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When a grandmother gives you mercy, don’t say ‘No’

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Joanne McPortland - published on 07/18/16

Honor someone's generosity -- it's a privilege not to be missed...

31) Give away something of yours (that you really like) to someone you know would enjoy it.

This is a personal reflection about giving and receiving. Your mileage, God willing, will vary.

When my son was a toddler and I was still married, I taught religion at my high school alma mater. One of my students was Ukrainian. When she learned that my husband, before he was laicized, had been licensed to celebrate in both the Roman and Byzantine rites, and that we occasionally attended Divine Liturgy at the local Ukrainian Catholic parish where her family worshiped, she invited us to her home for a traditional Ukrainian dinner.

The hospitality that night in a small house in the Hollywood Hills echoed Abraham’s entertaining of angels. No detail was spared for our welcome. Three generations of family toasted us with endless shots of icy vodka flavored with buffalo grass, accompanied by platters of caviar and smoked fish and other salty delicacies. (“The salt absorbs the alcohol,” an uncle explained, “so you can drink vodka all night and wake up without a hangover.”) After an hour or so of that, when we thought the evening was over, out came a full 3-course meal, followed by freshly baked desserts. The table groaned. We groaned, happily.

After dinner my student’s grandmother, who spoke no English, brought out the family treasure, smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain and shared only with the most honored guests: glittering piles of necklaces and earrings and bracelets crafted from the finest Ukrainian amber. My eyes became saucers of coveting. Noticing my interest, the grandmother smiled. She chose a beautifully carved bracelet, the light from the dining-room chandelier pooling in the golden heart of the gems, and handed it to me. “It’s beautiful,” I said, and handed it back. Grandmother shook her head.

“She wants you to have it,” my student explained. “She can see that you like it, and it would be her honor to give it to you.”

I was young then, and even today I am terrible at receiving grace. I demurred. I handed the bracelet back, trying to convey in gestures that it was too much and I couldn’t possibly. Grandmother looked sad. My husband, who understood something of the slight I was delivering (and who wouldn’t be my husband much longer), looked embarrassed. But putting hospitality first, no one pushed or scolded me. I didn’t even know I had committed a faux pas until we got in the car to go home and my husband did the scolding.

All those years ago, my student’s grandmother showed me the meaning of this week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the Jubilee Year: “Give away something of yours (that you really like) to someone you know would enjoy it.” That tiny, elegant lady, who had kept hold of her faith and her family and their secret wealth through persecution and flight and starting over in a new land, wanted to do me the mercy of a gift. And when I was foolish enough to reject not just the gift but the mercy that moved it, she did me the mercy of not making a big deal out of it. The memory of that night is a mercy to me still, so in the best sense her gift goes on.

For myself, hoarding disorder doesn’t make for much of an impulse to give away material things, and I have never had much that made others’ eyes go saucer-sized with covetousness. But I hope that I have learned to live that grandmother’s example in answering, wherever God has given me the grace to see it, the calls on my time and my writing and my friendship that come to me around the table of the years. I pray daily to get better at recognizing and anticipating those calls. I pray, too, that in the days left to me I will never again make the mistake of rejecting the gift of mercy because it is “too much” and “I couldn’t possibly.”

May your own generosity and receptivity, your willingness to give mercy away with no strings and to receive it without hesitation, resemble my student’s grandmother’s more than mine. In that, you will resemble Christ himself, who gave without stinting mercy without limit.

Practicing MercyUkraine
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