In Giving, Receiving

This seems like a good time to mention Catholic Medical Mission Board and their work around the world, to provide health care for the most poor. I’m following their online Advent Calendar this year, reading and reflecting on the meditations they post for each day of Advent. I’m doing this in honour of my Mom, a lifelong Catholic who passed into the spirit world this spring. I do not follow her faith, but I do strive to honour it, and uphold the best of her teachings, in word and deed.

If you feel moved to support CMMB, please do. If you feel moved to give closer to home, do that. As for Mom, she arranged that memorial donations in her name go to Stollery Children’s Hospital who are not religiously affiliated. If by these posts you feel like you are touched by her gallant spirit, feel free to donate to Stollery in the name of Albina Sewell.

Today’s message comes from the Prayer of St. Francis; how blessed to live in a time when the leader of world Roman Catholicism has chosen, for the first time ever, to name himself for the most humble of Saints, Francis of Assisi.

My mother was never one to shame another for material poverty. She did consider it somewhat shameful to use poverty as an excuse for greediness. In her view, dignity mattered, irrespective of one’s material means or economic status. She could be scathing when she encountered selfishness and greed, in the poor as much as in those with plenty.

In Mom’s view, giving was blessed, and it was a blessing to give the best of oneself. However, there were occasions where people to whom she’d given something turned to her, not with thankfulness for her giving, but with greed, asking for more. Then, she showed her quiet ferocity.

Whether it was the person who disregarded the rules around the medicine Mom taught her, or the person who heedlessly asked Mom to knit another pair of socks so they could look generous by giving that as ‘their’ gift to someone who had no demonstrable interest in or respect for Mom, people who trod on Mom’s generosity suddenly found themselves brought up short. Cross that line, and she was swift to condemn, slow to forgive; and she did not forget.

I find myself thinking about that now, and what it says about giving. Do we ever really give away anything? What does it mean to give? What do we receive? What responsibility do we have, to receive with grace the offerings of others, and to give onward an expanded graciousness? What is the power of giving?

I intend to give these words out to the world, for anyone to read, without expectation of any particular response. Yet, clearly I am invested in knowing that these words create a record, of sorts, of my mother’s teachings – more accurately, of how I personally understand, receive and live those teachings. Others knew her in their own ways, and received other gifts from her life.  That’s part of the mystery.

I will forever treasure my mom’s abiding message to me, that, in my life’s work, I must commit firmly to putting out my work, in faith that it would find those who would benefit by it, would find it a gift that makes their world better.

I remember her calling me, one night, when I was working far from home. It was the eve of a performance, for which I’d gone through very emotionally draining and difficult processes. I’d lost track of why I even wanted to do the piece in the first place. Dysfunction swirled all around and I felt like I was in the eye of some kind of whirlwind. And my mom called me. And she reached out with direct advice, unasked, an almost unheardof act from her. She was staunch in her stance that, as an adult, I had to make my way and make my own decisions; if I didn’t know by now what she’d tried to teach me, when would I know it?

So, I was astonished that she took the initiative to say, look, daughter, I think you are struggling there. It seems you are working in a difficult situation. So, I want to tell you something: give up. Simply give up, and acknowledge that you – and those you are working with, however difficult it is between you – are a Tool of God. Let go of the result now. You’ve built something, and you will offer it to a community. You cannot know who it is for. You may think you know, but you don’t. Only God knows for whom you are preparing that gift. So let that go, and serve the gift.

I was shaken by her words.

The next night, I stepped on stage and let the words have their way with me. Some cheered. Some walked out partway through. I myself collapsed backstage, overcome with the effort. And in the back of my head, my mom’s words rang “you can’t know who this is for, so let that go, and serve the gift.”

I lay on the green room sofa, breathing, waiting, shaken. My beloved sister was there, and I was thankful; she was the rock I knew her to be. But among the crowd, I could not tell if anyone else felt my gift was for them. I was afraid. And then, two people came to me, and assured me I had done a necessary thing. They acknowledged me, in the face of a whole lot of other people drawing back from me; and I felt strong enough to stand up, and with my mighty sister by my side, I walked out of there and home.

At home, sis and I shook our heads. What had I done? I’d opened up and spoken hard words about the dysfunction in our midst. People had walked out. What would happen next?

I thought about the story my Mom had told me, about how she’d said something, once, to someone, about God’s grace. Years later, when her oldest son died suddenly, she’d been astonished and uplifted when a person approached her in her grief and said, “I know you may not remember that day, but what you said to ____, I heard that; I know you weren’t talking to me,  but it touched my heart. I felt it was a gift for me, and it changed my life for the better. I want you to know that.” In the same way, Mom told me, I must accept that, whomever I thought I was addressing, if I were serving the gift, someone would one day let me know.

“It may be that day, it may take a year, it may be 25 years, like it was for me, but one day, some way, you will understand that you served the gift, and it is not for you to know for whom you bring that gift.” My mom, the least airy-fairy person going, said that.

The next morning, there was a knock at my door. Sis and I exchanged glances: who could it be? Cautious, still raw from the tension of the night before, I opened the door.

There stood a couple who’d been in the crowd, a couple I hadn’t been thinking of when I performed. To my astonishment, they spoke, and gave me, almost word for word, the same message: ‘We felt you were speaking to us, and it has changed our lives.” They apologised for having been among those who walked out, and explained that they were overwhelmed, that the words I served felt like they were spoken directly to them. Those words revealed a truth that they felt they’d been hiding, a truth about themselves that made them feel ashamed. So they walked. But on reflection, they were honoured that I cared enough to say those things, those hard things.

They gave me back, that morning, a gift much bigger than what I’d offered. In giving, I received. I understood, so clearly, that it is repeatedly necessary to reach into ourselves and serve the gift; perhaps especially when it scares us, it matters to trust that, if we are asked to speak, we have an opportunity to serve the gift.

What is the gift? I don’t know. I’m only party to a tiny glimpse of it, but it looks to me something like grace and dignity being the birthright of all of us, regardless of our abilities, lineage, status or walk of life. I fail as often as I succeed, in serving that gift.

But today, I am touched by the knowing, again, that it is there, available to any and all of us, to open ourselves to grace and be, as St. Francis strove to be, a channel of the peace of God, however we perceive deity.

If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.

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