Giving the Life That We Have

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I tell  you truly: this poor widow has contributed more than all of them. For all of these gave their gifs out of their abundance. But this woman contributed out of her poverty everything that she had to live on.

Luke 21: 3-4

The scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that the literal translation of verse four of today’s passage reads: “all the life that she had.” As we approach the end of another liturgical year, we may ask ourselves the question “What or whom do we live for?” For what or for whom do we give all the life that we have.

In my experience my problem is not so much that my life is oriented in the wrong direction; it is, rather, that, most often, it lacks direction. It is not so much wanting the wrong thing as wanting everything. I wonder, why, when I have time to spend in quiet and prayer, am I pulled away from full presence by thoughts of what I will do when the time is over. As I look around me, I am also taken aback to see things which I have accumulated over time which were so important at the moment of purchase but which I no longer even am aware of possessing. Or, I busy myself with concern about what others have or think of me as if their state is of any concern to my own destiny.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is that God takes care of things and there is no need to hedge our bets. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:31)  We love God and want to serve God, but, for the most part, we want that to take its place among our other concerns and worries. We want to give aspects of our lives over to God, but we aren’t quite willing, as the poor widow, to give all the life that we have.

In practice, this teaching is at least extremely difficult and at most totally mysterious. What would it look like today to give away all the life that we have? Perhaps we begin with trying to become aware of those particular  moments when we are limiting our generosity rather than giving all we have. Instead of dividing my attention between the person or task before me and my anxious concerns about what comes next, can I try to let go of the compulsive fears and thoughts and just be with the moment? When I would hold back expressing the deeper desires of my heart or offering my unformulated ideas for fear of revealing my vulnerability and stupidity, can I dare to trust that the little I have is meant as my gift for all?  Can I listen at the moment that I feel the compulsion to speak so that my ideas and thoughts can take second place to those of another? Can I dare to keep entering into the silence and nothingness of God, despite the incessant inner noise that suggests to me that I am wasting my time?

To grow in generosity requires of us that we abandon the fear for our own survival. These days we, who live in some of the most relatively safe places on earth, can see that even a somewhat remote possibility of danger can lead us to fear others and so close our hearts (and borders) to them. At every level or our hierarchy of needs we readily make our personal security our primary value. Today Jesus reminds us that we are not called first to save our lives but to give them away. As mysterious as it is to us, a true sense of security can only come not from protecting and hoarding life but from actually giving away, from moment to moment, all the life that we  have.

The soul may quite sensibly be compared to the finest down and the lightest feather which, if spared the onset and penetration of dampness from without, have a nature so mobile that at the slightest breeze they rise up of themselves to the highest points of the sky. But if they are weighed down by any splash, any dampening of moisture, not only will there be no natural impulse to fly up into the air but the pressure of the absorbed liquid will drag them downward to earth.

So too with our soul. If sin and worldly preoccupation have not weighed it down, if dangerous passion has not sullied it, then, lifted up by the natural goodness of its purity, it will rise to the heights on the lightest breath of meditation and, leaving the lowly things, the things of earth, it will travel upward to the heavenly and the invisible.

And so we are quite rightly admonished by the Lord’s command: “See to it that your hearts are not weighed down in drunkenness and intoxication and in the concerns of everyday” (Luke 21:34). Therefore, if we wish our prayers to reach upward to the heavens and beyond we must ensure that our mind is cleared of every earthly defect and cleansed of all passion’s grip and is slight of itself that its prayer, free of sin’s weighty load, will rise upward to God.

John Cassian, Conference Nine, 4

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