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What St. Katharine Drexel can teach us about the benefits of generosity

KINDNESS
Oksana Mizina|Shutterstock
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It’s not easy to be more generous, but it’s true that the more we give the more we get back.

Last week when I came home from work there was one homemade cinnamon roll left over from breakfast sitting on our kitchen counter. I looked at that cinnamon roll, considered how buttery and delicious it was, how rich the cream cheese frosting was, and reached out to make it mine. Then I remembered we had guests staying with us on a mini-vacation, so I made the heroic sacrifice to leave it for one of them to enjoy. Toughest decision of my life.

You know how when you’re at dinner with friends everyone is too polite to take the last piece of pizza so it just sits there? If I’m at the table, that problem doesn’t occur. To put it mildly, generosity is a virtue I struggle to practice. It goes much deeper than food, though. I’m miserly with my time and begrudge people who I think waste it. To be honest, this even extends to time with my children. When my five-year-old wants to play the tenth game of Uno in a row, I sigh and glance at the book I’ve been hoping to read all day. I think about how I’d love to sit there and read it with no distractions, and my heart just isn’t in the game anymore. I can’t even laugh when I play a draw-four wild card and she responds with all the fury and indignation that only very small girls with frizzy ponytails are able to muster towards their fathers.

Marriage and fatherhood are two states of life that require a certain level of selflessness and have made me consider what it means to be generous. To a point, I’ve always been happy enough to give time to my children, to work to support them, and I really don’t mind participating in various activities with them that they choose. I’m happy enough to financially support my church, volunteer for various charitable activities, or help out a friend with a ride to the airport. I’m not sure that any of this makes me truly generous, though, because there’s always a well-defined limit, a boundary I’ve drawn beyond which I shall not cross. I notice that other people — people I admire — have a higher limit, sometimes much higher. They’re more generous with their time, more thoughtful and aware of other people on a daily basis, more willing to go that extra step.

St. Katharine Drexel’s feast day is coming up soon and what is strikingly apparent about her is her extreme generosity. More than anything else, she was a person who seemed to have no limits when it came to how much of her wealth she was willing to share, as well as how much of her personal time she was willing to give.

From the moment of her birth, Katharine’s life was marked by generosity. Her mother died when she was an infant, which is the most purely generous sacrifice possible — the sort of sacrifice by which one’s life is entirely given over to another as an act of love. For many years, Katharine was unaware of this because the woman her father subsequently married raised her as her own daughter. The generosity of these two mothers formed the basis for her own, exceedingly generous life. Her father, Anthony Drexel, was a wealthy banker who was generous with his wealth, and twice per week the family invited the poor into their home for a meal and to provide clothing for those in need. Once Katharine became an adult and received a massive inheritance, she knew she wanted to be generous with it. That’s putting it mildly. By the end of her life she had given away an estimated $20 million — the entirety of her fortune.

Katharine had ample opportunity, living as she did during the Great Depression. One family still gratefully recalls how she personally invited a man who had been injured as a railroad worker to come to her every day for bread and milk to feed his seven children. That man’s granddaughter says, “She was a saint even then, before the miracles.” I would go even further, because it seems to me that her level of generosity was itself a kind of miracle.

Studies show that generosity, like all the virtues, imparts benefits. It helps create goodwill in those around us. Empathy assures that we derive almost as much joy in giving as we do in receiving. Generosity brings with it expansive energy and a sense of emotional well-being. It reduces stress, imparts a sense of purpose, and may even help us live longer. Whether we are open-handed with material possessions, take the time to express appreciation, accept the generosity of another, or give time to another person, generous gestures bring joy.

But as good as that is, I wonder if rehearsing a list of benefits misses the point. It’s easy to give if we know we’re getting the better part of the bargain. It would be far better to give sacrificially, with no thought of benefit. Could I give to the extent that someone like St. Katharine did? Could I give everything? I’m not sure I could, but it’s interesting to note that, even though she gave away everything, Katharine probably didn’t see it as all that difficult or sacrificial. By all accounts, she had an extremely happy life.

Perhaps that’s the beauty of generosity, though. No matter how hard we try, we can’t out-give the virtue itself. It always beats us, always gives us back more. The more we give, the more we receive. And its true as I will admit, when I left that cinnamon roll on the kitchen counter I thought about someone else enjoying it instead of me, and it made me smile.

 

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