By Mary Marrocco
In our city, we make the most of friendly summer weather to treat ourselves to much-needed holidays — escape from the routine, time with family or friends, exploring new places, enjoying a hobby.
The camp gave priority to families who might
have had trouble affording such an opportunity for their kids. The out-building
they built contributes to the site so that next year’s kids will
have an even better place to stay.
It was a good experience. How much of its goodness arose
from my friend’s
gift of time and self? He voluntarily spent two weeks of his vacation
time to lead the camp, as well as giving his expertise, enthusiasm and
love of building and creating. The kids received all this without necessarily
being aware of it. It’s good to be paid for our work, as St Paul
reminds us; but something irreplaceable comes through simple generosity.
Something else happens when we close in on ourselves and
refuse to be generous. I’ve felt the pull of stinginess, self-protection, closing
down, looking inward, being careful, cautious, safe. These impulses aren’t
in themselves negative; they can be tools that help us recognize necessity,
and do what we need to do. But they can also be the other side of an
invitation to generosity.
Lately, I’ve repeatedly heard the expression, “he can afford
to be generous.” This sentence fills me with wonder: what does
generosity have to do with affordability? Each has its own value, but
they are quite different. Affordability is about measuring, counting
and weighing — all necessary skills. Generosity has to do with
an inner space, and an openness to someone else’s need. We must
have an awareness that the world doesn’t begin and end with our
own stomachs, a sense that we’ve received and have something to
give, something desirable and helpful to give. Generosity and joy are
cousins. As my friend kept telling me during the youth camp, he was enjoying
Generosity can be difficult to the point of painfulness.
Think of what it’s like to be in a spat with your spouse or other intimate. You
know you’re right; you have a just complaint; what you’re
saying and doing is perfectly fair and reasonable. And you know that
in this moment of struggle, you can speak to your spouse a word of kindness,
forgiveness, mercy, tenderness — or you can withhold it. What a
difference it can make to offer or withhold such a word at such a moment.
How hard it can be, to be generous in this way rather than cling to justice.
It’s astonishing that we do perform acts of generosity, given human
nature and life’s hardships — all of us struggling to survive
in a world that often seems harsh and unforgiving. Frequently, even.
Unseen, un-repaid, unsung. The poet William Wordsworth referred to “those
best portions of a good man’s life: his little, nameless, unremember’d
acts of kindness and of love.” Where do they come from? How did
we get that way?
In our impulse to generosity — and even more, in our acts of generosity — we
discover something about ourselves. We learn that we’re more than
we know, more than an instinct to survive, more than our stomachs and
bodies, more even than reason and justice. There’s something limitless
“The measure of love,” wrote St Francis de Sales, “is
to love without measure.” We’re capable of loving beyond
measure, beyond reason. How could we do this if we hadn’t first
been given it? How can we discover our generosity without discovering
our likeness to One whose generosity has no limits? Still, he limits
himself to our size so that we can discover our built-in connection to
him. And so we can exceed our limits, and find we’re bigger than
“I measure and count myself, my God,” wrote the poet Rainer
Maria Rilke. “But you have the right to squander me.”
This is the triumph of the cross: the lived witness of the God who squanders
himself, who abandons infinity to be affixed to a piece of wood by his
own creatures. And so gives us a glimpse of the infinite power of love
It’s a power we too can wield, as my friend did in his generous
self-gift for other people’s children. Once we start to perceive
it, we might find it’s far more common than we suspect. All round
us and within us. Giving us life. Helping us become better, bigger, more
human, more God-like.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org