Last month, I went on a weeklong silent retreat to address a nagging concern. I felt heavy guilt for how I could be enjoying my life when there are profound deprivations and unspeakable suffering.
Catholic Relief Services serves people who do not have enough nutrition, sometimes no decent shelter nor water, very little access to proper medical care and, often times, crippling insecurity from violent conflicts and lost livelihood.
From these interactions, I get to go home to hot showers, cook with spices that cost more than these individuals’ daily incomes, have appointments with dentists, enjoy vacations, plan home improvements, and you can imagine the rest. For these, I feel like I should apologize that I am not giving my all to God or his people.
My spiritual director focused me on the concept of gift. What is a gift? Why do we give gifts? What do we hope for from the recipients?
Recently, I had to choose a present for a little boy of 2. Reaching into fond memories of how much our son enjoyed “Thomas the Tank Engine” at that age, I selected a Thomas book that included a mat of train tracks and little replicas of Thomas and his coterie of engine friends.
It was a great success. The little boy loved the book, studied each page and carefully lifted the trains from their packaging. He clutched the book so tightly that he would barely free one arm at a time for his mom to put on his coat. I got much pleasure watching this.
Reflecting on my spiritual director’s questions about gifts, I wanted the boy’s family to know that we value and welcome this little one. The only hope, not even expectation, was that the gift would be used and enjoyed.
This exercise was an invitation for me to think about God, the giver of all gifts. Why does God endow us with blessings? What does he want for us, not from us, in his generosity? How should we, the intended beneficiaries, receive?
Scriptures from Genesis to the New Testament tell us that God gives out of his profound love for us, that he wants us to flourish and to live life fully and that all his creation reflects him and his generosity. Simply, God takes delight in us.
We, the blessed, are to recognize him in and as the source of this bounty, to give thanks, glory and honor, and to imitate his goodness and generosity in the way we engage the rest of his family. Never in Jesus’ parables did he ask for guilt, but for trust, persistence, recognition of the gift, gratitude and a new way of being.
Christmas is the season of gifts. For all our preoccupation with shopping and giving, we may have underinvested in our preparation of ourselves as receivers of the divine gift: God himself comes into our world to live our lives and frailties, to teach us how to be truly human and to be with us on our journeys.
Our response is not hard nor particularly complicated. We are to pay attention as we should with all gifts, to engage the giver in recognition of the love behind the act of giving, to let that gift become part of us, thus warming and changing us in the knowledge that we are loved beyond human limit. In all this, we are to bask in God’s delight in us.
And on my list of Christmas wishes to God, I ask that his gift of himself helps me become more openhanded, openhearted, joyful, loving and retire the other “g” word.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.