When Jesus first sent forth his disciples to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, he did not advise them to take provisions. “Heal the sick,” he said, “cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” They had, in Jesus, entered into a relationship of giving. As the Father had given to the Son, so the Son gave to His disciples, and so the disciples were to give in turn, and to receive the gifts of those who welcomed them in. That seems to be why Jesus warned them against what might seem to be perfectly practical measures: “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses” (Mt. 10:8-9).
Answering the objection that liberality was not a virtue because not everyone has the means to practice it, Thomas Aquinas says that even poor men may be liberal, because, as the Philosopher says, the virtue consists not in a multitude of gifts, but in the habit of the giver. For some people consume their wealth in acts of intemperance, like the son in the parable who squandered half of his father’s estate on drunkenness and harlotry; such people are prodigals, and not true gift-givers. Others spread their wealth abroad to make themselves a name, and such boasters are also not truly liberal. They, like the prodigals, are not giving but purchasing.
The essence of the virtue is suggested by the word liberalitas, says Thomas, and by its common synonym largitas. “According to the Philosopher,” he says, “to be liberal is to be ready to send forth. That is why liberality is sometimes called by the name largesse: for what showers itself forth at large does not hold back, but rather sends. And that too seems to pertain to the word liberality: because when someone sends forth from himself, in a sense he liberates it from his custody and dominion, and shows that his soul is free from attachment to it.”
If we consider the words of Jesus and the meditation of Thomas together, we see freedom in a more profound sense than the modern world recognizes. If I ask a bright college freshman, “What does it mean to be free?” I will invariably hear one of two replies. Freedom is, first, non-interference: I am free to do as I please, within the civil law, and no one can tell me otherwise. Then freedom describes the political structure that ensures the non-interference: a nation is free to the extent that each citizen may do as he pleases.
Such a definition of freedom is wholly negative, and therefore inadequate. It does not tell me what my freedom is for – apparently, it is for nothing but what I happen to choose. It also does not tell me for whom I am free. Its subject is a human being severed from time and place, from family and community, from God and from his fellow men; an un-human being, a creature such as never has existed and never, except in Hell, can exist.
But when I freely receive and freely give, then am I free. When I give of my substance to others, I set it at large, so to speak, and set my heart at large with it. “All is grace,” says the long-suffering country priest in Bernanos’ novel. The whole secret of existence seems to lie in that enclosed and yet boundless garden. It is the precious blood of Jesus flowing from His opened side, dear, in the sense of being both beloved and costly; yet it flows freely, and it is dear to us because it is so freely given. If a man owes me a thousand dollars and pays me what he owes, I receive what is neither dear nor free; but when Jesus, who owes me nothing, gives me of His very body and blood in the blessed sacrament, then I receive gratuitously what is most dear.
To follow in the way of Jesus, then, is to be free: to be free from deadening self-service, so as to be free for love. It follows that liberality has nothing to do with what is cheap, tawdry, proud, vain, cruel, negligent, or insensible. The word liberal has come to imply a certain political program, which was once associated with an expansive view of civil liberties, and is now associated with sexual license and the vast welfare state that that license makes necessary. Yet whatever one may believe about our quadrennial national display of democracy, true liberality, like love, is not a matter of possessing correct political opinions. One cannot, for example, be liberal with someone else’s money, or with someone else’s blood. One cannot be liberal in the service of sin. One cannot be a liberal sower of discord and chaos. One cannot be a liberal reducer of civic freedom to license. One cannot be a liberal opponent of those very institutions, such as the family, that are the seedbeds of both civic and spiritual liberty. Such things do not enlarge the heart. They constrict it. They do not set free. They enslave.
But let’s not underestimate how hard it is to practice this virtue. The stingers of covetousness sink deep. For the richest people ever to walk the earth, we sure do a lot of wanting: this house, that car, this title, that award, this place on my list of places to visit, this thrill on my list of thrills to seek. Liberality would help us dig out some of the stingers. How would it do so?
One day a reporter watched, incredulously, as Mother Teresa cleaned the purulent and stinking sores of a man in a ditch. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he said. “Neither would I,” said she.
The man had unwittingly revealed his habit of thinking by the words he used. He meant to say, “I would never do what you are doing.” But the expression, “not for a million dollars,” arose from a habitual way of looking at the world, one of payment and restitution. If you do a certain favor for me, I am bound to repay you. So if you endure something particularly noisome for my sake, then I am bound to repay handsomely – with a million dollars, so to speak.
But Mother Teresa was not bound to clean the poor man’s sores, nor was her patient bound to repay her. They were dwelling in another world entirely. What one would never bind oneself to do for a million dollars, that same would one free oneself to do freely, for nothing, or rather for everything, because love is everything; because God is love. “Dear man, be comforted,” I can imagine Mother Teresa whispering, and seeing in him the face of Jesus.
“If you long for a happy death,” said Father Benedict Groeschel in my hearing last fall, “learn to love the poor.” Father Groeschel had spent his whole life in that liberty. Hard to do, hard to do! But he was in earnest. And now that I think again of Mother Teresa and the reporter, I see what he means. There are three people in the scene. The reporter is bound – corded up and knotted – in self-protection. He is deeply moved by what he sees, but he would prefer not to have to look. He is afraid of the liberty of a heart that loves. The dying man is bound – he, like all men, bears on his wrists and ankles and neck the marks of the shackles of sin and death. And no one in his right mind will help him. He must die.
Then there is the diminutive nun from Albania, with the arms of a girl and the heart of a lion. She, by the grace of God, that liberally showered gift we are free to receive, kneels down and brings into the scene a love that is stronger than slavery and death. It is as if she were to say, “You, you alone, are more important than all the rest of the world. You lived in bondage. Now be free.”
The Lord loves a cheerful giver, says Saint Paul. It must be so. It is the glorious liberty of the children of God.