A Gift for the Giver

Contemplative Prayer, The Contemplative Journey Add comments

Lynne Larson

Recently at a centering prayer meeting, the lectio divina, or sacred reading, before our twenty minutes of silence was from James, 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  Centering groups choose their own meeting format and our time of silence is followed by another 30 minutes of quiet that may also include listening to chants or sharing with the others a word or image that has come to us during the reading.  What surprised me while listening to the words of James was that the word “food” echoed in my mind during the reading—slowly, oozing out, fooood for the soul, fooood for the spirit.  Food. Not a very exalted thought.

Later as I thought about this mundane connection, I was reminded that James is revealing the foundation of what God wants us to know about himself and his generosity.  He is the exclusive source of all that is good.  And all that is good, any good that exists, is gift.  Not rewards or divine tidbits, but all the courses and we have only to show up at his table.  Gift.

Driving in my car the next day I was listening to some cassette tapes lent to me by a friend (of whom I will speak more of later), of Fr. Dennis O’Donnell’s retreat to a group of men.  O’Donnell, who is from the Malvern Retreat House in Pennsylvania and formerly served as their rector and spiritual director, now coordinates the Integrated Health Services for the Holy Redeemer Health System.   He also gives numerous retreats, co-founded an orphanage in Honduras and has more credentials that would impress an agnostic.  I’d never heard of him.

A business errand required some miles on the road, an ideal opportunity to listen to the tapes.  O’Donnell artfully sprinkles humor and personal experience into his meaningful insight of Jesus’ message.  And in addressing various types of prayer, he includes contemplative prayer as an experience where we give our time, being there for God alone, being there “for the Giver not the gift.”  He shares a story of sitting on the front porch with his dad, no talking, just being there together, having a sit unencumbered by words.  And so it is during centering prayer, when our intention is to have another sit.  We are present—we show up, distractions and all, for the Giver—and further, whatever gift he might so generously await to give us is irrelevant and would only be an interruption in this private meeting between the created and the Uncreated, as Julian of Norwich would call him.

The GiftDelighting in that wonderful phrase, “for the Giver not the gift,” it occurred to me that the previous day I had been relishing James’ wisdom about “every good and perfect gift.”  Was I listening to a holy paradox or going far afield from either message?  Or maybe this was one of those “and” rather than “either/or” answers.  If God is the unchangeable and inexhaustibly generous giver, then it is his gift that enables us to return to him without needing any other thing to wedge itself into our meeting.  During this time of companionship, we are present not for a gift but for him, the Giver—which at the same time is a gift to both of us.  Both of these, the receiving and the giving, are at the root of the relationship between God and us..  I can almost feel old words creeping in about a deity who “asks so little and gives so much.”  When did I absorb that notion so unlike my view today that it is not so little that he asks?  He is asking us for everything, for our total consent.  The deeper gift is that he will give us the means to do that, whether we are seasoned practitioners or newbies at the practice of the silent sit.  We are nurtured and fed.  It is the spiritual food as gift.

How different is this generous giver from the world of my childhood god, a deified accountant who kept score on good deeds and bad.  This giver is light years away from the cosmic Santa Claus ruling the domains of heaven and hell.  (I fault none of my early teachers–they taught what they understood and for all we know, might have been more enlightened than their own teachers.)  However, I also believe we come into this life to grow in faith and to let go of whatever hindrance that would keep us from the God “who is closer to us than we are to ourselves” as St. Augustine reminds us.  And for me, unlearning, the shedding of old perceptions, have been as important as hearing the good news, and at times more difficult.  We can be grateful for wise teachers and fellow practitioners who brighten our path of understanding and foster our spiritual maturity.

In the meantime I can be grateful for good friends who lend books and pass on tapes like Fr. O’Donnell’s.  I hope to discover who that friend is. I found the tape in my kitchen months ago and have yet to identify the giver of the gift.  Until that time when the mystery is solved, I offer a prayer of thanks.  Deo gratias.

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