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Why Give ‘Til It Hurts?

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Mary Hallan FioRito - published on 11/30/14

God loves to outdo us in generosity

A few years ago, my husband was in a fender-bender that, while not seriously injuring him, did destroy the 13-year old Honda Civic we had purchased with money given to us on our wedding day. Since we both work for the Church, and we have three children enrolled in Catholic schools, we didn’t exactly have thousands of dollars sitting around waiting to be spent on a new car, and we likewise didn’t want to assume a large car payment given our other financial obligations. So, we put out the word among friends and family that we were looking for a reliable used car.  

As luck (and God’s providence) would have it, a classmate of mine from law school called one morning to tell me about a colleague of his who was selling a used Lexus. It was eight years old, with 80,000 miles on it, but in good shape and very reliable. After a test drive, my husband negotiated a price with the seller that enabled us to purchase it with the cash we had received from the insurance settlement.

At first, I was thrilled. Me, driving a snazzy (albeit used) Lexus! With a CD player, a sun roof and heated seats! In short order, however, I began to notice myself being extremely self-conscious, especially as I drove into the parking lot at the office, where generally everyone drives modest cars.  Doubt and guilt began to creep into my thoughts:  “Am I setting a bad example?” “Does this look too pretentious?” I found myself quickly apologizing to anyone who asked me about my new set of wheels. “Wow, what a nice car!” someone would remark and, instead of thanking them and moving on to something important, I would find myself blurting out:  “It’s used! It had 80,000 miles on it! Our car was totaled and this was all that came along!” I think I worried a lot of my friends who looked at me as if to say, “Um, it’s a nice car. Did you have a hard day at work or something?”

I happened to mention my musings to a friend, a consecrated member of the Focolare, a Catholic lay movement founded during the Second World War. Women who are “consecrated” members of Focolare have lives very similar to those of women religious or nuns – they have vows of poverty and who lives very simply in community. My co-worker seemed puzzled when I explained that I wasn’t sure about driving such a luxury vehicle, even if it was eight years old. “It was a gift from God,” she said to me. “Why are you not accepting it from Him with joy?” Her comments reminded me that all things, even material ones, are gifts, gifts that God freely bestows on each of us.

But yet … there are moral hazards to focusing too closely on material things, even beautiful ones. There are practical hazards as well, and those are known to people of no faith or religious practice, along with those of us who profess to follow Christ. There’s likely not one American citizen who doesn’t know someone who is in trouble with credit cards (or who hasn’t been in that kind of trouble themselves). While occasionally, credit card debt is accumulated due to circumstances beyond one’s control (like unexpected medical bills or a major appliance breakdown) it’s often caused by people living beyond their means. Witness the surge in the popularity of shows like “Hoarders” and books like Peter Walsh’s “Enough Already!”  and websites like Flylady.net (an online personal coach to manage C.H.A.O.S., aka, “Can’t have anyone over syndrome”), and you know that something is amiss when so many people – especially women — feel that their possessions have overwhelmed them.

When analyzing the importance of “things” – beautiful things, expensive things – from a moral perspective, two questions I know I need to ask myself are, “Is this (clothing, car, jewelry, furniture, home) the goal of my life?” “Do I possess my things or do my things possess me?” After all, who among us women hasn’t complained about the piles of laundry, the dry cleaning bills, and keeping the kids from scratching the new coffee table? How many hours did the staff of Imelda Marcos take to care of her 1,000 handbags and 1,000 pairs of shoes? Who organized them, stored them, cleaned them and repaired them? All that takes time, and while I am guessing no one reading this has quite the volume Imelda did, we likely don’t have the staff she had to take care of her things, either. Things not only cost money, but they cost us in time.

And not being willing to give or share what we have deprives not only others of things they might use, but it deprives us of a chance to suppress our self-interest once in a while – to acknowledge that there are some things – like the needs of other – that are more important than our desire to accumulate.  

Plus, life is a lot more fun when you experience what God can and will do if you give, not just from your surplus, but from what you need to live yourself. God is never outdone in generosity, as Cardinal George, the Archbishop Emeritus of Chicago, was fond of saying.

I’ve seen examples of this in more ways than I can count. When I was about eight years old, my father lost his job. There were five of us under the age of ten, and my mother didn’t work outside the home, and money was very, very tight. Christmas was approaching and my mother had all of five dollars – money she was going to use to buy something for our Christmas stockings. But she decided instead to send it as an offering to the cloistered Carmelite nuns who lived in a monastery near our home. Less than an hour after she returned from her trip to the mailbox, a friend whose brother had just died and left her a portion of his estate came to the door. “Here’s fifty dollars,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’d like to give this to you for your children for Christmas.” My mother gave – not from her surplus – and God rewarded her generosity and her trust in him ten times over.  

Our giving doesn’t need to be of the material kind, either. Often it’s the gift of our time that God is asking us to share. Take the story of Kathy, a woman who had three young daughters and not much money. All three girls needed new winter coats – badly – and she’d been scouring the sales as Christmas approached, waiting for the right coat at the right price at the right moment. She finally saw a sale at a store near her home – 50% off, one Saturday morning until 11 a.m. only. She made certain her husband would be home to watch the children, and made her plans to be in line early, knowing the coats wouldn’t last much past the doors opening.  

The morning of the sale – at 8 a.m. – Kathy’s sister called. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen you, and I’m going to be in the neighborhood in an hour,” she said. “I’d love to stop by and see you and the kids.” Kathy hesitated. The sale came once a year, but she didn’t see her sister often. She felt God ask her to make the sacrifice and miss the sale. But her heart was a little heavy when she said, “Sure, come over. I’ll be here.” When Kathy’s sister arrived, she was carrying a large shopping bag, containing an early Christmas gift for her nieces: three brand-new winter coats, even nicer than the ones Kathy had planned on purchasing at the sale. Kathy gave of herself – thinking at the time it would cost her the coats her children really needed – and God rewarded her in a way she couldn’t have imagined if she’d tried.

Gabrielle Bossis was a French playwright and actress who died in 1950. A rather a well-to-do laywoman who lived a life filled with travel and parties and many friends, with both a city home and a summer home (the introduction to her book actually points out she had “no need to earn a living”) she also was something of a mystic – she had intimate, personal conversations with Jesus, which she transcribed and are published in her book “He and I.” Bossis had a great appreciation for beauty – especially beautiful church buildings and beautiful art. Yet simultaneously, she was also experiencing regular instruction and guidance from “The Voice,” as she called it – the Voice of Christ. She notes that Jesus told her, “Wherever you find perfect beauty and perfect charm, you find Me.” Her first volumes of spiritual conversations were published (anonymously) while she was still alive, in 1948, and became so wildly popular that the public asked for more. After her death in 1950, a second volume was published in which her identity was revealed, to the utter shock of her friends and family. She had lived, in all outward appearances, a totally “normal” life, with every creature comfort one could imagine. Yet her possessions are not what she is remembered for: it was her “interior life” – a life that was one of sacrifice and intimate union with the Lord.  

But it was her station in life that allowed her to touch an entire class of upper-crust Europeans, who might not have otherwise considered what Christ was using her to say. As Jesus is reported to have said to her, “I chose some only to reach the others.”

Wherever Christian women find themselves, either by circumstance or by conscious choice, we can all “reach the others.” Beauty and yes, sometimes material things, can be used to help us reach those whom we might not otherwise reach. The woman who stops me in the grocery store to admire my daughter’s hair bow might strike up a conversation and, at the same time, give me an opportunity to show Christ’s love to her. The person with the beautiful summer home on Cape Cod has the opportunity to provide a neighbor’s children with a week at the beach – and a time when family prayer is said each evening and each morning. The woman with the new (albeit used) Lexus has the opportunity to give an elderly parishioner a ride to the grocery store on a sub-zero Chicago day.

Although she still might feel guilty about driving that Lexus, even if it does have those nice heated seats.

Mary Hallan Fioritois the former executive assistant to Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., the Archbishop Emeritus of Chicago. Ms. FioRito holds a law degree from Loyola University of Chicago and is well-known as a pro-life advocate and commentator on various issues involving women in the Church. A 29-year employee of the Archdiocese of Chicago, she has also held the positions of Vice-Chancellor and Respect Life Director. She and her husband, Kevin, reside in the Chicago suburbs and have three young daughters.

The foregoing article contains excerpts form the author’s contribution to "Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves."

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FaithPracticing Mercy
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