Sunday, December 30, 2007

Giving and/or Receiving

Last week I alluded to our Christmas gift-giving in a short paragraph towards the end of my column. This week I find that I have to expand on that paragraph because it was such a wonderful part of our Christmas.

For many years now we have had a gift exchange in the community. Each person has been allotted some money and towards the beginning of Advent we have had a drawing in which each of us got a name. Then began the work of finding out, or guessing, what that person might like to have and shopping and wrapping. The usual. On Christmas afternoon we had a community gathering and one of us played Santa and distributed the gifts that had been wrapped and were under the tree. It was great fun and there were lots of laughs and usually some touching moments.

But over time this event began to lose its energy. For one thing, monks don't really need very much, no matter how consumerist we try to be at least once a year. And the longer you live in community the more you discover that when you don't need very much the amount that you want also decreases. By last year we had gotten to the point where almost everyone was getting gift cards to Barnes & Noble or L L Bean (or even to our own Gift Shoppe!). Something needed to be done.

So we got a committee together - the great American solution for dilemmas - to decide what we wanted to do about Christmas.

And they came up with quite a good idea. We would have a Community gathering as usual and we would have gifts, but we weren't going to give gifts to each other. We would make the same amount of money available to each person, and we were going to give the money away, and each of us got to decide where we would like to our money to go. Furthermore, when we looked at our finances carefully we discovered that the Monastery would even be able to match these funds, so that what we would give away could be a bit larger. This sounded good to us all, and so we latched onto the project.

A week before Christmas the list went up - we had to put down where we wanted our gift to go so that the checks could be written. Slowly the list filled up. It began to look as though this might be very interesting.

"Interesting" turned out to be a mild word for it. In the midst of Christmas afternoon I went past one of our business offices and there was the community's Bursar actually writing the checks for our Community gathering. He was really simmering with joy at what he was doing, looking at the variety of the community's concerns and making it possible to do something to meet the needs of those we are concerned about.

And so we gathered. Each person got his check, and as he got it he got to tell where it was going to go and who it would help. It was a deeply moving time. One brother has admired the work of the Heifer International Project for many years. This year he got not only to admire their work, but to buy a goat for a farmer in Asia. Another brother has been a supporter of the cause of micro-lending. This a policy followed by a few international banks who make very small loans to women in Third World countries so that they can start businesses or have projects that will make their lives more bearable. A number of us decided to pool some of our gifts so that we could give a really nice gift to the drop-in center for homeless people at which one of the brothers works each week. Some money went to help with drug and alcohol treatment for teens. And on it went. To see the breadth of our concerns and to feel the light in the room as we each got to do something about those we pray for gave a dimension to Christmas that I think none of us will not forget any time soon.

So - it's just a small amount of money. We're not going to change the world. Or maybe we are. At least one man in Southeast Asia will have a goat to help on his small farm and with the feeding of his children. A woman in Brazil will have a sewing machine to start a small business and be able to begin lifting her family out of poverty. Some people in Newburgh will have a warm place to go and some food to eat instead of spending their winter days on the streets. Some teenagers will begin to learn what it means to live in freedom instead of the slavery of addiction. Maybe we aren't changing the world, but we'll be changing some of the world.

And me, you ask. What did I do with my money? Well, I had a very private wish fulfilled. Regular readers of this column will know that I graduated from Cornell University many, many years ago, and that in recent years I have returned to Cornell to work with the Episcopal chaplaincy there, and that this reconnection with my school has been a very powerful moment in my life. Another part of the story is that nearly all my adult life I have been a monk, and I have never had money to give away. I have never had anything to send to Cornell. Now, while they are having a Capital Funds Campaign, I get to contribute. It's not much, except to me. Cornell is raising 4 Billion Dollars to assure their future as a fine institution of learning. People come there from all over the world, including not a few poor people who are able to come because of the generosity of those who believe in the place. In the larger scheme of things my little contribution will scarcely be noticed. But knowing that after all these years my small gift will be there in the fund that is securing the future of my school means more to me that I can easily say. I learned a lot of stuff at Cornell; I got a degree in Chemistry. And I learned about being a man, and about being a human being and about loving and about living. Now someone else will get to learn those things, too. How wonderful!

On Wednesday I shared our Christmas with the small meditation group across the River that I sit with each week. "Oh yes," the teacher said: "this is another form of Practice. You are practicing being generous. Very important." Of course! One of the themes of the past couple of years here at Holy Cross has been the ways in which we want to be more generous - to become a community of generosity. So of course we are finding ways to practice that. And it is important: if you want to change something, you have to practice the new way that will take the place of the old.

So this Christmas we Practiced. It was a wonderful Feast.

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