It was a fascinating little church, tucked away in the back streets of Toronto. The guide pointed out with pride the frescoes and the stained glass windows of this hidden jewel. We arrived at a three-panelled window right at the back of the building. This is Faith, Hope and Charity,’ she said, and then added apologetically, But I don’t know what happened to Charity.’ While the two panels depicting faith and hope were of stunningly beautiful stained glass, the third, charity, was plain, blank, totally unadorned, empty. The emptiness of it almost hurt.

I stood and gazed at it, not quite knowing whether its blankness was a statement of wisdom or of despair, an invitation or a reproach.

And as I stood there, a memory came to mind of an incident I had once witnessed.

A black South African woman was running an orphanage for children whose parents had fallen victim to H.I.V./AIDS. She was being interviewed for a television program, and the interviewer asked her about her hopes and dreams in lifewhat she felt she wanted to achieve.

She pondered this question for a few moments and then gave a response that took me by surprise. When I die, she said simply, I want to have spent everything I have.

In the leafy suburbs of London or San Francisco, this might have been interpreted as a desire to avoid inheritance tax, but clearly this woman’s mind was a long way from any such concerns. She remained thoughtful for a while longer, and then expanded on her answer. When I meet my maker, she added, with a conviction that I envied, I want to have used up, totally and completely, every gift I have been given. I want to return to God empty-handed, when I have spent all God gave me. Then I’ll be ready to go home.

I contemplated again the empty window in the Toronto church. I knew then that it was dedicated to this African woman, and all those who, like her, are willing to give away their last ounce of energy, their last sigh of love, to make the world a more human place. Emptinesssheer emptinessis perhaps the only fitting tribute to them.

Emptiness is where God chose to be born and where God chose to die. Emptiness is the space God left behind when God transcended human life to open a path beyond imagination, beyond desire, even beyond hope and faith, for all of us. Emptiness is exactly the space the Holy Spirit needs, through which to flow.

How easy to give away a few dollars, or even a lot of dollars. How easy to write a check to our favorite charity and consider our Lenten observance achieved. But how much are we holding back of who we really are?

At our conception every one of us was just a single fertilized cell. That cell, invisible to the naked eye, held the potential of everything we might become. Every gift lay furled up in that infinitesimally tiny space. Over the years that gifting has gradually revealed itself, often in ways we are slow to recognize.

But this gifting has a unique property. It ripens only when it is passed on. We become who we truly are by giving ourselves awayby using that amazing giftedness until everything is spent. We are richest in what we give away, fulfilled only, ultimately, in our emptiness. This is the paradox of faith and the perversity of hope. No one would believe it on the strength of words alone. But we follow the One who lives it, who dies it, and rises beyond all its tensions and contradictions, inviting us to rise with him.

Oftentimes we feel a million miles away from such a high ideal. The crippling need we all share to look after our comfort and security causes us not only to hold back our material resources, but also to put a price tag on our gifts. Aid packages are given in return for trading rights. Debt relief comes wrapped around a hidden agenda of political control. At a personal level, we give our time and energy mainly where we hope for some kind of payback.

But sometimes we come close to the vision that Jesus lives out for us. We see glimpses of it whenever one of us is truly spending our gifts for the greater good of all of us. And usually we see that such a one has touched the source of joy.

What gifts are yours to spend this Lent, this life?

When we return to God at the end of our lives as empty-handed as the day we were born, only then are we fulfilled. The blank windowexactly right.

10 years ago
“Almsgiving” by Margaret Silf (3/27), was the most challenging article I have read about almsgiving in years. I must admit that I fall into the category of those who give to many charities year round while clinging to some resources for my future. Her words have been in my thoughts for some weeks, and I realize I have a way to go before I can say, as did the black South African woman running an orphanage for children whose parents had fallen victim to H.I.V./AIDS: “When I meet my maker, I want to have used up, totally and completely, every gift I have been given. I want to return to God empty-handed when I have spent all God gave me. Then I’ll be ready to go home.” These are words to reflect on for many years to come.

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