“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.”
Those who have been exposed to Jesuit education and/or Ignatian spirituality will be very familiar with this “Prayer for Generosity.” Whether St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote this or not is subject to debate, but surely it embodies a core value or element of his spirituality.
The number of times Ignatius used the word “generosity” in his documents runs into the dozens, if not hundreds. But before we go into a reflection on generosity and its substitute word, magnanimity, let us reflect on the definitions in the prayer.
Definition of terms
The overarching theme that runs through the prayer is selflessness and detachment. The interesting pairing here is there is an action stated, then the corresponding virtue of selflessness and detachment: “To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward…”
This Sunday’s readings, especially the Gospel, invite us to reflect on generosity that is selfless and detached.
Selflessness springs from a focus on fidelity to work. As we mentioned last week, one of the Ignatian core values is “totus ad laborem,” giving oneself totally to the work, to the mission God gives, to God’s will, to the following of Christ.
Albert Einstein put it succinctly: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” It is from the dedication of one’s life to someone or something outside of our self, greater than us, that a deep sense of selflessness comes.
As Fr. Catalino G. Arevalo, SJ, said, “To set one’s life within a horizon of a dream larger than life” is the way to live out the Ignatian spirit, a spirituality that is very Christ-centered and mission-oriented. It is a mission framed in the seeing more clearly, loving more dearly and following more nearly of Christ.
This simple framework contains the basic dynamics of formation: self-knowledge, awareness and acceptance; grateful response to God’s love; “returning love for love”; the fruit of the grateful response to love and in love expressing a basic Ignatian and scriptural core value. Love is best expressed in deeds.
Losing oneself in Christ. This is the most authentic and deepest form of selflessness. In the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain… I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”
This leads us to the second quality of generosity: detachment. The words of St. Paul are echoed by Ignatius when he states that one must not choose a long life over a short life, health over sickness, poverty over wealth (or vice-versa). Rather, one must be predisposed to whatever will be in the greater service of God’s will or mission and for the greater glory of God.
This is the detachment of a truly generous person. It is a detachment rooted in indifference, or more appropriate, Ignatian indifference. It is a detachment and an indifference that comes from a very deep “bias” for Christ and to do only God’s will and mission for us.
It is a bias that comes from a person who has attained great spiritual freedom. It is not just a freedom from sin, weaknesses, failures or anything that hinders us from doing God’s mission, but is a freedom for mission—a freedom that commits to mission totally in the entirety of seeing Christ.
Detachment and indifference are the points in one’s spiritual journey where nothing else matters except God’s will and mission for you. In its purest form, it is in solitude—away from all things of the world and everything—where only God matters.
In the words of St. Theresa of Avila, “Solo Dios Basta.” (God alone suffices.) This is the greatest spiritual freedom—freedom from everything, as in everything, and freedom to find in God everything. This is where the following of Christ more nearly leads.
As Christ tells Peter when Peter asks about what will happen to John the Beloved: “What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (John 21: 22)
In following Christ more nearly we come to the point when nothing else matters except following him more nearly.
If love is best expressed in deeds and actions in the prayer for generosity that flow from the following of Christ and God’s mission for us, this love is then selfless and detached. This love is a generous love. It is a magnanimous love.
It is this love that gives and does not count the cost. Such a love can only come from a great soul, a magna anima. The greatness of the soul is the greatness of the love expressed in deeds.
I cannot help but recall the words of Shakespeare in Macbeth’s famous soliloquy: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
This is the angst and tragedy of the laborers in this Sunday’s Gospel parable who worked not for mission and not to follow Christ more nearly. In the end, it was “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s inspiring words prove Macbeth wrong: “We cannot do great things. We can only do little things with great love.”