Lessons in True Generosity

by Francis

When looking for guidance in the world and peace in our hearts, we can turn to ancient texts about long-dead saviors, saints, and teachers such as Jesus of Nazareth or Gautama Buddha. Study hard, penetrate the language, and interpret them. Or we can look to those few individuals in recent history who seemed to possess miraculous levels of pure-heartedness, courage, dedication and integrity, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. About them, the texts are more modern, more accessible.

Mother Teresa has become such a cliché in modern life that it’s easy to forget she has thousands of followers working in her name around the world to this day. I found the small book A Simple Path tucked away on the shelf at the public library; it is a collection of quotes by “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” and various nuns, monks, and volunteers who worked with the Missionaries of Charity.

In addition to the beautiful passages on prayer and silence, I was struck with the clarity of purpose expressed by the Missionaries about their service to the poor.

The poor the Missionaries of Charity feel called to work with are those who, no matter what you do for them, are still going to be dependent in some way on others. We are constantly asked, “Instead of giving a man a fish, why don’t you teach him to fish?” and we answer that most of our poor people wouldn’t have the strength to even hold a fishing rod. And I often think that this is where there is confusion — and sometimes criticism — about our work, because no distinction is made between our kind of poor and other kinds of poor.

Development is certainly worthwhile but development is not what our poor people need. If a man is dying, there is no time to go into why he is in this condition and list all the social programs which could have prevented it. What we are saying is, “Let others work on the problems that have put this man in this condition, but let us help him to die in peace and dignity now.” In many cases, we offer more short-term care than they do and simply say: This man or woman is in need — what can we do to help them? If political changes will alleviate this situation in the future then we welcome them, but we don’t have the time or energy, or often the ability, to do much about it. God, in His wisdom, puts it all together. He knows that no one person can cover the whole situation so he inspires certain people to work in certain areas and other to work in others.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. The evening’s reading challenges all our social notions of spirituality – it says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Thoughtful words, regardless of your breed of faith. Giving must come from the heart, from the deepest place in our souls, without any hope of thanks or reward – else it is not truly giving, and we will never receive the peaceful heart that comes from being truly generous.