I cannot remember when I became very interested in what philosophers, theologians and spiritual authors said about the mystery of love. Many years ago, it just seemed to happen that everything I taught or wrote was in some way or other related to the mystery of love. Quickly I learned that not only was the mystery of love a topic that greatly interested me but that it was a topic that seemed to interest just about everyone. Early on I learned that every person needed to be loved. This was the way we found ourselves as creatures of God. This was the way God created us.
It took me a considerable amount of time to realize that not only did we need to be loved. We have a deep need to love. That is also how God made us. I don’t know which need is deeper, the need to be loved or the need to love. God is pure Self-Gift and our need to love is part of our being created in the image and likeness of God. Our need to be loved is also due to how we have been created in God’s image. We have been created through God’s free creative act of loving, and if we are going to mature and grow as persons we need to be nourished by the experience of being loved.
This double need has been on my mind while rereading Father Ron Rolheiser’s “Wrestling with God: Finding Hope and Meaning in Our Daily Struggles to Be Human” (New York: Image, 2018, pp. 198 , $22.00). Just as it took me years to realize that each of us has a need to love, I think I have been somewhat blind about being generous in relation to the poor. I think Father Rolheiser has helped me to see generosity toward the poor in a new way. He writes the following:
“We need to give to the poor not because they need it, though they do, but because we need to do that in order to be healthy. That’s an axiom that is grounded in the scriptures where, time and again, we are taught that giving to the poor is something that we need to do for our own health…
“In Christianity we have enshrined this truth in the challenge to be charitable to the poor, and we have classically seen our giving to the poor as a virtue, and rightly so. Charitable giving is a virtue; but, for a Christian, perhaps it’s more obligation than virtue…
“We need to give to the poor because they need it, admittedly; but we need to do it because we cannot be healthy unless we do this. And we need to see our giving not so much as charity but as obligation, as justice, as something we owe”(pp. 83, 85).
I have to think about Father Rolheiser’s insistence that I need to give to the poor because they need any help I can offer them but I also need to give to the poor in order that I might be healthy. This is a new way of thinking about my relationship to the poor, and I am going to need time to explore it, understand it better and decide whether I agree with Father Rolheiser.
My guess is that my experience in receiving numerous appeals to help some needy group is an experience that many readers of this column have. I never tried to keep track of how many appeals I receive every month, but I suspect I receive at least one appeal a week. All the appeals seem worthwhile. Some seem heartbreaking. About 30 years ago I decided to investigate one source that I heard from regularly. I learned that about 95 percent of what was donated went directly to the needy. That helped me to decide to regularly send to that charity instead of trying to respond to the seemingly countless requests from organizations I knew little or nothing about. Depending on how generous I was each year in giving to the charity whose way of distributing the donations I had investigated, my guilty feelings were kept under control to some extent. I say to some extent because almost all the requests seem worthwhile. In relation to millions of other extremely poor people, many of whom are starving, I seem to have so much. I intend to continue to reflect on Father Rolheiser’s insight into giving.
What especially interests me is the relationship between loving the poor and seeing as deeply as I can how giving to the poor should be done because they need my help, and for my own health. I don’t want generosity, which I think should be unselfish, to be turned into a subtle sort of self-help.
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.