Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Charity and generosity, what's the diff?

Is there is a difference between service and Christian service, between service and diakonia? If so, what is it? Msgr. Giussani, in the Assembly at the end of the first chapter of Is It Possible to Live This Way?: An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence, Vol. 3 Charity, makes a distinction between generosity and charity, caritas, love. The difference may seem a little hair-splitting, especially to those of us who hail from the U.S. because we tend to be so pragmatic, results oriented. In other words, we ask- If something good is done by one for another or a group of people for other people, what difference does their motivation make? This attitude explains a lot about Christianity in this country, where a few years ago a majority of respondents to a poll about their favorite Bible verse picked "God helps those who help themselves," which is not a Bible verse. The answer is- it makes a big difference, both to the one who gives as well as to the one who receives. In his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, which merits reading over and again, the Holy Father wrote about why motivation matters, why love, caritas, matters more than anything else:

"Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbour which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be 'devout' and to perform my 'religious duties', then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely 'proper', but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well" (par. 18)
In this letter Pope Benedict also cites kerygma-martyria, leitourgia, and diakonia as expressions of the Church's deepest nature (par. 25a). Leitourgia and diakonia (i.e., love of God and love of neighbor respectively) are ways that we become martyrs, ones who proclaim (kerygma) Christ. Of course, all three of these "presuppose each other and are inseparable" (par. 25a).

For Giussani "generosity begins with you, an impetus that originates in you. Its whole reason for being is to express something in you" (Is It Possible 61). I think we can detect generosity when we hear things like, "I helped at the soup kitchen and I felt so good afterwards. Helping others makes me feel so good." By contrast, "the act of love arises outside you, arises from a presence that lies outside you and surrenders to the emotion or to being moved by that presence"
(61). While this sounds good, even easy, we often initially resist what the love that arises outside of us demands; it means doing something I may find inconvenient, even difficult.

Giussani chooses the perfect illustration from the beginning of the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, which is one of the most overused, hence, misapplied and misunderstood passages of Scripture, read at virtually every Catholic wedding- "If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing" (verse 3). He uses the example of the Czech, Jan Palch, who lit himself on fire and burned to death to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to further illustrate. "[C]harity is a presence for whom I give my life, to whom I give my life" (61-2). This presence has a name, the name given by the archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin, the name of the presence is Jesus, who is Christ the Lord. We are still celebrating His becoming human for us and for our salvation, which, the Holy Father reminded us a few Christmases ago, is worked out through our lives, which is composed of the various circumstances in which we find ourselves, and not despite our every day experiences.

Most, if not all, of this was summed up by the Holy Father when he wrote: "Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift" (Deus Caritas Est par. 7). You see, this difference makes all the difference in the world? It is the difference between giving a man a fish, teaching a man to fish, and being a fisher of men, which means being loved and, in turn, loving the other person's destiny.

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