In the midst of the frenzy of gift buying and giving that preoccupies many of us during the annual commercial extravaganza that Christmas has become, I offer you two stories of gifts given that will warm your heart. I give you: Phil and Andrea.
A few weeks ago I had a serendipitous conversation with Phil, the wonderful human being who tends my car. Phil is a guy you can trust: he is routinely careful and professional, impeccably honest, unfailingly kind, always going the extra mile for customers in his repair shop. On the personal side, he lovingly raised and successfully launched his daughter, and settled into blissful empty-nested-ness.
But then, Phil became concerned about his 10 year old niece;. Growing up in a rough section of our city, she was beginning to have difficulties. An inadequate school and dangerous neighborhood conditions were having their effects, and the family was alarmed.
So post-child-rearing Phil offered to give the kind of self-emptying gift that this season is all about. In September, he opened his heart and home to the 5th grader, fixed up a bedroom, enrolled her in the local school, and set about surrounding her with love and opportunity. His enthusiasm and joy are contagious as he describes her new-found love of reading, her delight in Harry Potter Weekend, and her shy request for additional spending money at a local fair. What for? Books. As I listen to Phil, I am awed and grateful, drawn into a deep appreciation for the overwhelming gift of himself that he has so freely and generously given.
And then, there’s Andrea. Really, it’s an entire class full of Andreas at St Joe’s University. As students in Professor Frank Bernt’s course this past semester, they were required to serve as visitor-volunteers in a hospice. The group gathered recently to talk about their experiences; I got to be a fly on the wall and listen to their stories of discovery and transformation. Andrea’s story is representative of all of them, and I offer it here as another example of gifts that change lives, gifts of the heart.
One of the patients Andrea visited was an older woman with a brain tumor that had caused damage resulting in aphasia, the impairment or loss of the ability to communicate using words. This was frustrating not only for the woman, but for Andrea, who originally saw herself as The Helpful One, needing to DO something, speak, help, fix…..something, anything to be of assistance. With great effort, the woman from time to time would say “ I can’t even begin to tell you……”trailing off, unable to continue, leaving thoughts unspoken, unknown.
Gradually, as the weeks went on, Andrea became comfortable with that difficult space of Unknowing, and allowed herself to let go of her own agenda and need to be needed or effective. She began to occupy the place of Presence: occasionally massaging the woman’s hands, more often simply sitting in the mutuality and pregnant silence of their shared humanity.
On the last day that Andrea visited her, her new friend again tried to speak, slowly, with difficulty, echoing the only words she had managed during their time together. But this time, she finished the sentence. “I can’t even begin to tell you…, she said haltingly, painstakingly, “…how much you mean to me.” Andrea was dumbfounded, and immeasurably moved. “I hadn’t DONE anything. I didn’t think my presence was valuable,” she said. “But doing nothing meant everything to her.”
This may be one of the most profound expressions of gratitude that Andrea will ever get, an acknowledgment of a unique and extraordinary gift exchanged between these two women. Together, they tapped into what Parker Palmer calls the Hidden Wholeness that dwells in each of us, and offered it to each other. “I didn’t change the world,” Andrea says. “The world changed me.”
In the dark days when I fear that our species is spinning madly out of control, caught in some fevered grip of ignorance and insanity, I remember all of you Phils and Andreas out there, giving each other the finest of gifts, the only ones that genuinely reflect the Reason for the Season: self-emptying gifts of the heart. Maybe we could all give even one such gift this year. Think of someone needing this present: the Presence of another caring, loving human, and give yourself, all wrapped up and shining with the Light that dwells in us all. This is how the world is healed, how Incarnation happens every day. Merry Christmas, Everyone.