Faith & Thought

Love in Action: Being a Gift Giver Brings You Benefits

In last week’s column I quoted a statement from Father Ron Rolheiser in his book “Wrestling with God: Finding Hope and Meaning in Our Daily Struggles to Be Human” ( New York, Penguin, Random House, $22.00, pp. 198) in which he claimed that we should give to the poor because such generosity will make us healthy. 

The claim fascinated me, and I spent a considerable amount of time during this past week trying to understand what the author meant. I had never thought that giving to the poor would make us healthy. What did Father Rolheiser mean? 

I quickly decided that Father Rolheiser did not mean that giving to the poor would make us physically healthy. He must have meant healthy in some other way. I don’t know if I have come to understand exactly what he meant, but I have come up with an interpretation of his statement that has led me to link his statement to three profound truths about the human person. 

Two of those truths are about the mystery of love. The other deals with coexistence, the truth that to be a human person means to coexist with other persons on every level of being human. This coexistence is part of the essence of a person. 

On every single level of personal existence we coexist with other persons. For example, we coexist on the level of knowledge, we coexist on the level of emotion and we coexist on the level of action. 

We are reflecting on the meaning of coexistence in a world in which there are countless people who suffer from severe poverty. We are called to love those people. In some way we are called to help them. This call is part of our vocation to exclude no one from our love. When we respond to that call, we are becoming the people God has created and whom God calls us to be. By being gift givers we are fulfilling our vocation. We are doing something that will make us healthy spiritually in the sense that we are fulfilling the call that God has placed within us. We are becoming better images of God. 

It might be easier to understand how being gift givers makes us healthy if we imagine that we neglect God’s call and are completely uninterested in the poor and deliberately choose to do nothing for them, indeed freely choose to act as though we do not exist in a world in which millions of people are so poor that they are starving to death. We would be impoverishing ourselves because our neglect of the poor would diminish our capacity to grow as persons who are called to be lovers. 

It has become clear in recent years that as Catholics we have a special responsibility towards the poor. In his book “What Is Theology?” (Mystic, Conn, 1998, $14.95, pp.263) Father Edmon J. Dunn gives the following working definition of faith: “Faith is our freely given, graced response to God’s invitation to a loving relationship that begins in preconceptual form but takes its cognitive form in creeds, preaching, prayers, doctrines, and dogmas of the faith community, and calls us to a discipleship of worship, personal transformation and action on behalf of justice.” 

Being a gift giver is “action on behalf of justice.” Not only of justice but also on behalf of charity or love. When we respond to God’s invitation, we assume the responsibility of changing, of personal transformation. Unfortunately the Church’s social doctrine, which is very beautiful, is a well-kept secret not only for those who are not Catholics but even for many Catholics. I know that one of my many projects is to come to know that doctrine better and allow it to guide me, especially as a citizen who has the obligation to vote. 

When we freely choose to be gift givers, we are fulfilling the vocation that God has given us. We are reaching out in love to those who need help, and that free choice of love not only benefits those toward whom we act as gift givers but also helps us to grow as persons. This growth is what I think of as being healthy. I believe we can be gift givers not only so that we become healthy spiritually but because we are helping others. 

To the extent that being a gift giver is an act of charity or love, to that extent it is unselfish even though we may realize that not only those to whom we give will benefit but we will benefit from our act of charity or love. 

Each person has to decide how he or she will be a gift giver, but I don’t think a Christian should ever decide not to be a gift giver. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV