A Spirituality of Philanthropy

By Paul G. Schervish

photo courtesy of andycoan via C.C. License at FlickrThe Prayer for Peace ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi can become an exercise in receiving and giving.  It may be taken up as a practice of receiving and giving for self, and then moving outward in concentric circles as far as the praying emissary envisions.

In reading the prayer's first stanza, notice the potential of the prayer to introduce a quality of mysticism into ordinary worldly life. As we breathe in, we inhale suffering; and as we breathe out, we exhale blessing. We receive what plagues our fellow beings: vices, cardinal sins, activities, and wounded hearts. They enter our purview as suffering, which we receive into our care as one of life's true gifts. This practice of taking in or receiving hurt and then voluntarily sending forth or extending care as a self- and world-healing practice is the receiving and giving at the level of the soul.

We receive the gift of awareness of suffering; welcome and transmute that suffering; and sow a countervailing blessing. One translation of the prayer's second line reads, "Make me a channel of your peace." This metaphor of a conduit that freely receives discernable suffering and channels it outward as a gift of compassion is surely one of the deepest ways to understand receiving, giving, and faith as an inner exercise that plants the seed for an outer exercise of care.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, let me sow pardon;
where there is discord, let me sow unity,
where there is error, let me sow truth,
where there is doubt, let me sow faith;
where there is despair, let me sow hope;
where there is darkness, let me sow Your light;
and where there is sadness, let me sow joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in unlearning (forgetting) that one learns (discovers insight),
and it is in dying that one rises to Eternal Life.

In the second stanza of the peace prayer we enter a second dimension of the via negativa, the path of purification. We view the world from a reverse perspective. Receiving what appears difficult and contrary to what we tend to desire, we learn the vocation of receiving and giving. We find in the Peace Prayer the disposition to trust the inner workings of ontological reality. We give better than we receive. According to American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, the point is "to lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than to protect ourselves from it" (When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, 23). It is by receiving suffering and sending relief that we become compassionate.

The dialectic of receiving and giving is also the most pronounced dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola (written 1522-1524). This is summarized in the directives Ignatius provides for the last exercise, "The Contemplation to Attain the Love of God." In this meditation, Ignatius reiterates the cosmic reality of receiving and giving that is to fill the daily personal experience of the exercitant. Ignatius states that in this meditation exercitants should ask for what they desire. It is "to ask for an intimate knowledge of the many blessing received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty."

We are invited to reflect on 1) "how much God has done for me;" 2) how God dwells in all creatures, including myself, giving being and life; 3) how God "labors for me" in providing me the heavens, the elements, the plants, and animals; and 4) how all my power and all my virtue "descend from above as the rays of light descend from the sun, and as the waters flow from their fountain" (102-103). After contemplating each of these "points," the exercitant is exhorted to capture the meaning of all reality in the Suscipe, a prayer named after its first Latin word, "take":

Take, Lord, and accept all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace for this is sufficient for me.

The spiritual logic of the Suscipe moves from receiving gifts from the Lord to returning love and care through service. Grasping the spirituality of this logic is not simply an intellectual realization. As with the Peace Prayer, the logic is learned by a formative exercise whereby the realization is an active indwelling. We are not just hearers or learners; we are bearers of the formative dialectic of receiving and giving in our soul and out into the world.

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