Generosity is the art of living right

By  Claire-Monique Lerman, FMM, Catholic Register Special
  • February 22, 2008

{mosimage}Being Generous: The Art of Right Living by Lucinda Vardey and John Dalla Costa (Knopf Canada, hardcover, 320 pages, $25).

The title of this book caught my eye. I had to stop and ponder what I understood by the expression “being generous.” I discovered, as the authors so clearly point out, that I had a very limited notion of this very rich and transforming phrase.

I had the idea of a person who gives freely or of a person who does things without always counting the cost. I learned, like most, to be that kind of generous at school. I saw it in our society during the Christmas season or in times of need. It was easy to spot the good deeds.

Lucinda Vardey and John Dalla Costa propose an entirely different journey into this reality. They take the time to look at the very word: “Generosity is generative — generating change, generating opportunity, generating transformations.” Then I began to understand the second half of the title: The Art of Right Living.

Can being generous be a way of life? Can it be the way to live? Will it reveal our true nature as beings in the image of God? A way of living implies that it touches all aspects of our lives. There must be merits to such a manner of living. So how does one become generous? The authors do not present a rosy and light path to follow. The intertwining of virtues in the art of living as generous beings is work.

{sa 0676978835}“It takes courage — to offer gratitude or contrition. It takes discernment to identify whether a situation warrants thanks or an apology. It takes humility to accept being beholden to another, either for the obligation of generosity received or for accountability for mistakes. It takes compassion to feel remorse for hurts imposed. It takes mercy, not just tolerance, but real empathy towards others and towards one’s self. It takes reliability, which means constancy and consistency, in voicing appreciation and in following through with actions that prove the lessons from forgiveness have been integrated. It takes trust — wanting to increase it, wanting to repair it, sharing in its reciprocities and responsibilities. It takes hope to see gratitude and forgiveness as aspects of a prodigious pattern of interconnected belonging and becoming. It takes remembering to take neither for granted. And it takes balance to recognize that in any relationship ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is no one’s exclusive monopoly.”

Is this not what Christian life is about? Had I not reflected on these words in my family and in my formation as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary? Is not the life that Jesus proposes all about courage, discernment, humility, compassion, mercy, reliability, trust, hope, remembering and balance?

Upon pondering this rather overwhelming summary of what is entailed in generosity, I discovered I had seen this “art of right living.” I had also seen this generation of change and transformation. In my understanding, a life well lived is one that creates a moment of God. In that moment we know there is a God and we are blessed to have seen a clear glimpse of the Lord’s attributes.

This book reminded me of blessings I had received. I have been privileged to witness such moments of God. I have seen this generosity that radiates life. Such a moment of generosity was revealed to me in the Middle East several years ago. It was the end of the Holy Week celebrations in the Greek Byzantine Cathedral of Damascus. It was my first experience of these overwhelming, lengthy, rich liturgies in Arabic. After a week of Arabic and profusely incensed celebrations, I was exhausted and barely breathing with my asthma in an uproar. Holy Saturday morning (the celebration of the Easter Vigil in the Eastern rites), I decided to observe the people from the last pew near the exit. We all had our tapers in hand. Beside me was Abdullah. He was a 40-year-old gentleman who had Down’s syndrome. In our neighbourhood, he was unfortunately the taunt of the young people with far too much time on their hands.

Abdullah sat in church with his head bowed low, holding a taper a lady had practically thrown at him as if he did not have the right to be there. We really looked like two very lost souls, he and I. The ceremony started and at one point the bishop invited the congregation to get up, light their tapers from the Paschal candle and process with him around the church three times. Everyone moved forward except for Abdullah and I. He, in his shyness, could not believe anyone wanted him and I was too exhausted to move. The bishop arrived next to us and continued on his way. All of a sudden, his Grace turned around and motioned Abdullah to come light his taper and to finish the procession with him. 

It was a sight to behold. Abdullah got up — proud, beautiful — with his taper, and went forth to the bishop. One of the ladies looked crossly at Abdullah, but Abdullah with his restored dignity firmly informed her he had been called by his friend the bishop. They finished the procession together, with lit taper, hand in hand.

Abdullah returned to his seat and told me all about this amazing event. He had not blown out his taper. This bishop, without knowing it, permitted us to live a moment of God. In our remote corner, we lived a real resurrection. Abdullah had become a gentleman thanks to his friend the bishop, and I in the wonderment of the moment finally started breathing again. The two very lost souls in the back of the church were gone. There were now only two good people who also had their place in the eyes of God.

I am grateful to Vardey and Dalla Costa for reminding me in this practical and inspiring book that “being generous” is truly “the art of right living.”

(Lerman is a Franciscan Missionary of Mary living in Toronto.)     

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