Liberality vs. ‘Reality’

This virtue business is a puzzler.
If picking up the tab for a raging alcoholic, or keeping one’s gambling-addict grandma in bingo cards, doesn’t add up to Liberality, what does? Isn’t the New Testament full of admonitions like “Give till it hurts,” and “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”
It’s true that the Gospels include injunctions to give away your cloak, walk the extra mile, and sell all you have so you can give it to the poor. I used to deal with such baffling dicta in the Scriptures by gritting my teeth and reading past them quickly, till the next really interesting miracle. I mean, are we actually meant to turn ourselves into “eunuchs” for the Kingdom of God (Mt 19:12)? Even if we’re talking about the clergy, that passage fairly screams out for a reassuring footnote from the editor (i.e., the Church). It’s one I’d skip altogether if I were a biblical literalist . . . like the eggless theologian Origen, bless his heart!

Then I came to think that Jesus purposely spoke in parables with potentially fatal side-effects just to force His followers to organize a hierarchical Church, with a sturdy Magisterium to explain away the crazier implications of His words — like T. S. Eliot, who I think wrote obscure stuff just to keep us English professors employed. (Thanks, Tom!)
I mean, someone who misread Christ’s advice about turning the other cheek, becoming a eunuch, and getting himself born again, then combined it with Paul’s statements on serpents, could end up a pacifist snakehandler in diapers singing soprano. Which is one more reason why I’m glad that I’m a Catholic.
Getting back to Liberality, think of the passage where Jesus told the young man who sought perfection that he should sell everything he had, give it away, and follow Him. As the wise theologian Rev. Gilbert Graham, O.P., once explained, Jesus could read human hearts. He knew the spiritual problems of each person he encountered — and answered them accordingly. So when Jesus met the woman at the well, who was something of a tramp, he called her on the carpet. He explained to her the real reason why she was so insatiable, and offered her “living water” instead.
The well-meaning, pious Jew who accosted Christ and explained in detail all his virtues was actually eaten up with guilt; he knew that he was holding something back, which is why he kept pestering Christ about what he needed to be “perfect.” So Jesus willingly handed him one of the “counsels of perfection,” which Church fathers later catalogued as Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.
These three sacrifices of pretty much everything that makes earthly life worth living quickly formed the vows of monks and nuns — who, by living them out, serve as prophetic signs of Faith in the afterlife. (I mean, why else would anybody bother?) But does that mean these goals are for everyone, or even that it would be better if they were? Does the Church really wish that everyone were called to Poverty, for instance? Was Chairman Mao’s China, where everyone dressed identically, ate 600 calories a day, and bicycled through the rice paddies, a model of Catholic society? (Sometimes, from reading bishops’ pastoral babblings on the economy, you might be forgiven for thinking so.)
Likewise, the Church doesn’t secretly wish that everyone were called to monastic Chastity, so that the human race could vanish in the course of 70 years; she leaves such fantasies to radical ecologists.
Nor does the Church yearn to impose on the laity the Obedience proper to monasteries — which, if imposed universally, would yield a totalitarian state. (Lay Catholic movements, call your office.)
Instead, within the broad parameters of the Natural Law and the gospel’s call to charity, we each are meant to discern our vocation as individuals, within our state of life and our particular station in life, to cultivate Liberality. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum:
True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over (emphasis added).
This means that some who are born fabulously wealthy, like St. Katherine Drexel, may well be called to sacrifice everything to the service of the weakest and most neglected — in her day, blacks and Indians. In our America, that dubious distinction belongs to the unborn, so one might say the Sisters of Life are the order living out Mother Drexel’s charism.
But not every calling is so dramatic or (in its own way) glamorous. For most of us, Liberality means consistently, day in and out, doing just a little bit more than the minimum — working a little harder on an article, grating fresh cheese into the soufflé instead of shaking it from a can, putting flowers on the table, wearing makeup for one’s husband, spending extra time on the yard work or the exercise bike to please one’s wife . . . It’s humdrum stuff that’s typically the hardest to do consistently, but these small sacrifices of self — usually done not for strangers but family members, colleagues, or customers — make the difference between a society of civic virtue, trust, and excellence . . . and the shabby, dreary, litigious nest of snakes we call “the real world.”
It isn’t real. In fact, it’s less real, because it partakes less in the Good than a faithful monastery, a healthy Christian family, or a conscientious business. Religious orders that abandon their charisms are hardly more than phantasms — which is why few young folk are bothering to join them. In the same way, marriages entered into frivolously are annulled fairly routinely, and businesses built on hype and empty promises get bailed out for billions by the taxpayer — then go right on dispensing bonuses. That’s the “real world,” my friends — an enormous, faintly obscene Thanksgiving Day balloon filled with methane. And here comes Jesus, with a blowtorch.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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