Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’
Yesterday we reflected on the physical transformation that accompanies deep spiritual reality. This has more meaning than the thickening of the brain’s grey matter observed by scientists studying regular meditators. The gospel links this flooding of the spiritual into the physical to compassion – ‘be compassionate as God is compassionate’. This is what triggers the overflow. Nothing could more pervert this than the ‘prosperity gospel’ of rewards and punishments that seduces so many today by linking it to opportunistic greed in a financial transaction. (‘Send a donation to the preacher and God will double it for you.’)
I was once visiting Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. The beds were all occupied, and the overflow of suffering individuals covered the floors. The Missionaries of Charity ran a compassionate but efficient and immaculately clean operation. One of them asked me briskly to go over to a very slight body, whether male or female you couldn’t tell, lying on the ground with its back to us and give a blessing. When I knelt down, I saw the thinnest of young men and by his stillness I assumed he was already dead. I touched his shoulder and was shocked when he moved and with surprising quickness turned towards me. He lifted himself on his thin arm and looked into me with wide-open eyes filled with bliss. I weakly wondered for a moment if I had distracted him from what he was contemplating. But he was undistractible. It was I who had been blessed as his look penetrated through the walls of our distinct identities and brought me momentarily into the vision.
St Augustine says that the vision of God, which is the goal of human destiny, does not consist in watching God as a separate being at a great distance. This is the image we see in many old paintings, the hierarchy of human society repeated in heaven with the haves sitting in the best seats up front and the rest in receding importance behind them. Instead, Augustine says, the vision consists in turning towards each other and looking into each other’s eyes where we see God. That produces in us a bliss which the other perceives and understands better because they have seen it in our reflected look. That makes them more blissful which increases our happiness – and so on until forever.
The ‘giving’ in the quote above is unquantifiable. To quantify it is to fail. But the proportionality is real. The more we give the more we receive until we fall over the waterfall in a cascade of joy. It lasts until we start to wonder how long it will last and if we could lose it.
Compassion, like goodness, is not rewarded. It releases and is the reward, the flowering in unbounded generosity, of itself. It begins with a mutual look and goes forward into infinite feedback .
So, perhaps, Lenten practice for today: make and hold eye contact without fear.