Would You Cut Your Coat in Half?

The poor and homeless are all around us. As we approach winter, their plight is worsened with the effort to stay warm. What are you willing to do to help?

Saint Martin of Tours, whose memorial the Catholic Church celebrates today, was willing to truly give what he had. Martin was a convert to Christianity and the first person to be named a saint who was not a martyr.

Legend has it that while Martin was still a catechumen (before he was baptized), he came upon a poor man who was begging at the city gate on a bitterly cold day. Seeing the naked, trembling man, Martin was moved with compassion. Having nothing on him but his sword and the clothes on his back. he cut his cloak into two pieces, giving half to the poor man and wrapping himself in the other half. It is said that many laughed at his appearance, and he must have looked strange walking around in half a coat.

Martin saw Jesus in a dream that evening. Jesus was wearing the garment half Martin had given away and Martin heard him say, “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with his garment.”

What Martin heard Jesus say was this: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Most of us have more than the coat on our back. Let’s be especially generous as we approach the cold winter months.


A Difficult Gospel Value

Parable are effective because they speak a truth that extends beyond the details of the story itself. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, can be likened to a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. Some get hired at dawn, others at mid-morning, others at noon, others at mid-afternoon and still more near the end of the work day. When it comes time for the workers to get paid, everyone get paid a full day’s wages. Not surprisingly, those hired at dawn find this unacceptable and complain that they deserve more than those who worked far fewer hours. They can’t dispute that they are not being cheated in a legal sense: they were promised the usual daily wage for their work and were paid what they were promised. But it just doesn’t seem right to them. It offends their sense of justice.

Often Gospel values and ours are not the same. God gives all always and doesn’t measure out his mercy and love based on our evaluations of merit. We put an overemphasis on justice, always worried that (other) people might be getting more than they deserve. God just gives. AND invites us to do the same. To give – really, to love – without an evaluation of the other’s desert.

We also tend to judge by comparison. The workers who worked all day were satisfied with what they got until they saw what the others receive. I think we often do the same: My gift is a precious wonderful gift and I love it and am grateful for it – until I look around and sense that someone got something more or better than I did. Somehow the value of what I have is diminished in my eyes.

It is hard to live in accordance with the values promoted by Jesus. But that is what we are called to. Generosity and mercy unconstrained by comparison and determinations of desert.

Practicing Generosity

Last night I participated in “an evening of interfaith conversation” at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. Although the conversation formed part of a summer course for MAT students on World Spiritualities, the evening was open to others and we had quite a large turnout.

There were three of us speaking: me, Buddhist teacher Joen Snyder O’Neal and Rabbi Barry Cytron. Each of us spoke about our own spiritual practices in addition to commenting on some specific questions put to us by Prof. Bill McDonough, the organizer of the discussion.

I always benefit from these discussions and there was much in the remarkes by both Joen and Barry I found illuminating. But I was particularly struck by a couple of things Joen said as part of her discussion of the Buddhist practice of generosity, a practice important to all faith traditions.

First, she said that while it is valuable to give “things” to other people, the practice of generosity should include giving others non-fear. She spoke of living our lives in a way that others experience non-fear. That asks more of us than simply sharing with others the “things” that we have. It invites a way of being that gives something very precious to another.

Second, she observed that we usually have five or six thoughts of giving every day and we dismiss them. E.g., “I should call X who is sick.” The generous thoughts arise, but we don’t act on them. Her advice to her students, she said, is to, at least once each day, act on one of those impulses. Don’t dismiss it. It may seem small, but you can imagine what an effect it would have – on us and others – if we all took that advice.

Treating Everyone Like I Was in Love With Them

Here is a thought experiment to start your day: What would happen if you treated everyone like you were in love with them?

Derek Tasker has a poem titled I Wonder. I had not heard the poem before someone read it this weekend near the end of the Spiritual Directors International conference.

Here is how Tasker puts the question:

I wonder what would happen if
I treated everyone like I was in love
with them, whether I like them or not
and whether they respond or not and no matter
what they say or do to me and even if I see
things in them which are ugly twisted petty
cruel vain deceitful indifferent, just accept
all that and turn my attention to some small
weak tender hidden part and keep my eyes on
that until it shines like a beam of light
like a bonfire I can warm my hands by and trust
it to burn away all the waste which is not
never was my business to meddle with.

Challenging, to be sure. But also incredibly exciting to wonder what it would be like if that was how we approached each other. To imagine how that might change them….change us…change the world.

A Fire and A Response

Yesterday morning, the apartment building in which one of my students lived burned to the ground. Fortunately, he woke to the smoke alarms and made it out of the building safely, albeit with nothing except his keys, phone and wallet, and the clothes he was wearing. I was very worried about him and was quite relieved when I finally spoke to him.

I spent some time during the morning and afternoon yesterday in phone and e-mail contact with various of his friends and other faculty at the law school. Our outgoing Interim Dean commented in one e-mail to me that “perhaps the lemonade out of this lemon is that he will see so clearly that he is loved, and he is both a blessed man and a blessing to others.” There is real truth to his comment; I was deeply moved by the response to the fire and his loss.

I am sadly no poet, but as I reflected on the events of the day, I felt impelled to try to put in words what I felt. Here is what I wrote yesterday:

A fire caused by who knows what, means
what was (until yesterday) a building inhabited by many
is now a smoldering ruin about to collapse.

A young man who barely escaped, with only
his wallet, keys, phone and the clothes on his back
stands dazed, watching all he owned disappear.

He has nothing left.
It’s all gone.

But – no – That’s not right. Nothing is left EXCEPT
something more important than his things.
(The things, after all, can be replaced.)

“Tell him he is loved.” “Remind him we’re here.”
“I have a guest room.” “If he want to talk, I’ll listen.”
“If he needs money or clothes, or anything, we’ll give it.”

A stranger gives him his coat.
Another hands him money.
A restaurant owner buys him lunch (and gives him a care package for later).

The offers and messages pour in
letting him know he is not alone.
Assuring him of love and care, and promising to provide all he needs.

This is what we do. When the suffering comes –
as it inevitable will, in various forms and shapes and sizes –
we pick each other up, we give and do what’s needed.

As all this was happening, someone else (unconnected to these events)
wrote a pessimistic Note on Facebook describing a relationship
in which the participants conversed in “dialects of narcissism.”

No such dialects here. Instead, very different strains.
In the responses to this young man’s plight,
I (with delight) heard many splendid dialects of love.

Gratitude and Generosity

I attended Mass this morning at Our Lady of Lourdes parish, as I gave a talk following Mass on Vatican II and the Role of the Laity. During his sermon, Fr. Mike Keating spoke about the relationship between gratitude and generosity.

The relationship is a simple one. If we recognize that all we have is a gift from God, a gift freely offered out of God’s love for us, then we can’t help but be grateful. That gratitude for gift freely given disposes us to generosity. And knowing that God is the source of all we have and all we need, we can offer freely.

If, however, we don’t recognize that all is gift from God and lack a sense of gratitude for what we have, our generosity is limited. Either we lack generosity altogether, feeling like we deserve to keep what is “ours.” Or we are generous for the wrong reasons – e.g. out of a sense of obligation. Or we are generous out of our surplus, like the rich people in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, who Jesus criticizes because they give only “out of their surplus wealth.”

God will provide all that we need. If we recognize that and are grateful for it, we can’t help but to share what we have with others.

PS – I did not record today’s Vatican II talk, but I gave a talk on the same subject at St. Thomas Apostle on Wednesday evening at St. Thomas Apostle, which you can listen to here.

No Needy Person Among Them

Today’s first Mass reading from Acts gives us a lot to think about regarding how we treat both the goods of this earth and each other.

We hear today that the early Christian community

was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common….There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

What a vision….particularly looked at from a world in which almost 22,000 children die each day due to poverty 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Even in our own country over 40 million people don’t have enough food to eat each day and people because they cannot afford medical care.

I am not suggesting that we all sell our homes and put the proceeds at anyone’s feet (or that what we have be forcibly taken from us).  But the reading from Acts does invite us to reflect on our attitudes about what we have and toward those who lack. 

Do we view our property as our own, to do with as we will, or do we appreciate that our possessions are a gift from God that we hold (in Aquinas’ words) for the purpose of “perfecting [our] own nature and [using] them for the benefit of others”? 

Do we view it as a fundamental part of who we are as Christians to care for those who have less than we do?

And as we reflect on such questions, let us pray this day in a special way for the hungry, the homeless, and those who lack access to basic health care.   May they be held in God’s loving embrace.

Giving To Meet the Needs of Our Brothers and Sisters

Two mornings ago, I noticed frost for the first time on the grass and bushes, a reminder that the cold weather of winter is one the way.

It is important that we also remember that cold weather means an even more difficult time for those of our brothers and sister who struggle with no or inadequate housing, lack of warm clothing, lack of funds for adequate medical care and not enough to eat. (For me, cold weather reminds me of the winter I spent many years ago working in a legal services office, where my clients faced eviction every day and I had nightmare night after night of my clients being thrown out into the cold.)

That means we all need to dig a little deeper in our giving to aid those less fortunate then ourselves. The judgment passage in Matthew 25 reminds us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Christ.

I know that this is a tough time for many people. But I was impressed by something when I attended the Christian Legal Society annual meeting a few weeks ago. At the general session for law students, the students were told that they all should give something to support the efforts of CLS – even if they were in debt, even if they were struggling financially. That they should give at least a dollar – to begin to establish the habit of giving every year…in whatever amount they could.

I know that I can give a lot more than many other people can without it hurting. But I also believe we can all give something…even my students who I often see walking around with Starbucks or Caribou coffee. Give up one coffee a week and donate that if that is all you can afford.

We can all give something. And we must all give something. The needs of our brothers and sisters are great. The needs of Christ are great.

Happy Passover

Passover begins at sundown this evening.

Last week, our Jewish Law Students Association sponsored an “Educational Passover Sedar,” designed to introduce non-Jewish students to the holiday. We went through a modified (truncated) Passover Haggadah, led by a Rabbi who did a wonderful job of explaning the various parts of the Sedar.

Although I’ve been to Sedar meals before, two things struck me during this one. First, was the invitation to the needy to join the meal. Early in the Sedar, the door is opened and an invitation is extended to anyone who is hungy to come and eat. The rabbi explained that there were times when this was done in Israel and, indeed, people would come in and join the Sedar. The invitation extended at the Sedar reminds us that it is always our obligation to feed those in need – all year around and not just at the celebration of Passover. The invitation in the Haggadah version we used says

We do not live to satisfy ourselves alone but also live to sustain those in need. Let us make every efort to feed those in immediate need in our land and to increase ways to end world hunger.

The second thing that struck me was the tension inherent in the celebration, symbolized in the mixing of the bitter and the sweet (bitter herbs mixed with sweet mortar). Passover is a celebration of freedom – in a world where many are in slavery. We celebrate freedom in a world in which there is still bloodshed and suffering, reminding us that we are tasked to help bring peace to the land and freedom to those enslaved.

Finally, the rabbi talked about the difference between our understanding of slavery and the understanding that existed in Biblical times. We see slavery as an unfortunate condition anyone could find themselves in. Then, people viewed slaves as inherently slaves – as being fundamentally different than free people (as less than human). God’s freedom of the Israelites changes our understanding, helping us to see that those enslaved and us are no different in our personhood (and in God’s love of us). We are also, by such understanding, invited to reflect on the ways in which we are enslaved – what are the things we are enslaved by or slaves to?

My gratitude to the students in our Jewish Law Students Association for their organization of this event. It was blessing to all of us who attended.

And Happy Passover to all of my Jewish friends.

Chag Purim Sameach

The Jewish holiday of Purim began at sundown last night and continues until sundown this evening.

Having grown up in New York with many Jewish friends, I have a reasonably good familiarity with the major Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. For others, my knowledge is pretty much limited to the cultural and culinary accompaniments to the feast.

Thus, when I hear Purim, I know there will be hamentashen, the traditional pastry of this holiday that is shaped like a triangle and filled with fruit and other good things. Indeed, our Jewish Law Students Association had announced that they would be selling hamentashen during the day this past Thursday (as a way to both raise funds and educate non-Jews about the holiday), but, to my disappointment, when I arrived they had only cookies and muffins…having decided that the hamentashen were too hard to make on the eve of Spring Break.

Despite the absence of hamentashen, what I learned from the handout sheet distributed by the students is that the Megilla of Esther lists four mitzvot as the proper way to celebrate Purim.

First, the people are to hear the story of Esther, a tale that “reveals the complex power relationships between men and women.”

Second, they are to have a “festive meal with an abundance of wine.”

Third, the mitzvah of mishloach manot, which means literally “sending portions” involves wrapping up hamentashen, raisins, fruit and other goodies into a basket and delivering them to family and friends.

Finally, one is to deliver matanot la’evyonim, “gifts to the poor.”

I loved the combination of the requirements of the day. The holiday is one of celebration – celbrating the fact that the villain Hamen didn’t succeed in destroying the Jews of Persia. And what does it mean to celebrate? Not only having a big party for ourselves, and not only giving gifts to our families and friends. Rather, the celebration includes taking care of the least among us.

As the final line of the description the students distributed reads, “Together, these four mitzvot make Purim a time to listen not only to the Megillah, but also to the voices of those in need in our community.”

Amen. A nice model for how we celebrate all of our holidays.