My children are at the entitlement stage. When someone gives them a gift, their focus goes straight to the gift – no thank you, no recognition of the giver, no gratitude. And then they fight over who has what. I sat down one morning in prayer, frustrated at the abundance of gifts they receive from well-meaning family and friends, dentists, doctors, and neighbours. People love giving things to children because, for children, gifts are their natural love language. When I meditated on that phrase, “abundance of gifts”, I was reminded that this describes the way God gives. Ignatius asks us “to consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above” like an endless flow from a fountain. An abundance of gifts is precisely what God gives us every day!
Now, children obviously have to learn gratitude, but what’s inherently built into them is a capacity to receive. Even my newborn knows how to receive the gift of milk. He’s not resisting it or saying “I’m not worthy.” He simply receives it from his mother because that’s what love does. Love “gives and asks for nothing in return,” as Anthony de Mello, SJ says. “Love so enjoys the loving that it is blissfully unaware of itself.” There is a bliss in my children’s reception of a gift, and a bliss in the giver giving it. At some point, adults may find it hard to receive a gift or a compliment. They may feel unworthy or feel indebted to the giver. But that’s not the purpose of a gift.
Gifts have two important qualities:
- They point to the giver. Children eventually have to learn this, that gifts are a symbol of the giver’s love and care.
- They should never have strings attached. Since gifts symbolise love and authentic love asks for nothing in return, gifts should never be used to manipulate or “buy love”. There is no such thing as “love debt”. The economics of love are not like monetary economics.
Ignatius, however, did say that love consists of a mutual exchange. But any exchange is not done out of expectation or coercion or because of a debt. Ignatius writes:
The lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, or something of that which he has or is able to give; and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover. Hence, if one has knowledge, he shares it with the one who does not possess it; and so also if one has honours, or riches. Thus, one always gives to the other.
When love is truly love, it naturally has a mutual flow.
In the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius tells us that God’s love is bound up in gifts:
All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love, and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
We always have freedom in how or whether we respond in love. The thing with God, however, is that God is both the giver and the gift. And the gifting never stops. It’s just who God is. I think, like with my kids, that when we have a constant flow of gifts, we get so used to it and we become blind to it. We either mistake gifts as a reflection of our “worthiness” and resist them, or we slip into a state of ingratitude, which Ignatius considered the greatest sin.
Easter is a season of abundance where we get to practise receiving God’s gifts and responding to them with love. But, like I try to teach my kids, sometimes we have to experience lack in order to see the value of the gift. Lent invites an intentional austerity so that in Easter we can be less blind to all we’ve been given.
We ought to embrace God’s abundant giving, not because we’re entitled but because we’re loved. That’s what we try and teach our children. “Wow, they are so generous and really love you.” This truth about gifts has the power to transform our lives.
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