Thursday, March 23, 2006

Poverty and Accepting Generosity

Saint Ignatius' Autobiography, part 54

After the forty days, Master John Codure arrived, and the four of them decided to preach. They went to four different piazzas on the same day and at the same hour, and began to preach, first by shouting out to the people and waving their hats at them. This style of preaching started a great deal of talk in the city; many were moved to devotion and supplied their physical needs with greater abundance.

While he was in Vicenza he had many supernatural visions and much ordinary consolation, just the opposite of what he experienced in Paris. These consolations were specially given while he was preparing for ordination in Venice and getting ready to say his first Mass. In all his journeys he had great supernatural visitations of the kind he used to have when he was at Manresa. While he was in Vicenza, he learned that one of his companions who was staying at Bassano was sick and at death’s door. He himself at the time was ill with a fever. Nevertheless, he started off and walked so fast that Faber, his companion, could not keep up with him. In that journey he was given the certainty by God, and so told Faber, that the companion would not die of that illness. When the pilgrim arrived at Bassano, the sick man was much consoled and soon got well.

All then returned to Vicenza, where all ten remained some days. Some went to seek alms in the towns adjacent to Vicenza.

These days Jesuits don’t take to the streets preaching and begging as a means of supporting ourselves as the early Jesuits and these “proto-Jesuits” might have. Indeed our vow of poverty, while it means that we don’t live a life of luxury and must take care to live more simply, isn’t such that we really want for any necessities. Nevertheless, knowing that we do have a vow of poverty, people are often very generous to us both as a community and individually. Often, when I’m out with friends or family, they insist on paying for me. It always makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable, as if I’m not really carrying my weight in this relationship. Yet, as strange as it might seem, I’ve learned that allowing others to be generous to me (within limits, of course!) is part of my vocation. That discomfort I feel is my pride, yet it is also very important. It reminds me to humbly accept others’ generosity, but it also act as a reminder not to come to expect it. Further, it is also a reminder to me to be generous to others, financially to those who need it, but especially with my time. My poverty means that I don’t have a huge salary, but because of it I am more free to be available to others.

My most humbling and moving experiences in this regard have been in my visits to the poor of the Third World. Invariably, they insist on sharing what little food they have with you when you visit, and don’t you dare say “no!” In these situations, it’s not always just a matter of risking my pride either, the hygiene conditions are not top rate and so I take the risk of getting sick as well. Yet the risk is worth it. As I had the pleasure of teaching some of my students who were reluctant to accept food from a poor family on our trip to Mexico, sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is allowing them to share what little they have with you. John Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian in El Salvador whose Jesuit housemates, housekeeper and her daughter were killed in November 1989 while he was away, calls this an experience of forgiveness. It never occurs to the poor themselves that they are offering forgiveness, but it is there in the fact that rather than confront us with our complicity in their suffering, they offer themselves to us in the breaking of the bread (or tortillas).


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