How you receive a thing is up to you

Cannot write long today – the back is better but the schedule is full and guests are on the horizon, so that’s where my focus is.

But I wanted to just link you to this story, because it’s something to think about.

A walking stick is the unlikely center of a debate about political protocol, theological precision and news-marketing as a corporal work of mercy.

President Bush gave the odd, carved walking stick to Pope Benedict XVI on June 9 on a visit to Rome. In some quarters, the gift became a laughingstock.

As a post on one Catholic blog put it, “You go all the way to Rome and you give the Pope a stick! Mr. Bush, has America nothing better to offer?”

But stick supporters point out that the staff, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was one of several gifts of state the president presented to Pope Benedict that day. And the fact that the president gave it to the Pope may have kept a former homeless man and his wife off the streets and in their rented apartment.

You can go read the case “for” and “against” the stick. To me the story is about much more than whether President Bush has “har-har screwed up again.” It’s about how one receives a thing.

I’ve asked before – how do you receive a good? If someone gives you a gift that they’ve spent a good deal of time selecting for you, even if it is not to your taste, do you accept it and ask for the receipt so you can return it? Or do you accept it and then shove it away in a drawer? Or do you keep it nearby and consider it, use it, and try to figure out just what it was about the gift that made someone select it for you? Sometimes there is some self-discovery in doing that. You learn what you show to other people, for one thing.

How do you receive a “good” in the larger world of politics and religion – even, within that sphere, if you’re not sure a thing is good, but you know the intentions are? Do you ever consider the value of a good intention? Not simply that “the road to hell is paved with them,” but that there is power in intention? God created the whole world through it.

How do you receive things from God – or from “the Universe,” if that is how you prefer to think – is it all “blessing” or all “curse?”

How do you receive a person who crosses your path of a day? Do you take in appearance, clothing, affect and assume that you know everything there is to know about that person, making “appropriate” judgment? Or do you try to find Christ in them?

In his Rule, St. Benedict tells us to “receive everyone you meet as Christ come before you.” Benedict began his prologue saying his Rule would lay “nothing harsh or burdensome” upon his monastics, but this particular order – to see Christ in whomever is before you – is a tall one. It takes years and years just to begin to acquiesce to it, even a little – it goes against every instinct. It is all about how one will choose to receive another; in the best way? Or the worst?

A while back a friend teased me and called me “gullible” (which I confess I sometimes am), and in the course of enjoying his joke, I also wrote back, more seriously:

I decided a long time ago that cynicism – to which I was prone – was simply too easy and the refuge of the timid or the hurt. I made a conscious decision to take people at their words unless their behavior warranted differently, even if it did leave me open for some teasing about gullibility. I couldn’t stand myself when I was cynical.

The theme has been resounding with me, lately…I wrote here:

Be intellectually honest enough to admit that in this immigration controversy there are (sadly) some who are using fear to move their agenda, and there are some (only some, but they hurt us all) who reveal bigotry in their rants. You needn’t be offended if you can remember that there are those “somes” in every group; conservatives have no corner of perfection. You actually do have a choice as to how you receive what you hear, see and read, just as you have a choice as to how you receive a good, that is, with “open” or “closed” heart.

How do you choose to receive what is around you?
Do you make yourself a little vulnerable by taking a thing for what it appears to be, or do you immediately start to deconstruct a gift, or a compliment, or a speech, wondering about meanings, motives and manipulations?

We live in a mean, cynical age, and it is so easy to fall into the habit of suspicion and sneers. We don’t even realize, sometimes, that we are stuck there.

I believe – because I have no reason to suspect otherwise – that the president gave the pope this stick because it was something that was meaningful to him, and because he believed the meaning was shared. I believe he gave it to Benedict with good and generous intentions. I also believe that Benedict received the thing well, both because he would be a very sorry sort of pope if he allowed his concerns to be as picayune as those of the press, and because he would have no reason to accept it as anything but a good intention.

There will always be those who will look at every circumstance, every story, every speech, every gift, and pick and pick and pick, at what is “wrong” or “imperfect” or “not quite right” with it, losing site of what a gift is, completely…losing site of the intention behind a gift. This is how they receive. It is how they choose to receive a good, and it is joyless and sterile and it grows nothing. I do not see how it leads to receiving “more” good.

It is easy to be generous in our gift-giving; much more difficult to be generous in what we receive, and how we receive. To receive a thing well – with an open heart, and assuming the best of a gift or a person – that carries a bit of risk to it. But as with any risky venture, the rewards are multiplied.

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