“All you can take with you is that which you give away.”
That quote, which appears in a scene of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, captures the economy of God’s Kingdom. While it most certainly refers to the importance of alms given to the poor, it refers more generally to a way of life based on this premise: All that I possess, without exception, is inscribed with the law of love and so must be always turned otherward if it is to achieve its proper end. Every gift I possess is marked with a secret arrow pointing at someone in need.
God’s special favor to one is always done in view of all, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God’s special love for one is an epiphany of His love for all who will benefit from the gifts of the one. God loves no one in isolation. The Virgin Mary was given unique privileges of grace not so she could revel in being loved and favored more than others, but rather so she could bear the immense responsibility of being God’s Mother and, as New Eve, the Mother of all those re-created in her Son.
When a reporter shared her dismay at God’s seeming unfairness in giving Mother Teresa health, while those she served suffered various ailments and misfortunes, Mother replied along these lines: “The suffering are given the great gift of sharing in the world’s redemption with Jesus on the cross. I am not worthy to suffer as they, but I am worthy to walk with them. And if I am given health, it is so that I might spend my health on caring for the sick. It would only be unfair if I spent my health on myself. But God gives nothing unfairly. Only we are unfair.”
Health as a sign of divine favor to the sick? My God. What a vision of life if you really live out of it.
As I look at every gift I have been given in life, my question should always be, “For whom was this given to me?” Vanity is when I imagine my gifts are principally meant to draw benefit on myself—attention, accolades, indulgence, ease.
Even God sees Himself bound by this law, in this way. He freely created all things because His love demanded that His existence, with all of its infinitely rich attributes, be given away. God is one but not alone. God is Three, as God-ness demands being given away: Father to Son, Son to Father, Father and Son to Spirit. Creation was the natural sequel to this eternal dynamism.
A Sister at the Missionary of Charity hospice I worked at said to me, “You can know God only when you love, and you can love only when you know you are loved.” Ah. It helped me understand afresh the meaning of 1 John 4:20: “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
Fr. Anthony, my spiritual director years ago, said to me in a vulnerable moment, “I want to die poor, empty, with nothing left to give.” Three weeks before he died, his doctor said, “You need to have heart surgery, Tony.” He said, “Yes, yes, after Christmas. I need to be with my people for Christmas.” When he did not show up for the Vigil Mass on December 31, they came into the Rectory looking for him. They found him in his rocking chair, with an afghan and a rosary in hand, dead. His surgery was scheduled for January 2.