“What Was Poured Into Me” (Deut. 4:32ff)
“Taken for granted” is an everyday phrase. Among other things it means assuming that something which is a gift is self-bestowed, letting the familiarity of what I have in my hand screen out the fact it’s been put in my hand, taking as earned something I’m being given. It means missing the sting in Paul’s question, “What do you have than you have not received.” (I Cor. 4:7)
Some years ago, I was on a bus in a rundown section of Chicago traveling with a Foundation as it was making one of its tours of projects it funds. A counselor the center, a young African American man who had grown up in the vicinity, was leading us and commenting on what we were seeing out the windows. He described the neighborhood and the problems his program was trying to address there.
One of his sentences that afternoon has stayed with me. Recounting his own growing-up years on those same mean streets, he told how he was always at odds with his grandmother and aunts who were raising him. There were their warnings and restrictions and disciplines and maxims for life, and then there were the “wisdoms” he was picking up from peers in the neighborhood — the two often running in opposite directions. And all along, to be sure, there were regular dust-ups with his grandmother.
But coming back from college and now working with the youth of this same area, he admitted to a realization that had surprised him: “I never realized what had been poured into me.” And by that he meant all the outlooks and values and instincts of his grandmother and aunts.
Not only had he taken these for granted, he had even fought against them and tried to throw them off as un-hip and old fashioned and interfering. But now, coming up against the appalling problems and self-destructive attitudes of many of the teens in the school and catching how different theirs were from his, it hit him that his present stance toward life wasn’t really his own doing; it wasn’t a world-view he had come to mostly by himself. To paraphrase, “I’m now realizing what has been poured into me. And the more I realize it, the more grateful I am. So, no more taken for granted; now, taken with gratitude.”
There’s a way in which this awakening to how things really are appears in Deuteronomy (4:32-40). Moses is addressing the Israelite people and in effect is saying: open your eyes, don’t take all of this for granted. These riches are being given to you.
“Ask yourselves this,…ask it from one end of the sky to the other: Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? Or did any god go and take a nation for himself from the midst of other nations…?”
And he goes on: “This is why you must now know — and fix in your heart — that The Lord is God…and that there is no other.”
Other words Moses might have used:
“Wake up, wipe the grime off your windshields. All these wisdoms and traditions and stories and ceremonies and laws and memories and events are not of your own making. They were — and are – being given to you. You don’t own them. You haven’t got them by right of possession. You can’t treat them as yours, as if they are in your pocket because of what you did.
Rather, they are gifts, and in fact the most beneficial kind of gifts, all going to make up the one wonderful Gift, God’s own Self (or in John’s later language, “The Word who came and to dwell among us.”). Did anything so great ever happen before? And so, don’t sell it short by taking it for granted.”
This line of thought is on my mind because of something I came across recently (in David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character) about Dorothy Day. Right at the end of her days, she met with a close friend and told him her life would soon be over. And then she described a moment in the past year when she tried to make a literary summation of her life. As a writer all those years and it would have been natural to write a memoir. So she sat down to do something like that. And this is what she said happened:
“I try to think back; I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me; the other day I wrote down the words, ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most – but I couldn’t do it.
I just sat there and thought of Our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!”
Here she is at the very end of her life, doing the opposite of taking it (i.e., the presence of the Lord in her life) for granted. “My great luck was to have had Him on my mind.” Of all the many events and changes and accomplishments over those packed years, she lands on the Lord Jesus coming into her life. She focuses on the riches given her “in Xp Jesus.” And so her response: “What great luck! What fortune to have fallen into my lap.”
These incidents are variations on the one theme, “Did anything so great ever happen before?” They are re-phrasings of, “I never really appreciated all this that was poured into me.” Or plain old, “I’m not taking this for granted anymore.”
Applications for us in the Vincentian Family? There are many, all the way from what our parents gave (“drilled into”) us, to the difference close friends and loved ones have made, right on down the line to Paul and Augustine’s query, “What do I have that I have not been given.”
But I single out one; i.e., the heritage and treasures from Louise and Vincent that have been taken up and given new life in each age and then handed on to us. And so for instance:
The way you read the papers, hear the news, interpret the culture. That is, over the years, more and more looking at it all through the lens of what will serve the least of the brothers and sisters, what will give them a voice and a place at the table. Did you come to that on your own?
What you tend to notice in the Gospels. The way some passages and stories have a leg up on other parts, shine out more brightly on the page, catch your eye; e.g., the Good Samaritan, the poor man at the gate of the rich man, Jesus in the Synagogue picking out the Isaiah passage about “being sent to bring the good news to the poor,” Mt. 25, Jesus gathering the little children, etc. Did you yourself create this sensitivity?
Whom do you admire? Aren’t they in part the Louise’s and Vincent’s of the world. Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Caesar Chavez, Pope Francis, and closer to home the heroines and heroes of your own Vincentian circle (fill in the names). The question is not so much how admirable they were, but rather where did you pick up this particular taste in admiring?
Your deep lying stories. The subterranean ones that have come to resonate such that they act as your guides and beacons and north stars; i.e., the Family stories (the lives of our saints and blessed, incidents in Louise and Vincent’s lives, seeing the “other side of coin,” the living legends still among us.)
Again the point. Moses is speaking to us and trying to wake us up to the truth of things.“ Did anything so great ever happen before? Did the people ever hear the voice of God speaking to them from the midst of fire?” Or, “do you realize all that’s been poured into you?” Or, “do you realize your great luck to have had Him on your mind all these years?”
Moses ends up spelling out the consequence of this and so not taking it for granted. “This is why you must now know – and fix in your hearts – that the Lord is God and there is no other.”
He might well have used the call-and-response in our Prefaces to the Eucharistic prayer: “Lift up your hearts” (to all that’s being given). “It is right and just” (to give thanks to The Lord who is our God.)
Tom McKenna, C.M.