirit who is Gift/ing, dwelling within our hearts,” writes theologian Michael Downey, “we behold the mystery of the Trinity in the Incarnate Word, Given, whose life, word, mission, passion, dying and rising are the very love of the Giver of all life and love.”

This is the secret of the gift. In gift given and received is the life of God, and the life of us all. 

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)

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