A Question About Generosity

The other day someone asked me something to which I paid little attention at the time but which I have thought about since: how does someone with a life-limiting disease such as cancer feel/respond when they are asked to pray for someone who has a bad cold, or when they read some heartening story about someone who has ‘beaten’ the disease they themselves have. I can’t remember the answer I gave. I imagine it was along the lines of ‘All requests for prayer are taken seriously. What may seem minor to one person may loom large in the life of another. Our business is to pray, not to judge the person who asks.’ Anyone who has ever had a bad cold will heartily concur. It does feel like death — or what we imagine death to be like — and we do want people to pray for us.

The question about reacting to another’s good news is trickier. I’d like to say, I rejoice for them and give thanks; and most times I do. But I must confess there are times when the gladness and rejoicing have to be squeezed out rather than oozing freely. I recall with shame when a dear friend telephoned to tell me that what we had both feared might be a cancerous growth turned out not to be. As he said over and over again, ‘Thank God, it’s not cancer!’ part of me was echoing the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course I rejoiced for mt friend, but I would like to be free of my own leiomyosarcoma and it would be dishonest not to admit that my gladness was tinged with more than a dollop of . . . not envy exactly, but something very like it. There was definitely a green tinge to my rejoicing.

We are so often urged to be generous. In origin, the word means to be noble, magnanimous, unstinting. Unfortunately, we tend to limit it to more prosaic meanings. We talk about being generous with money or time and conveniently forget that before we can be either we must be magnanimous, big-hearted. Of the three gifts the Magi brought to Jesus, surely the gold is most clearly a sign of love and generosity. Even today, gold is regarded as precious, a symbol of the desire to lavish the costliest of gifts on the beloved. But, alas for us, we are called upon to lavish the gold of our hearts on those who are not necessarily beloved (or at least, not as beloved as perhaps they ought to be). We are called upon to be generous to all. It may not be money or time we have to give. It may be something as simple as a smile of welcome, a listening ear, a small kindness that goes virtually unnoticed. We are called upon to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who grieve; in short, to look beyond ourselves and find and worship Christ in the other. I hope the next time I read one of those ‘I beat cancer’ stories, I shall do exactly that.

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The Blessing of Home

After nearly seven weeks of travelling up and down the A40 and staying with delightful friends in Oxford while I underwent treatment at various hospitals, I am home for a while. I’m very tired and sore, so home is, first of all, somewhere I can rest. For me, that means, once the daily duty of prayer and reading is fulfilled and I have done my share of domestic tasks such as cooking and account-keeping, I can, with a quiet conscience, do nothing in particular. Our culture values doing to such an extent that doing nothing is seen as ‘wasting’ time, ‘wasting’ talent — being, in some measure, selfish. In truth, it is nothing of the sort. Doing nothing silences mind and heart to make them more receptive, more supple, more genuinely creative. It should also make us capable of greater generosity. I don’t mean the kind of generosity that others expect of us. (Anyone telephoning the monastery at the moment or asking me to do things for them is likely to be met with a polite ‘no’: I haven’t any spare energy.) I mean the kind of generosity that goes back to the roots of the word itself: a nobleness, a largeness, that flourishes best when we are at peace; and we are never so much at peace as when we are at home.

It is a truism of Christianity that ‘we have not here an abiding city’ and, for monks and nuns especially, we travel light, owning nothing of our own, our gaze fixed (most of the time) on the City that is to come. That doesn’t mean, however, any misprizing of our earthly home. Indeed, the Benedictine vow of stability is often intertwined with stabilitas loci, a sense of place, of standing firm. The blessing of home is not the comfort or beauty it provides but the assurance that here we have a place, somewhere we stand firm. Let us pray today for those many millions who have no home and do not enjoy the blessing we may take for granted.

Note:
I haven’t been blogging for obvious reasons and will not be online much for the next couple of weeks or so. Please don’t assume that because I tap out the occasional post here everything is back to normal. It will take a while for energy levels to recover. Thank you.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Poverty and Riches

Contrary to the opinion of some, Christianity — at least in its Catholic form — regards neither poverty nor riches as a sign of God’s favour or disfavour. Why, then, is the ‘prosperity gospel’ proving so attractive? Yesterday, not for the first time, our email prayerline contained many requests for financial blessings. Some mentioned distressing situations: nowhere to live, not enough to eat, inadequate or non-existent healthcare, the inability to pay college fees, and so on. Others clearly regarded prayer as a means of obtaining everything the petitioner thought would make him/her happy: a big house, fast car, trophy girl/boyfriend, and so on. We may smile over these, agreeing sagely that money can’t buy happiness, but the fact remains that many people still think of wealth as directly related to God’s blessing and, more troubling still, a blessing that is in some way deserved. By contrast, those who lack anything are under God’s curse, and that is equally deserved. How did such a skewed view of things ever arise?

I wonder whether it is a reaction to centuries of various forms of Christian quietism. Upholding the status quo, not challenging the establishment, accepting that

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

is a self-evident truth (whereas it is nothing of the sort) may have played their part. On the whole, Catholicism has tended to exalt the value of being poor over the value of being rich, recognizing that material plenty can clutter our spiritual vision; but no one can argue that the Church has ever herself felt the need to be poor as an institution.

Lent is a good time to think through our attitudes to poverty and riches, especially as almsgiving is an essential feature of our Lenten discipline. Mercy and compassion aren’t the first qualities that spring to mind when we think of riches, but for Christians they ought to be. That is what we are asked to demonstrate with particular generosity throughout these days of Lent. Our almsgiving shouldn’t be token giving; it should be from the heart, and as much as we can give, whether we’re talking money or some other form of giving, e.g. time. But there is still the underlying attitude to consider. Do we give from a position of superiority, or do we share from the same level? In short, are we believers in the ‘prosperity gospel’ without realising it, or are we ready to accept that we are all equally God’s children and as such bound to one another? The answers may prove uncomfortable, but Lent is a time for being made uncomfortable.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Generosity: Pure but not Simple

Today is one of those days with multiple layers of meaning. We remember that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War for Civilisation which was to end all wars officially came to an end. We also remember St Martin of Tours, himself a former soldier like so many monks, but remembered today chiefly for one incident — the sharing of his cloak with a beggar.

I once summed up the secret of St Martin’s hold on the popular imagination in words that earned me a thorough scolding from some readers:

The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

Perhaps I should have kept the smile out of my writing and concentrated on Martin’s generosity instead, because I think it is generosity that connects both Armistice Day and the saint. The selflessness of those who gave their lives for freedom is a theme many have recalled over the week-end; the lived generosity of day-to-day will be the theme of many a gospel homily this morning. Generous people are immensely attractive. They are big-hearted, kind, warm. They never misuse their gifts to make others feel small or inferior. They never praise one in order to make another feel slighted. They are great encouragers, even if inside they don’t feel quite as happy or confident as they appear on the outside. They remind us that generosity is a mark of the pure of heart, but attaining that purity isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Note:
Do read Tanya Marlow’s blog post for Saturday afternoon (link opens in new window), when she reflected on the CNMAC Blogger of the Year award, for which she, like me, was a finalist. It is a beautiful example of the kind of generosity I am writing about. Her blog is uniformly excellent: add it to your list of must-reads. You can find a list of the winners and runners-up of the CNMAC awards here.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Class and Conscience

Being ‘posh’ is not a sin. Being nouveau riche is not a sin. Being just plain rich is not a sin. Those of us who are not posh or rich sometimes have difficulty seeing beyond the things that irritate us about those who are. Nadine Dorries may be right about David Cameron’s shortcomings, but what she said told us more about her than about him. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and ugly too because it makes judgements on the basis of something utterly ridiculous, quite literally a no-thing..

In England, class is hard to define but instantly recognizable. It is linked to, but not determined by, wealth. Accent and education play a major part, but not intelligence or many of our grandest families would hardly qualify as upper class. Everyone can become middle class, but one has to be born lower or upper class. That fact alone should indicate how silly it is to value or misprize anyone on the basis of class.

But do we use class as shorthand for attitudes that really have more to do with conscience? Many rich people are extremely generous; many others are extremely mean. Whether Christian or not, we still tend to expect those who have a lot of this world’s goods to share with those who don’t. When the rich person refuses to share or is rude or belittling about those less fortunate, we feel that something is not right and are left thinking about camels and eyes of needles. A hard heart and a tight wallet is a particularly unlovely combination.

It would be sad if our present economic mess were to lead to another outbreak of class warfare. Much better, surely, to concentrate on developing a conscience about others and a more generous response to their needs. ‘All in this together?’ Yes, Mr Cameron, but at a much deeper and more demanding level than I suspect you, or most of us, have yet guessed.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Almsgiving

Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.

Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail