Sense and Nonsense: The Mystery of Gifts

What is the one word that best describes what we are to ourselves from the hands of God? The answer is gifts. We do not come to be because God owes either Himself or us something. Neither we nor the world is necessary. This primary understanding of gifts means that everything is full, not of parsimony, but of superabundance. The mystery of creation is not why there is so little but why there is so much. The question of why there is anything at all almost pales before the subsequent question: Why is there such an extraordinary variety of “these things” and “those things”? Every particular thing we encounter, every relationship that we have, at its depth, will, if we search for it, reveal this gift orientation, because this is what it is.

Even though both Aristotle and St. Paul say that giving is more blessed than receiving, still, from our own perspective, receiving has a certain priority over giving. We cannot in turn give, even if we want to, unless we have first received. Even if we are to “love” ourselves because we too are created “good,” we realize that our goodness looks out onto what is not ourselves, with wonder that it is at all. Rudolf Allers used to say in class, with delightful paradox, that “it is more difficult to receive than to give.” To be gracious in receiving is, in many ways, a better test of our character than to be generous in giving. It is no accident that within the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is called “Gift.”

“What have you that you have not received?” I have a friend who unabashedly delights in gifts and receiving them, without, as far as I can tell, a touch of selfishness or greed. Aristotle implies that giving is a sign of our unconcern for ourselves and our careful generosity in responding to others. But if there is no one to receive, all the gift-giving in the world will not help us.

Yves Simon noted that something about us carries us beyond our necessities. Individualism, ourselves as the cause of our own being and happiness, will not work. If we say we need others, moreover, this need can have utilitarian overtones that seem out of place in gift-giving. Yet, if we ask the right question, such need will not seem so odd. Imagine a virtuous and kind man, Simon suggests, a man who is not self-centered or vain. This very man “would be unhappy if he knew no children to please with Christmas presents, and his homecoming from happy journeys would be gloomy if no one expected him to bring jewelry or dresses from the remote land.” We are not poor if we have little to give. We are poor if we have no one to give to. As Simon put it, “Men would rather stand physical destitution than be denied opportunity for disinterested love and sacrifice,” and, I might add, giving.

In reading George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, I was struck by the number of times that the core of the Holy Father’s philosophy is phrased in terms of gifts. The pope’s little book on the occasion of his 50th anniversary of the priesthood is entitled, precisely, Gift and Mystery. On first reading this book when it came out (1996), I underlined a passage. The pope is recalling the year 1948 when he had just returned to Cracow after finishing his doctorate in Rome. He is assigned to St. Florian, where he established a second university chaplaincy. There, Karol Wojtyla began “to give talks to the young people at the university; every Thursday I would speak to them about fundamental problems concerning the existence of God and the spiritual nature of the human soul.” Such talks were not, I presume, mandatory. Students did not have to attend. Yet, if they were willing to receive it, they were given something that few students in any university are really given.

I had been reading with a class Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, when I came across the following passage: “Augustine had come to a firmly rooted idea of the essential goodness of created things, and so of human achievements. These good things were ‘gifts’: bona… dona is a key-phrase throughout the City of God; and God is thought of mainly as Creator and, even more, as a largitor, as a lavisher of gifts.” We have the word “largesse” in English, a word that indicates a curious but amazing quality of being able and willing to give more without making anyone be less. In causing more to be, giving is not taking away and receiving is not a vice.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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