November 1, 2011

The Spiritual Practice of Giving and Receiving

When I was a little girl I went to a Catholic school. An ongoing ministry through the school year for us children was collecting our change in little boxes, like the UNICEF boxes used by children at Halloween, to send to the Catholic missions in Africa. In order to fill our boxes as full as possible, we would deduct coins from our own allowances. We would solicit extra change from our parents and grandparents and neighbors. It excited us to think that children so far away in Africa were being helped by our small sacrifices and the generosity of our families and friends.

Today I have a lot of questions about some of the assumptions our teachers made about why those children in Africa had need of our charity. But I value the lessons I learned at that tender age: that sharing my wealth with others feels good, and that small sacrifices can be strengthening, and can change lives.

Somehow, as I got older, sharing became a little harder. When I left Catholic school there was no longer anyone in my life that expected me to share my wealth. During my young adulthood in the late sixties and early seventies, the adults in my life expected me to save and to get a good job to pay off my school debts. Conversely, my friends considered money something that spiritual people didn’t consider in a serious manner. So I compromised. I got a decent job, but I pretty much lived from paycheck to paycheck. Don’t ask me what I spent my money on!

By the time I was a young mother and attending Quaker Meeting, my life had taken several surprising turns and my resources were very scarce. I didn’t consider myself someone who had much to give others. I would buy the things my family needed when I had the money, and when I didn’t, we did without. I never considered regularly setting apart any part of my meager mite for others, although I would respond as I could to special requests or leadings to give to those less fortunate than I was. But I had developed no habit of giving.

By the time I had more resources, I had developed the ineffective and decidedly unspiritual habits of ignoring money, purchasing without planning, making insignificant contributions to my Quaker meeting, and making semi-regular charitable contributions to non-Quaker groups doing work I admired. In spite of the fact that I had purchased a home and had a bank account, I had no will, and therefore had arranged no bequests. Charitable giving was not a regular part of my thinking, my budget, or my life.

What I did give was my time and energy. I worked as a teacher and social worker, and poured my caring into my work. I gave unstintingly of my time to my Quaker meeting wherever I was needed. I was never a hardhearted person. When asked to contribute money for a specific purpose, I gave, and sometimes gave more than was easy to give. What I did not do was to nurture in myself the spiritual discipline of giving as much as I could without being asked, of practicing the ministry of money. As a result, I missed out on the ongoing and powerful spiritual benefits of sharing my wealth.

One of the things I do in my Quaker meeting is teach First Day School (our equivalentn of Sunday School). I work with the four to six year olds. One day we were engaged in a simple math game using tiny bunny cookies. They had played this game before and loved it. When they finished the simple calculation, I would allow them to eat the cookies. The trouble was that on this day there was a larger than normal group, and we had to use a small number of cookies so that they could do the calculation. There were not enough cookies to go around. So I asked, “How should we solve this problem?” One of the children, Jacob, immediately, without pause and without being asked, snapped his cookie in two and gave it to young Willow. I asked Willow how it felt when Jacob shared his cookie with her? “Like he wants me to be his best friend!” she said with a big grin. “And, Jacob, how did it feel to you to share your cookie with Willow?” And, rather matter-of-factly, he said, “Like I’m a nice person.”

I think this was Jacob’s way of saying that sharing his cookie with Willow helped him connect with the Good within. That it helped him ground in Goodness, and act in compassion, and feel connected to both his goodness and to Willow.

I want to nurture that in myself, that connection to Goodness. So I'm going to check my budget and work toward giving away at least 10%, saving half of the rest (since I am old with not much time left to work, and may live to be much older), and learning to live on the remainder. I may not be successful, but I will try. I want to come to the end of my life knowing deeply what it feels like to share my cookies.