There is a story told about Saint Vincent de Paul which, while perhaps embellished by myth, needs nonetheless to be told and told and told again for its challenge is perennial. It runs something like this:
Vincent, whose life-effort, as we know, was directed to serving the poor, once gave his community the following instruction: “When the demands of service seem unfair to us, when we are exhausted and have to pull ourselves out of bed yet another time to do some act of service, we should do it gladly, without counting the cost and without self-pity, for if we persevere in serving the poor, persevere to the point of completely spending ourselves, perhaps someday the poor will find it in their hearts to forgive us. For it is more blessed to give than to receive … and it is also a lot easier!”
On the surface at least this is a curious comment. Why must the poor forgive us? What needs to be forgiven, especially if we are giving ourselves to them in service?
Our minds may not see the entire logic of his statement, but, I suspect, many of us, at the level of feeling, have a pretty good sense of what is at issue here. At a simple level, all of us know that there is a certain humiliation in needing to receive, just as there is a certain pride in being able to give. What is worse than being too busy? Having nothing at all to do. What is more painful than having to give away most everything we own? Having nothing of our own to give away. What is harder than being dragged out of bed to minister to someone in need? Being the person whose needs to drag someone else out of bed to minister to his or her needs. What is harder than being brought to our knees by the demands of those around us for our time and energy? Being on our knees begging someone else for his or her time and energy. At one level it is easy to see why it is easier to give than to receive. But there is more.
There is divine power, literally, in being able to give. The one who gives gets to be God – or, at very least, to mediate God. That is not an overstatement. God is the source of all that is, the source of all gift. When we are in a position to give, we mediate that and feel that power, even if only unconsciously. There is a blessedness in that which, while ideally a great grace, can unfortunately easily be used to make the recipient feel inferior. It is important to understand this, otherwise there is the perennial danger that we will use our gifts of service in a way that further demeans the poor. It is not easy to learn to give gift in a way that does not shame the recipient.
But Vincent’s challenge goes further: He meant this too to be an antidote to self-pity. For anyone who is in a giving role – a parent, a priest, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, an advocate for Justice, or even a politician – there is the constant temptation to fall into self-pity: “Look what I am doing! Nobody is doing anything for me! I am so tired! Is there no end to this? Am I the only one who cares? This is asking more of me than is fair! I have my own problems!” It is easy, especially if one is tired and frustrated by lack of support, to lose heart, be begin to feel sorry for oneself, and to, eventually, feel oneself as victimized by those one is serving.
That is very common today. More and more, care-givers themselves are beginning to feel victimized by those to whom they are giving of themselves. Thus, psychologists have coined the term, “compassion burnout”. Moreover, many good people are beginning to resent the demands of the poor – the welfare system, the push by various groups for their rights, the pressure of immigrants, the drain that the sick put on the energy and money of a society, the cost of repairing the damage done by youthful vandals, and so on. Sadly, many of us are giving up and giving in, giving up on going the extra mile and giving in to the temptation to resign and take care of ourselves.
Given all this, Vincent de Paul’s little adage must be told and retold: If we do not pull ourselves out of our exhaustion and resignation and continue to serve the poor, they will not find it in their hearts to forgive us. So too we need to remember always that it is more blessed to give than to resign and and take care of ourselves … and it also a lot easier!
Portraits of Vincent de Paul show him with a strong face, a warm face, a face that, everywhere, suggests a comfortable friendliness. He looks like a man you would want over for dinner. But if you had him over for dinner, you might want to make sure that your gift to him was indeed a real gift.