To Give Up One’s Cloak

800px-St-martin-beuronWhen St. Martin of Tours encountered a poor, naked beggar, he tore his own warm cloak in half, to share it. Later, he discovered in a dream that the beggar was Christ. Throughout his life he had a special love for the poor. The story of St. Martin and the beggar provides a key to an area of Christian life that is often dealt with superficially and with suspicion. This area is the equality and dignity of woman. It seems to me that most voices on this subject do not echo Jesus in either His actions or His words. Jesus was a defender of the true equality of woman precisely because He always showed us the way to true dignity: a dignity that is shared by men and women alike, because they are human. “Did the Lord at any time make a distinction between men and women? […] But in His love He knew and knows now no distinction.” [1]

To understand equality and dignity we must hear the Shepherd’s voice. St. Therese of Lisieux speaks clearly as Jesus’ echo. She had the instincts of a healthy human being. She was not inclined to a mentality of victimization, nor did she skirt the truth. Instead she took the bull by the horns in one of the most challenging realities of human life.

Although it is difficult to give to one who asks, it is even more so to allow one to take what belongs to you, without asking it back. O Mother, I say it is difficult; I should have said that this seems difficult, for the yoke of the Lord is sweet and light. When one accepts it, one feels its sweetness immediately, and cries out with the Psalmist: ‘I have run the way of your commandments when you enlarged my heart.’ It is only charity that can expand my heart. O Jesus, since this sweet flame consumes it, I run with joy in the way of Your NEW commandment… Ah! What peace floods the soul when she rises above natural feelings. No, there is no joy comparable to that which the truly poor in spirit experience. If such a one asks for something with detachment, and if this thing is not only refused but one tries to take away what one already has, the poor in spirit follow Jesus’ counsel: ‘If anyone take away your coat, let go your cloak also.’ To give up one’s cloak is, it seems to me, renouncing one’s ultimate rights; it is considering oneself as the servant and the slave of others. [2]

Once, when I was rather depressed, I spoke to a priest who said to me: “Do acts of charity, and your soul will have wings.” Giving without asking, looking for, or expecting a return unites the soul with God in a stable way, and gives the soul strength to face even bitter humiliations. Sometimes simply being a woman can offer more humiliations than we have strength to carry. And yet, to be the first one to give of oneself then, in the pain of humiliation, gives dignity and joy.

St. Maximilian Kolbe proposed that equality ultimately could only be found before Jesus, because it is there, before Jesus, that we are equally poor, without anything of our own and receiving everything we have. St. Maximilian Kolbe goes further than equality, which ultimately, if held onto rigidly, becomes an isolative and destructive force. St. Maximilian says:

In reality, there is no sector of human activity exempt from misjudgments and shortcomings; and we must always examine the causes of such deficiencies, do away with the former and eradicate the latter. This is how it has been, how it is now and how it will always be, simply because man will never attain absolute perfection. In spite of all this, the human mind still desires to bring about a certain equality among men. Is there any possibility that this can happen? Yes, no doubt. Every man, whoever he is, whatever he possesses and whatever he is capable of doing, owes all this to God the Creator of the universe. Of himself man is nothing. From this point of view all of us are absolutely equal. Furthermore, we all possess free will, which makes us masters of all our actions. This too constitutes the basic equality of all men on earth. But the use made of our free will is not the same in all cases; […] It follows that not even after death will perfect equality be achieved; it will not in fact exist, because every man will receive a just reward or punishment according to his deeds, good or evil. […] In this regard there is a difference so great that the man who does not desire riches in this temporal life behaves in a very prudent manner, so that after his death, in the next life, he may not have to give a strict account for the worldly goods he had enjoyed. [3]

Now, to give up one’s rights is scandalous to the thinking of many people. It is a taboo of modern society. It is seen as an evil in itself and a degradation. We are literally supposed to walk over dead bodies to attain the degree of rights that elevates us to respectability. If there is one thing we have no right to do in the eyes of society, it is to give up our rights. But it is here that womanhood is utterly misunderstood. Woman is mother, and motherhood is giving. Therefore, motherhood and womanhood only make sense if self-giving is a good value. Society becomes an enemy of motherhood, ironically, when it shouts for equality, because when equality is the only norm, selfishness rules; and any eternal perspective is shouted out. But, equality and dignity are not the results of a hoarding of self, of honors, praise, or achievements. As St. Maximilian points out, we are already equal because God created us from nothing out of His love. We own nothing; everything is given to us. Equality is the result of the giving up of one’s cloak. When one can entrust and return one’s self to God, the reward is one hundred-fold, not because God wants to degrade us, but because the action of giving is an acceptance that our equality and dignity actually lay in our total dependence on Him. As St. Clare tells us:

For I firmly believe that you know the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor because she who loves what is temporal loses the fruit of love; that it is not possible to serve God and money, for either the one is loved and the other hated, or the one is served and the other despised; that one clothed cannot fight another naked, because she who has something to be caught hold of is more quickly thrown to the ground; that one who lives in the glory of earth cannot rule with Christ; and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, You have cast aside Your garments, that is, earthly riches, so that instead of being overcome by the one fighting against You, You will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven through the straight path and the narrow gate. 

What a great and praiseworthy exchange: to receive the hundred-fold in place of one, and to possess a blessed eternal life. [4]

We must take the leap of faith in order to abandon the road that leads away from God, and have boundless trust that He will give us an opportunity to give of self always with the pure fire of charity, always united to Him. It will look impossible, or not even sensible. To let go control of the frugal giving that only donates a part takes faith, because giving of self to the point of self-emptying is, as Pope Saint John Paul II points out, a spiritual reality, and an impossibility on only the natural plane.

The very nature of the person is incompatible with such a surrender. Indeed, in the natural order it makes no sense to speak of a person giving himself or herself to another, especially if this is meant in the physical sense. That which is personal is on a plane where there can be no giving of self […] The person as such cannot be someone else’s property, as though it were a thing […] But what is impossible and illegitimate in the natural order and in a physical sense, can come about in the order of love and in a moral sense. In this sense, one person can give himself or herself, can surrender entirely to another, whether to a human person or to God, and such a giving of the self creates a special form of love which we define as betrothed love. This fact goes to prove that the person has a dynamism of its own, and that specific laws govern its existence and evolution. Christ gave expression to this in a saying which is on the face of it profoundly paradoxical: ‘He who would save his soul shall lose it, and he who would lose his soul for my sake shall find it again’ (Matthew 10:39). [5]

We have a natural fear of giving, of being treated as an object of commerce, and I dare say that this fear is stronger in women, and often well confirmed in the actions of others. Sin exists; degradation exists, but so does Love and dignity. There are probably many times that women are encouraged to ‘give’, when that word implies to ‘sin’: to break the tie between us and the Father, and perhaps even live in this separation from God. This is not giving! It is not charity, but death. It is to give only on a natural order, accepting the degradation God never wants, namely that of being an object, and to close off the road to the true and just giving that springs as a fruit from God’s own love in our hearts. “Love justice, you who judge in goodness, and seek him in integrity of heart.” (Wisdom,1:1)

As mentioned above, St. Therese gives an example of a healthy human being. She does not give in to victimization. This is an important point, because without her spiritual health, the statement she makes of “renouncing one’s ultimate rights” and “considering oneself as the servant and the slave of others” would only be the exaggerated expressions of victimization. Victimization is a plague of womankind. It makes a woman ape the true giving and leaves her totally open to degradations that do, in fact, separate her seriously—and perhaps permanently—from God, and so from happiness. St. Therese of Lisieux, however, is giving a testimony of a mind and heart that saw with perfect clarity the possibility of dignity, of equality, of joy and peace, and she took it!

I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. […] Love has chosen me as a holocaust, me, a weak and imperfect creature. Is not this choice worthy of Love? Yes, in order that Love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that It lower Itself, and that It lower Itself to nothingness and transform this nothingness into fire. [6]

Ultimately, a woman has to find dignity—and thereby peace—in the embrace of the Heavenly Bridegroom, where she will say, “all I have belongs to You”. She will not find dignity in tailoring her independence, treading on dead bodies to bring it about; or in apathy and despair, letting whatever degradation attacking her have its way (be it even as small as irritation when something goes wrong). She can only find dignity in the conscious giving of self. She will have to be adamant about her giving, because she is taking on the whole world. She will be a sign of scandal; she will be a victim. If she is, she will be with Christ, and therein lie her dignity and her joy.

Notes:

[1] The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Volume Two: Essays on WomanSecond Edition, Revised, translated by Freda Mary Oben, Ph.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, p. 161.

[2] St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, pp. 225-227.

[3] The Kolbe Reader, The Writings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM CONV., edited by Fr. Anselm W. Romb, OFM CONV., Marytown Press, Libertyville, IL, 2007, p. 132.

[4] The Lady, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, revised edition and translation by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., New City Press, New York, London, Manila, 2006, p. 46.

[5] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1993, p. 96.

[6] St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, pp. 194-195.

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