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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • lsusportsfan

    Great post. Speaking as a Catholic it is a shame that some Catholics have not realized the treasure they have in Bush. I wonder if they started thinking about whom failed who.

    First, and this is what is irratating especially since I am a lover of American History. There is some confusion in the news reports but most are reporting that Bush gave more than a walking stick(which was lovely) but much more.

    First,it appears the Bush gave the Pope and rare first edition of an autobiography of Bishop John Carroll(a few news reports say the Pope Gave it to Bush but it appears that was Bush’s gift as well. THis was edited by Carroll himself. A precious gift. As to Carroll He didnt do much really he just just started the groundwork for Catholics in the USA and he along with his family were Patriots. They did much of the groundwork that we benefit from today. If AMerican Catholics are going to scoff at Bush they should go to Wilki and read about Carroll. Also Bush gave the Pope 6 lithographs of six documents held in the National Archives. This was reported in the Press.

    An Italian Cathloic site that is often cited made a more astute observation though about Bush’s real gift:

    Bush Brought a Gift for the Pope: The Alliance Between Catholics and Evangelicals

    An incredible and insightful article that should be read before we all get on the Bush bash bandwagon.

    I could go on about how Bush has been a gift ot Catholics. Again I wonder whom fails whom more. Anyway, I have ranted enough and will try to comment later on the rest of youre post. Just the lack of gratitude by some people and the “gift” they have recieved grates on me


  • igout

    Well, I think it’s a very thoughtful gift; you know how those old Europeans like to take walks in the mountains. It’s humblng but inspiring to see a very old couple ambling along a gentle trail; on our honeymoon my wife said she hoped we’d be like them someday. Hell, it wouldn’ t kill any of us to get a walking stick and make steady use of it.
    You too, Anchoress, when you’re back on your pins. I know you had a grander, more important point here, but please accept it as a conversational walking stick.

  • Viola Jaynes

    Anchoress, I love this post. It is thoughtfully written and there is so much wisdom and insight in it. People and events can always be looked at from a number of different viewpoints. Being a cynic takes so much joy out of life and it is so limiting and narrow to ones growth and understanding. Thanks for writing this!

  • http://yargb.blogspot Terrye

    I always thought it was tacky to complain about a gift, that is how I was raised.

    Bush is a Christian and I am sure that whatever the gift, he meant no disrespect.

  • Renee P

    I would far rather receive the gift of a bouquet of wildflowers picked from the yard of a friend than the slickest floral arrangement sent by an acquaintance or business associate. Granted, President Bush and Pope Benedict are not over-the-fence neighbors, but you know what? Protestant or Catholic, they both know the potent Christian symbolism lying behind homely sticks and staffs. How that simple walking staff was given and how it was received spoke volumes about the two men who were involved in the exchange.

  • Subvet

    Three words for those who have nothing else to do but scoff at a gift given by the President to the Pope; Get-A-Life!

  • Peter

    Of all the gifts Bush gave to the Pope, I’m guessing the walking stick just might have been the Pope’s favorite.

  • M.A.

    Wow. This is a post I’m printing out so I can share it with a non-computer friend….It’s one worth coming back to again and again. So much to think about.
    Thank you Anchoress.

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  • JimC

    I googled for the blog that objected, and if it’s the same one, I suspect that it’s a bit of a put-on. Because of the persona the blogger adopted, I think it’s analogous to Allahpundit’s original blog.

    From the article:

    “I think this gift is better than what President Lyndon B. Johnson gave to Pope Paul VI, which was a statue of Lyndon B. Johnson,” said Jimmy Akin, head apologist for Catholic Answers, a San Diego-based Catholic apologetics organization…”I’m sure the Holy Father received it in the spirit it was intended…”

    I think that’s more than sufficient to close the matter.

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  • HNAV


    Hard to imagine the ‘walking stick’ could actually be an issue.

    Of course there are some who see the 10 C’s as a form of kryptonite.

    But the expression you provide was truly refreshing.

    Seeing the larger, out of the small, is a special gift.

  • cathyf

    I picked out this last paragraph from the NCR story as a particular gem:

    “Historically there have been three different schemes, but the Church doesn’t dogmatically favor one over the other,” Akin said. “These differences, and some of the abbreviations that are common, mostly reflect practical considerations.”

    Because that’s what it means to be a person of faith. As opposed to just talking about faith, or thinking about faith, being of faith means practical things. How to organize the 10 Commandments on your walking stick. How to string the beads on your rosary. When to schedule prayers to pray as a group. Who is going to decide which music to sing, and who is going to sing it, when are you going to practice. Who is going to get up on the scaffold and paint the fresco on the ceiling, who is going to build the scaffold, who is going to figure out how to do the resotration when the fresco gets dirty.

    Big or small, faith, like everything else, is doing. After deciding to, and deciding how to, and then grinning an aside to God, I done it, Daddy! and expecting a grin in return.

  • GM Roper

    “I made a conscious decision to take people at their words unless their behavior warranted differently”

    That’s the way I was raised, but the way you have worded it is absolutely beautiful. Thanks.

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