Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We are on the subject of self-knowledge, and specifically we are asking ourselves how we can better serve God by improving our knowledge of ourselves. We are still considering our spiritual potential and more specifically our capacity for sacrifice and for generosity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, one is not quite the other; sacrifice is not exactly generosity.
Having reflected on the subject of sacrifice, we now ask ourselves what is generosity and, understanding how generous we are, how can we become more generous in the future? Where sacrifice means the surrender of something precious for the love of God, generosity means giving oneself totally to the will of God. What does generosity presuppose? Even sacrifice presupposes that there are attachments from which, for the love of God, we are to become detached; generosity presupposes that we are capable of being either more or less self-giving toward God. It therefore presupposes that we can change - that is our free will - always of course with God's grace. We can change from being less outgoing to being more self-giving. We may have become deficient in having given less of ourselves than we should have and consequently we need to be motivated to give more of ourselves to the Will of God.
Not unlike sacrifice, generosity also requires two sets of operations on our part - one of the mind, one of the will. First of all, in order to practice the generosity expected of us (especially of us religious), we must first know what God wants of us that is, of each of us individually as my gift to Him. Here we dare not look with jaundiced eye at someone else. "How come God does not expect this of her? That's none of my business! She is she and I am me." No two people are quite alike. As we know, we are all different persons. And not only are we individuals among ourselves who are sometimes dramatically and sometimes embarrassingly different, but we are distinctive persons before God. God wants us unique persons; He glories in variety.
I am not sure what the scientific study of snowflakes is called. There must be a generic name for it. But those who study snowflakes assure us that no two of the trillions that fall on the face of the earth in a given year are exactly alike. We need to be reminded of this. God glories in variety; it dimly approximates, because it very dimly reflects, the infinity of God's perfection. God wants us different also.
And before we get much deeper into this subject of generosity, let me suggest one very prosaic thing that we should do in the religious life. Relax, once and for all accepting God's eternal will as wanting everybody to be different from us. We are all persons before God: each called to his or her own vocation of personal love. God uses no computer when He creates human souls. There is nothing standardized in God's creative activity so He is glorified not only by human generosity, but by our individual generosity. Both give Him glory and He wants both, generosity from mankind and also our distinctive way of being generous.
Remember, we are talking about the two operations needed to be generous -the first of the mind, to realize, as clearly as we can, that God wants us to glorify Him as individuals. The second, having identified the distinctive self-giving He expects of us, which is no easy enterprise; we are to set ourselves to carry this generosity into effect.
Our resolution here should be twofold: first, to decide to give God what He expects of us; then to decide on the effective way we shall go about implementing this self-giving, because this cannot be mere thinking about generosity. We are supposed to be generous and this being generous is not only the willingness to give ourselves to the will of God. We must also find out how it is to be done. This corresponds to the practical means necessary to obtain a preconceived or a predetermined end. Love, if it is going to be genuine, must be practical. There are more theoretical saints in the world than most of us are willing to admit. It is the being a saint that God wants, not just reading and speculating about sanctity.
Now as we have seen regarding the levels or degrees of sacrifice, so too with generosity. There are, for the sake of convenience, as most spiritual writers divide them, three degrees of giving ourselves to God. Let us be clear so we are sure we are distinguishing this from sacrifice. These are degrees of giving ourselves to God, not in the sense of giving up something but in the sense of taking up something. The trouble with talking about these mysteries of our faith is that our secular English vocabulary just doesn't have the precise words. To clarify the picture, when we sacrifice we relinquish what we already have; in other words, we give it up. When we are generous we either undertake what we have not yet been doing or, as during retreat, we resolve to continue what we have been doing for God. When we sacrifice we surrender or let go. When we are generous we start, we undertake, we begin doing something. There's a difference.
Now the degrees. In the first degree of generosity, what we undertake to do or to continue doing comprises all those things that we know we must do if we wish to save our souls. On this first level we resolve to do God's will insofar as we must - or else. This is generosity, strange as it may seem, because we are physically free to choose to do or not to do, not to give ourselves, even on this fundamental level, to God and we can be stubbornly willing to suffer the consequences. In practice this means we are willing to be as generous as we have to be in order to keep out of hell, avoiding only what we know God forbids under grave sin.
In the second degree of generosity what we undertake or continue to do comprises all those things that we know God wants of us but which would not deprive us of our salvation if we did not do them. They are the precepts of God but not absolute imperatives.
Before we go on to the third degree let us make sure that we don't casually say to ourselves, "Well, I guess those less gifted than me. But, come to think of it, I'm a chosen soul!" One resolution that all of us must make is to decide and firmly resolve with God's grace to root out every vestige of deliberate sin from our lives. We become more holy as we become more sinless. Unlike the Mother of God who was immaculately conceived, and born without sin, we were maculately conceived, which means as the Psalmist puts it, "We were in sin from our mother's womb". But with the grace of God we can more and more approximate Mary's sinlessness as we approach the end of our lives. As religious we are to die sinless - free from deliberate sin. We are weak. God knows it and we do too. We have propensities, weaknesses and urges that can lead us into sin. So our first responsibility as religious is to beg, strive and labor to root out all deliberate sin from our lives. It is quite possible for religious who in the nature of things are exposed to so much high-powered spirituality (reading so many lives of Johns of the Cross and Teresas of Avila) that they are likely to overlook the foundations of the spiritual life, that solid rock foundation of sanctity which is sinlessness.
Now for the third degree of generosity, or, as Saint Ignatius prefers to call it, the third degree of humility. In this case what we undertake or continue to do is pleasing to God but when we are generous on this level, what we do is not perceptive. What is the highest degree of generosity? It is, that we do what we know will please God but what we know He does not prescribe. It is doing what we don't absolutely have to do, meaning that God will not punish us if we do not do it.
In order to make this very important insight of the spiritual life clearer, I have found eight synonyms for those things which are not precepts but that if we do them to please God, we are practicing this third degree of generosity. They are counsels and not commands; or we may call them divine opportunities and not strict obligations; or divine invitations and not imperatives. To use our human language further, they may be called divine wishes, but not strictly the divine will - we know what that means, wishing somebody would do something but not strictly obliging them to do so. Call them privileges and not prescriptions. Call them preferences rather than binding duties. You see, God has His preferences; there are things which He tells us are not duties. Likewise, we practice this third degree of generosity when we try to meet or respond to the divine good pleasure and are not fearful of the divine punishment. And lastly, we respond to God's love rather than being only answerable to His justice.
There are two sides to our service of God. One side arises from God's being our Creator and therefore our total Master. But there is another side, where we look upon God not as the Source of our being and the Potter who can shape the clay as He wishes, but as our goal, as the destiny towards whom we are going. He is the One who does not tell us, "Do this because I am your Lord" but "Come, won't you please do this?. The mystery, and what a mystery it is, consists in that God who is master does not oblige us in everything. He leaves such a large scope to our generosity. There is material here for not only one conference, but for a lifetime of meditation.
We are still on this third level of generosity. Concretely, the religious life is an expression of such generosity. If you live a good religious life, you are practicing this third degree without having to make that "octet" of theological distinction. The religious life contains in essence, all that this highest degree calls for, not only as sporadic or periodic acts of generosity, but as a lifetime commitment to practicing this self- giving until death.
Two points should be made clear in order to get the full picture of what we are talking about. Point one, which I hope will help to clarify the picture, is to compare once more this generosity with sacrifice so that we see the difference. Ask the Holy Spirit for light. Often the word sacrifice, especially as a self-sacrifice, is used to describe generosity towards God. So what's the difference? Well, if somebody wants to so describe self-sacrifice as generosity, fine - provided the person knows what he is saying. However, we must keep in mind that the "sacrifice" is not quite the same in us as it was in Christ, whom we are imitating. Why not? Because in Christ there were no unruly attachments. I want to make sure that we are clear when we talk about imitating Christ in His self-sacrifice. There were in Christ no inordinate desires, nothing unruly, because Christ had no fallen nature. He had a human nature, yes, a fallen human nature, no. Nevertheless, there were things He liked which He gave up-His time, His convenience, His rest, His friends, His comfort, and on the cross His life. Who would say these were not sacrifices? Do you understand the difference? With us, sacrifice can span two things, but not in Christ. With us$ we are called upon to give up things that are inordinate attachments, things which we know from experience lead us into sin; and there are other things, call them precious things, that we like, which for want of a better word we may call attachments, Who would say we are unduly attached to life because we fear to die?
Clarity here is very important. I find that many souls can be very generous, but unfortunately, they are not always clear about being generous in the right way, about the right things and at the right time. Knowing the Faith well enough has a lot to do with it. Hence the value of a meditation on the meaning of generosity. Generosity can be called sacrifice whether in Christ or in us provided we understand about generosity as sacrifice. We had better know what we are talking about or thinking about, because depending on what we are thinking about, that's the way we are going to act. Generosity as sacrifice essentially means giving up, whereas generosity as love, which is not quite the same, means undertaking to do what God wants beyond giving up what we find a hindrance in Gods service.
There are two kinds of things I can give up. First, I can relinquish things which are a hindrance to my salvation and sanctification. But second, I may sacrifice some things to please God - and that is generosity, because I give them up not because they are hindrances but because I believe that God would be pleased if I gave them up. I couldn't in my wildest dreams suppose that in leaving home and my widowed mother when I finished college (though I am not sure who made the biggest sacrifice, she or I) that I was giving up a hindrance to my salvation! It is on this level especially that we imitate the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, who had no hindrances. His sacrifices were not obstacles - that would be blasphemy. They were things which He gave up because His Father was pleased.
Point two. Built into the notion of sacrifice is a certain reluctance to relinquish, to give up. We have a natural desire to hold on. Such sacrifice corresponds to turning away from creatures, whereas generosity is rather a turning towards God. So I may speak of sacrifice as a form of generosity in the sense that it is a precondition for being generous. If we want to be truly generous towards God, going beyond the call of duty, doing things of earth if we are going to turn more and more to the things of God. And the beauty is that God, who is so wise, is ever ready to help us grow in generosity by making sure that He removes from our lives things which we like. Sometimes He takes all. That's the way He does it. This is the formula of growth in sanctity: when we say "letting go" it really means letting God take away our hearts purified from creatures, especially that most lovable creature to whom we are so endeared, the one who bears our own name. As we let go especially of ourselves, it is almost as though we are enabled to spontaneously fly towards God.
Let us ask our Savior to help us learn the lesson He is teaching us; to let Him take away everything that He might give us the only things we really want - Himself and His Love.
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