Last month, Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer put together a primer on “Reading the Great Spiritual Writers of the Past.” She will be continuing her exploration of the monastic traditions in via media this month and next.
During the season of Advent in 2018, I overheard a wise woman complain that there were too many volunteers at the food bank; you could hardly move around and there was not enough for everyone to do. She sighed and wished that people didn’t insist on coming to volunteer at Christmas, but instead gave time during the rest of the year. Around the same time, I sat with the executive director of an amazing inner-city resource, and, without prompting, she too spoke of the immense challenge and resource drain that the need for people to give at Christmas caused her organization, other organizations, and those they serve. With frustration and weariness in her voice, she told me that these families don’t need a myriad of turkey dinners or a pile of plastic toys for Christmas morning. What they need is constant relational supports and resources throughout the year.
Christmas giving is spent and then it is gone. The feast is over, and resources – both human and financial – dwindle to a trickle. Millions of dollars go to Christmas charities that give toys and food for one day, but far less is available through the rest of the year to provide mundane healing, support, and restoration for the day-to-day lives of the poorest of the poor.
When our need to give at Christmas becomes hurtful to those whom we had hoped to help, perhaps we need to rethink our ways of giving. Can we use this poignant problem, in which most of us participate, to push us to consider what the Christian tradition teaches us about giving and our relationship with those in need?
The soul of giving in the Christian tradition has been sustained by the monastic tradition, in the three evangelical principles of monastic life: chastity, poverty, and obedience. Very few of us are ready to go as far as to enter into the monastery, give over all of our worldly goods, and live extremely simply. Even fewer of us are ready to vow to give ourselves to the contemplation and worship of Christ in such a way that precludes sexual activity and intimate marital relationships. Finally, we have a solid cultural resistance to obedience; we resist having anyone in a position of superiority direct our steps and send us to where we do not want to go (except if they offer us lots of money to do so). The extremity of the monastic life may not suit our modern sensibilities, but how might the principles of this way of living before God check our tendency to egoism in giving and help us to change?
A vow of chastity is a profound reminder that the love of God is the highest calling and that the purpose of our life is worship. Those who enter religious life witness to us that it is worth relinquishing our deepest human desires to enter into worship. They witness to the truth that our deepest longings are met ultimately by the God of all creation. If we are able to understand our life purpose as worship, even in the smallest way, we begin to realize that when we give, both of our resources and of our personhood, we are giving what is already God’s, not from what is our own.
Understanding ourselves as stewards of God’s good gifts and not as owners changes our lives. Regular giving becomes not an activity of the will, but an offering of love to God. For the majority of us who are not ready to make a vow to chastity, the daily practice of prayer, and the weekly practice of taking our bodies into the church for common worship, operate as habits that can slowly build love over a lifetime to change the way we see the world and open our beings to give from God.
The vow of poverty witnesses to our need to trust God and understand that each one of us is loved in common. Those who give over all their worldly goods own nothing. They are completely dependent, and they witness to the truth that we are all dependent – on each other, on the earth, and, ultimately, on God. In our dependence, we are equal in the sight of God. God wants the fullness of life for each of us. Just so, those who have more must share it with those who do not; it isn’t a choice, but rather our response to the gift of our life. This is a humbling way to live. It means relinquishing the power of giving if and when we want to, and it means relinquishing the pride that we feel in our own generosity.
What we receive in return is the opportunity to live in the common love that God has for us all. If we are not called to give up all our worldly goods, how do we practice this way of being? Bruce Handford, one of the most significant teachers of stewardship in this diocese in the last 20 years, taught me a simple act that has helped me to tangibly grasp this truth. He said that I needed to tithe first, before spending anything, because it would teach me the order of reality. What we have is God’s, and it is for God’s glory and the good of all. We need to physically practice this truth on a regular basis.
Finally, the vow of obedience witnesses to the joy of an orderly life that recognizes the gift of authority. I relinquish my need for control and I receive my life instead of trying to make my life. When a monk or a nun takes a vow of obedience he or she pledges obedience not only to a superior, but to a rule of life. The rule provides a rhythm of ordered life in which he or she can flourish. We may not be ready for a rigorous rule, but what about the simple rule of the Church year?
We as humans are wired to give more abundantly and easily on feast days because feasting breeds generosity. Perhaps our over-giving at Christmas indicates that we as the Church need to attend to the call of all of our feasts and fasts, not just the one. We can honour the feast of Easter and Pentecost and allow these feasts to help us to give. We can rekindle, or at least remember, the traditions of the Ember days of Advent, Lent, Pentecost, and Autumn near Holy Cross. These days are meant to seasonally remind us of the gifts of creation, our need for moderation, and our responsibility to the poor. These days seem particularly suited to pressing us into the truths we need to remember in order to give freely. The rule and rhythm of the Church year can help us be transformed into disciplined givers who understand their place in the order of things.
We need to give, but not in order to generate a good feeling that assuages guilt and bolsters our egos in time for Christmas. Rather, we need to give because we have been given our life, and we have been invited into a love that is abundant and common to all people. It is a love into which we can entrust our resources and ourselves. In doing so, we can participate and flourish within a goodly order of feasts and fasts at which the rich and the poor are meant to banquet together.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counsellor and writer currently learning from the medieval theologian and mystic, Julian of Norwich. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican Parish where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold.