Monday, November 14, 2011

GIVERS AND BEGGARS: CATHERINE OF SIENA

“There are inequalities in the order of grace, just as there are in the order of nature.
     We do not mean the inequalities that come from sin, from injustice, against which we ought to fight. What of the natural inequalities of men? Why do they exist? Saint Catherine of Siena says: so that each one may be, in regard to all the rest, both a giver and a beggar.”
--Cardinal Charles Journet, The Meaning of Grace

Near the Colorado line on a cross-country road trip a few years ago I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom, glanced into the mirror, and realized that I looked like a member of the Donner party.  I’d been fancying myself a bold, brave seeker, but a middle-aged woman, alone in a grungy bathroom hundreds of miles from home and looking like hell was closer to the truth. The truth was that I had no particular emotional, financial, spiritual, or artistic support in my life, no guarantee that I’d be able to get a book out of this experience, as I hoped to [and in fact did not], no guarantee that the memoir I had coming out in a few months would sell [it did not], or that I would ever publish another one [I did!].

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a childless, partnerless, middle-aged woman is in some sense a beggar. I had to beg companionship on that trip, beg human contact, beg conversation, and if not beg food, beg the sacrament of a shared meal (often when I would “rather” have been alone), beg a moment of shared awe. Beg for someone to say along with me, Isn’t life beautiful? Beg for someone to understand when I asked, In spite of all its conflict and pain, would you trade a minute of it for anything? Beg not to be pitied. Beg to be forgiven for allowing others to mean more to me than I meant to them. Beg for the full value of what I was doing to be treasured while knowing that it wasn’t going to be, not knowing whether God himself saw its value.

Part of the tension I'm called to hold when in pain is to resist my impulse toward isolation; to stay connected with others. As a matter of humility, I must interact with others. I must stay connected to the material: food, faces. I have to acknowledge my own terrible need; I have to continue to give, even if all I have to give is my puny presence, even if I feel that I have and am nothing.


One fascinating manifestation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is that wounded people can help other wounded people in a way "well" people can't. I first noticed this phenomenon back in '86 when I was in rehab. The people in white coats with their certificates and degrees were useful enough in their way, but they were not who I or any of the other drunks/addicts there truly wanted to hear. We wanted to hear from another person who had suffered. We wanted to hear from another person who was coming back from the dead. We wanted to hear from someone who needed us as much as we needed them.

For a well person to give is nice enough in its way, but for a person who's suffering to give is sublime. With the person complete in and of himself who doesn't need anything, the giving only goes in one direction. When the wounded person gives, there is a completion, a participation, a flow out and in, an exchange. We suffer, we beg, we share what little we have, and in the vulnerability, lo and behold, there is something for us. We get to be part of the feast. We get to eat, too. Even St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself up to starve in another man's place at Auschwitz, got to "eat." Because you can be sure since the moment he died he has been sitting with the other martyrs, saints, and lovers of Christ at the very head of the banquet table.

Christ draws us lonely people close; he has a whole constituent of lonely-hearts. We move through life not knowing, not quite daring to believe, and yet we believe anyway.

In The Eden Project, Jungian analyst James Hollis observes that fear is the great motivator and that we tend to deal with fear in three main ways: by becoming a caretaker, by becoming aggressive, or by withdrawing (I  like to do all three, often at once). And that, interestingly, one other way we can sublimate fear, if we’re lucky enough, is through love itself. Sometimes our soul enlarges to the point where we’re willing to open ourselves to the power of the other, to the capacity of the other to wound us. “The magnanimous person,” Aristotle called such a soul: the one with a big enough sense of self to allow the other to be the other, and simultaneously to risk opening to the other--because inherent in enlarging the soul is that the risk is no longer quite so precarious.

On my walk the other day I saw a black man, a young man, by his bike, just a normal human being with one pants leg rolled up and a Vons bag slung over his handlebars, and I swear I almost stopped and said to him: Would you just put your arms around me for a minute? We don’t have to say anything, but would you just hold me in your arms?

I wonder what would happen if we all did that for each other--and for ourselves. I have no doubt AT ALL that the world would be instantly, utterly, saved.


22 comments:

  1. As always, Heather, much to ruminate over in your posts. Thank you. :)

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  2. Again, one of your posts spoke to me about a problem I'm facing today. You truly have (and are) a gift from God.

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  3. Right now I am giving you a big hug!

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  4. I'm sending this on to some friends. You have once again gone to the heart of things that I would have never been able to put into words.

    It also sheds a light for me on the lives of some amazing people in my life. It seems to me that the parents of kids with the most challenging disabilities or illnesses are the most generous in extending help to others around them.

    Your post stopped me in my tracks this morning as I was in a muddle of so many little, annoying detail things that needed my immediate attention. Instead, I am in the middle of a Mary,not Martha moment.

    Thank you, Heather, and may God continue to bless the words you send out to all.

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  5. That was beautiful - beauty always has a use.
    Steve Sparrow

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  6. I wonder what would happen if we all did that for each other ...

    In my own experience, such feelings of agape-love are rare, fleeting, and impossible to sustain. When the moment of truth arrives, the feeling has long fled, and I flunk the test, miserably.

    David

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  7. This is beautiful. You are beautiful!

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  8. You are in my prayers, I am starved for human connection right now too. Sometimes I feel there is nothing more I can do but endure the exile.

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  9. touches me in many ways, more than I can express.

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  10. David DeAtkine, Jr., MDNovember 14, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Your post today got me thinking in a tangential way when you mentioned St Catherine's remarks about inequality...I was thinking about the scripture reading on Sunday...the parable of the talents. If that was to occur today, of course, the federal government wouldn't allow the Master to give 5 talents to one, and 2 to another and 1 to another. The government would insist on equal distribution; and then, when the most talented still managed to make more through industry and ingenuity he would be penalized, and chided for making the others feel less special.

    This reminds me of why I am so uncomfortable with the State being the arbiter of anything, whether it is charity, or income. I think we lose something when it is not our own hands that deliver food to the hungry; not our own hands that dress the wounds of the leper.

    I'm not saying the government shouldn't be there with a safety net; but if we as Christians were doing better, there wouldn't be a need for one....

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  11. Heather, you wrote: "For a well person to give is nice enough in its way, but for a person who's suffering to give is sublime." Even those with the certificates and white coats are suffering, differently, but nevertheless suffering. So, we all, all have the opportunity to give "sublimely." And, had you asked that man for the hug, it would have given you both the opportunity to give sublimely.

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  12. "Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time, we saw he wanted one leg.
    It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn't leapt forward and caught him.

    "I'm as crippled as the dark world", Gildas said.

    "If it comes to that, which one of us isn't, my dear", Brendan said.

    Gildas with but one leg.
    Brendan sure he had misspent his whole life entirely.
    Me that had left to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all of our mouths.
    We was cripples all of us.
    For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

    "To lend each other a hand when we are falling," Brendan said.. Perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."


    ~~~ Brendan, by Frederich Buechner
    [Fiction book on St. Brendan by my favorite author]

    It takes broken pieces to make a mosaic of great beauty, worthy of the Lord.
    Perhaps that is why all of us are broken..... over and over and over..... to create more pieces for mosaics of even greater beauty to our Majesty, Jesus Christ, Our Father, and our Holy Spirit.... the only true and complete relationship ever to be formed.

    My heart leaped at this post Heather.
    Sometimes it hurt as I read.
    The Catholic Church long ago had a program called Rainbows for All God's Children. It was a divorce support group, designed for the children, to alleviate grief. I was a facilitator and saw many children, and watched as they healed one another in 13 week sessions, by finding out they were not to blame, and they were NOT the only ones on Earth to be shattered by parents divorce, dad or mom in jail for drugs and the like, or death of a parent.
    They were no longer alone, in private grief.

    The program was so successful in healing children, public schools wanted it too. But God is not welcome there and it became Rainbow's Inc. to be done in school. When God was removed, the healing was not the same.

    After about 3 years of listening to children tell me of parent's divorcing, they want to see dad in jail, sex abuse, drug mayhem, and more, my payback for the help my own children received was done, and we moved on.

    This post reminded me of those days, those kids from age 3 to Grade 12, waves of them week after week. And it reminded me of St. Brendan and Frederick Buechner.

    I wish I was the black man who had a chance to give you a hug.....and never knew.
    In lieu of that:
    (((((((((HUG FOR HEATHER)))))))))

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  13. From the pen of a spiritual cripple who has more than once withheld the coin of compassion ...

    VOICES

    Last night I heard about the voices
    that make their dwelling in abandoned
    cars and vacant lots where shadows
    of forgotten crimes
    smoulder like
    ashy lips

    that threatened
    (“Keep quiet about this
    or I’ll kill your family”)
    and now accuse
    (“You worthless trash, why
    don’t you just die?”)

    Tormented stranger
    how often to my shame
    have I crossed to the other side
    when I hear you squeak and gibber –

    my voice has failed you
    each time that I fold
    and tuck it

    behind my averted eyes

    http://anointedruins.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/voices/

    The poem was inspired by an article in The Sun, which I learned about on Heather's blog.

    David

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  14. Thanks so much for these heart-felt comments, all (just back from Chicago so didn't have a chance to respond before)...Blessed are the poor in spirit, of course, and when all is said and done, I probably wouldn't have it any other way...

    One of the things I was trying to say is that it is a gift to be a beggar, though none of us, including me most of the time, much WANTS to be one...yes, the people in white coats suffer, too. But their very professionalism puts up an artificial wall: to become personally invested, to share their own pain is forbidden. They're also getting paid. So they have a different and to me way more impoverished relationship to the, say, alcoholics/addicts they treat than the wounded alcoholics have to each other. The "wealth" comes in the exchange of poverty...so it is good to be both a giver and a beggar!...

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  15. Hugs for you Heather. You're a gift to many. I pray that you won't feel so lonely this season and if ever you do, I pray God will find you and show your His love in a real way. :)

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  16. beautifully and powerfully hitting home, as always, Heather. I LOVE your paragraph "I had to beg.." Embracing and basking in the truth of the blessedness of the Sermon on the Mount.. and how sad it is when I have forgotten I am a Beggar, and go about as if I have no need of you/anyone. The momentary comfort and strength of that illusion so collapses in the one moment I comprehend that I am the Beggar in need of a hug, and more so, when I realize I am the Beggar, enabled by faith to risk offering one.

    I look forward to the hugs all around, Someday :)

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  17. Heather, have you seen this?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vr3x_RRJdd4
    xxox Carie

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  18. ha ha, great, Carie! I actually have two conflicting things going on at all times, one of which is that I came from a family where even your own parents didn't hug you and therefore a kind of resistance to/distrust of "hugs" and then of course the desire to embrace the whole world....

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  19. you know, I attended a Christian women's conference years and years ago, one of the workshops was on Hugging. :)
    So many of us are shy of hugs, we hug in many (funny!) ways: the little polite pat-on-the-back, the A-frame, shoulder-squeeze, cheek-peck. Along with bringing hugging into the Light and discovering underlying fears, we practiced the warm, full body embrace, which includes a silent prayer of gratitude and peace. Liberating!! And truly a gift to the 'huggee'. Wow, isn't connection what we all most deeply long for. I promise that if I ever have the divine opportunity to meet you in person, I will give you a HUG!

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  20. You are so NOT nothing!! My thoughts on the loaves and fishes have always been similar! Your account of the young man who you saw very much resonates...I kind of feel like this is accomplished whenever I swing dance: simple, joyful, real human connection. I think a lot of the times when people will say that music or art is like a religion for them, they are touching on the fact that it opens them up to communion with others with the Otherness of the world, of God etc. We should take this seriously as Christians instead of, as I believe often happens, dismissing it as kind of pseudo faith or hippy talk.

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  21. My God that ending bit was so beautiful. Pitch perfect.

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