By Ryan LeBlanc
“You need to know that we respect and admire you. We just don’t understand how you could possibly do what you do.”
I felt compelled to say this to a colleague of mine, a fellow educator.
On the last evening of the school year, staff were gathered to try to relax and rejoice together, when so many of us just wanted to collapse.
This June of 2023 was a little more familiar, it seemed. I perceived myself and my colleagues as utterly exhausted – but just exhausted, not as much traumatized by the effects of the pandemic as we had been in the last few years. Everyone was looking forward to decompressing and catching our breath before throwing ourselves back into it in a few months’ time.
Except for this one colleague, who was volunteering his time to provide positive activity for youth all summer.
I wanted to express appreciation and confusion because the rest of us were perhaps voicing disbelief a little exuberantly. Mostly, we were just calling him crazy.
As he explained himself, however, I began to see how his plan for the summer – host youth every single weekday, twice a day – fit well into his life, was a genuine gift of love, and did not show signs of unhealthy attachment to the pride of “do-gooding.”
It was a fairly reasonable case of something easy for him to give, but providing the youth, the community and himself with profoundly important benefits.
But I still didn’t understand how he could do it, when I was completely spent from pouring out my best effort throughout the whole school year.
Isn’t this so often the case for us? When we take the time to see another person’s glorious gift poured out for others, we initially react like something is wrong. I had to pause myself from interrogating the situation, and instead ask myself some interior questions.
Why did I feel so threatened when God gave this colleague energy and opportunity that God didn’t give me? Why did I feel like a failure because I knew I needed retreat and sabbath over the summer months, and someone else feeds their spark in a different way? Why did I suspect he was addicted to being the most generous educator on staff, when that suspicion clearly indicates that I’m the one who is jealous of that status?
As you can see, I found some shadows within myself.
Ultimately, I only resolved to accept this person’s incredible generosity – and God’s generosity to and through him – when I could admit I did not and could not understand it. That is, when I allowed it to be a mystery.
God’s infinite generosity is only ever going to be a mystery, and whenever we accept it, we will only do so as something that blows our minds’ capacity to understand. If we insist on understanding before accepting, we will always miss out on what he wants to give. We will walk away from “money on the table,” so to speak.
As difficult as it was to see a work acquaintance passing on his gifts to young people as God intended, it became even more difficult for me to become the recipient of unfathomable generosity. Later in the summer, a family member came to visit my home, whose gifts include cleaning and fixing.
The next thing I knew, the projects and chores which had been confounding me for a long time were taken firmly in hand and completed with joy and love. I felt like some of the lonely poor who are visited by St. Mother Teresa’s sisters, and have their homes cleaned and fixed. It was uncomfortable for me.
Beneath my immediate reactions – defensiveness, shame, resentment – I found some of the same shadows which I glimpsed at the end-of-year staff social. When radical generosity stopped being an abstract attribute of an invisible God and took on the flesh of real physical care for me and my home… well, I had to adjust myself.
I had to live in the proof that there were energies and skills that I did not have. I had to confront my prejudices that good people take care of their things without help, and inferior people need to be taken care of. I had to, in short, hand over control and trust that love knows what he’s doing when he turns my life upside down.
When we open our eyes, we will see this radical generosity of God through his faithful creatures everywhere we go, and it will be uncomfortable. Generosity to others or to ourselves will challenge our attachment to control and understanding. It’s comforting to be the one who has pity and gives out of excess, but Jesus can give so much more than I can, if I only give him permission.
Even the infinite timeline of God’s generosity breaks our categories, because whatever “money on the table” we walk away from will always be on offer for us to receive when we are ready. The question is, will we accept the mystery we cannot understand in this moment, or do we prefer our small and lonely horizon?
Ryan LeBlanc is the Teacher Chaplain and Catholic Studies Department Head at E.D. Feehan Catholic High School in Saskatoon. He is also discerning the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.