Warm summer days and the re-opening of certain states can deceive us into thinking that the worst of COVID-19 is over. Sadly, the national death rate here in the U.S. has already reached over 126,000, and, by some estimates, the number of people infected is 10 x what has previously been reported. To think that life will return to normal any time soon seems more like fantasy than reality. In fact, by some accounts, we may have another 6 months to a year of wearing masks and social distancing.
The challenge, of course, is to find ways of thriving despite all the losses, difficulties and limitations we are facing. During the last 3 1/2 months, our lives have been turned upside down but there have also been some unexpected blessings: more time with loved ones and pets, increased creativity, stronger technical skills, more time for reflection and prayer, online learning opportunities ... Many of us have developed new skills, acquired greater flexibility and learned to be more compassionate. All this is encouraging and helps compensate for negatives such as loneliness, depression, financial struggles, increased work loads, rambunctious children, grumpy housemates, neurotic pets, etc.
Now is as good a time as any to take stock of our individual situations to assess what has "worked" for us and what has prevented us from "showing up" as our best selves. How are we doing spiritually, intellectually, physically, and emotionally? What about the people we live with? Given where we are today, what do we need to put in place so that the next few months can hold more blessings and fewer liabilities? Rather than allowing the days to blur into one another, what can we do to ensure our own well-being and that of our households? What structures can we develop? What resources are available? How can we continue to give as well as receive, to participate as well as to spend time alone, to be productive as well as to rest? How can we create a new life that is not only COVID-proof but that is also fully aligned with our mission and vision as individuals? All these questions and more deserve our attention; how we answer them will help shape our lives in the months ahead.
PS Try my spiritual self-assessment tool!
After you take the Quiz, you will automatically receive a computer-generated diagram and explanatory comments regarding your strengths and "growing edges."
I hope you find the Quiz useful!
"Whoever receives you receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the
one who sent me.
Whoever receives a prophet because
that person is a prophet
will receive a prophet’s reward,
and whoever receives a righteous person
because that person is righteous
will receive a righteous person's reward.
And whoever gives only a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones to drink
because the little one is a disciple—
amen, I say to you, that person will surely
not lose his or her reward.”
In many faith traditions, there is the deep-seated belief that extending charity to a Holy Person (monk, nun, priest, religious community...) accrues blessing for both the recipient and the donor.
In our first reading, for example, Elisha rewards the "woman of influence" who shelters him with the promise of a son (2 Kgs 4:16); if the story is familiar, it's because it reminds us of how Abraham and Sarah's generosity to the three strangers at the Oak of Mamre resulted in the birth of Isaac (Gen 18). Judaism is not the only faith tradition to have a rich history of giving. To this day, Buddhist monks have no money and rely entirely on the lay community to provide for their needs, as do the holy men and women in Hinduism and Jainism. Such generosity stems from ancient traditions of hospitality, detachment from material goods and philanthropy. To have merit, however, the giver has to have the "right disposition":
"A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return. But when it is given expecting something in return or for the sake of a future reward, or when it is given unwillingly, the gift is... impure"
In Christianity, we have a tradition of donating our time, our talent and our treasure, but the "purity"of our giving may sometimes be questionable. The highest form of giving, of course, is when we see Christ in another human being and reach out to that person, without any expectation of reward (cf. Matt 25:40.
"Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me").
Then there is the giving that comes out of scarcity rather than abundance. Jesus himself praises this type of giving when he points out the widow in the temple treasury, explaining that her two small coins are worth more than the donations of the rich (cf. Mk 12:41-44.
"For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood"
). Lower down the ladder of "right giving" is giving with the expectation of earning a reward, whether in this life or the world to come. 1 Tim 6:17-19 exhorts the rich to "
do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share"
as this will help them accrue the treasure of eternal life. Lower still is the charity of hypocrites who give to "look good"; the parable that immediately comes to mind is
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,
for while the
the rich man prides himself on his righteousness and generous tithes, the publican asks God for mercy. Last of all, we have Jesus' teaching on anger: we are not to bring gifts to God's altar if we harbor anger against anyone; first we must seek reconciliation (Matt 5:21-25).
The topic of "right giving" needs to be part of Christian formation. When we give out of duty, or make a donation to earn a tax deduction, then our motives are "impure." When we contribute to a capital campaign so our names can be inscribed on some plaque (or pew, or stained glass window, or building etc.), then, again, our giving is imperfect. And when we volunteer with some not-for-profit so that we can network with major donors, then, again, we are neither serving God nor humanity but only our egos. With so many people unemployed right now and with so many churches, schools and not-for-profit organizations struggling to survive economically, this is the perfect time to examine the topic of good stewardship: it is not
we give that is important but, rather,
we give and
we give. Also, in this time of social distancing, how can we practice the sacred art of hospitality?
These are questions to ponder!
- Of the forms of giving listed above, which ones are most characteristic of your style of giving?
- How might your faith community provide spiritual formation on the topic of "right giving"?
- How can you practice hospitality during this time of social distancing?
- What can you do to remind yourself that "giving" of any kind is a spiritual practice?