To give and not to count the cost
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, September 19, 2017
One of my favorite prayers, the Prayer for Generosity written by St. Ignatius, took on a completely new meaning for me after my experiences this summer. In my Jesuit high school, repeating this prayer before a class was commonplace, but it was not until I personally witnessed and was the recipient of extreme generosity that St. Ignatius’ words spoke a deeper truth. I encountered this truth over the course of eight weeks in Canto Grande, an urban area located in one of the districts of Lima, Peru as part of the Center for Social Concern’s International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP).
During my time in Canto Grande, I lived in community with the Holy Cross priests there and worked in two different schools with children with disabilities. My day to day job consisted of helping the teachers in any way possible, whether that meant impromptu dance parties or helping the kids practice writing their names. Hearing the Prayer for Generosity now, my mind naturally wanders back to those who left such a profound impact on me with their example of selfless giving.
“Teach me to be generous;
“Teach me to serve as you deserve,”
The children I had the pleasure of spending time with radiated an uncontainable joy that I spent the entire summer trying to reciprocate. I vividly remember my own nervousness upon entering the classroom on the first day, wondering how I would relate to these children with my mediocre Spanish abilities. Yet before I had time to finish worrying, my thoughts were interrupted by the grip of a rambunctious little kid embracing me around the legs. Any new visitor was immediately welcomed as a longtime friend, without judgement. In simple, direct moments like this, the children taught me what unreserved loving and giving truly look like. During snack time, the kids would insist on sharing their own snacks with everyone (and I soon realized the ineffectiveness of graciously saying no). Their unique ability to love so freely and wholeheartedly redefined generosity for me, helping me acknowledge my own slowness to accept strangers and even those around me, with a generous spirit.
“To give and not to count the cost,
“To fight and not to heed the wounds,”
Even before Canto Grande, I knew my relationships with the children would have a lasting impact on me, but I could never have anticipated the value of my relationships with their mothers. Because one or two parents were required to come every day to help the teacher with the demands of the class, I got to know many of them very well over the eight weeks. As they welcomed me into their children’s classroom, many of the mothers exercised a sort of extreme hospitality I had never before witnessed. They took the time to know me as an individual, constantly cooking food and teaching me about traditional Peruvian dishes. If I had not tried a certain dish, they would refuse to let me leave Peru without first preparing it for me. Many of these women faced financial difficulties of their own, but when it came to supporting one another, they looked first at the face of their neighbor and later considered the depth of their own pocket. I had never witnessed such charity as that which they gave out of their own poverty.
“To toil and not to seek for rest,”
As a student at Notre Dame, I thought I had mastered getting the most out of every day; time has become something that I hold onto and savor in order to accomplish everything with my busy schedule. But like the children and their mothers, the Holy Cross priests of Peru challenged me, exemplifying a new level of dedication. They devoted every minute of their day — quite a few considering the long hours they tirelessly worked — to serving their community. The priests taught me generosity of time. Following them around, fully aware of how much they had to get done, I never witnessed a moment of hesitation at a parishioner’s request. Their gift of time to others — whether it be stopping to get to know someone, talking with a parishioner about family problem, hearing a confession or being a friend — was never subject to their own busyness. Willing to give, they said yes completely and unconditionally before considering their own schedule and needs.
“To labor and not to ask for reward,
“Save that of knowing I am doing your will.
In Peru, being a teacher is a thankless job; most teachers juggle back-to-back jobs, going straight from teaching class to working another job to provide for their own children. However, the lack of reward for their occupation does not prevent any of them from wholeheartedly giving themselves to their students. In many special education classes that means consistently responding to outbreaks of slapping, biting, hitting, spitting and screaming with nothing other than love and patience. In addition to their unrelenting dedication to the children, they showed me extraordinary generosity in their patience as they welcomed me into their classrooms. As I awkwardly attempted to find my role in the classroom environment they had already so carefully created, they accepted me but also guided and befriended me. Language was no obstacle to friendship or kindness for them as their smiles, encouragement and (attempts at) teaching me to dance made me feel a sense of home in an unfamiliar environment. In a country where there are still vestiges of shame towards persons with disabilities, these teachers embrace the children with their loving presence, striving tirelessly to provide opportunities for their students to grow and become more independent.
I came to Peru wanting to give but felt as if I ended up only receiving. I ultimately felt that I could only sufficiently give my love and my presence, which felt highly inadequate after all that the teachers, priests, students, their mothers and even strangers gave and all they did to welcome and befriend me. While in Peru, I constantly struggled with feeling undeserving of so much kindness and generosity, certain that any words of thanks I expressed for their love and compassion were not enough. Yet eight weeks spent in this humble position watching the people’s beautiful, daily example gradually revealed an invaluable reality: true, unreserved generosity in action. I may not be able to witness their generosity in person any longer, but I will continue to strive to emulate their love that left an indelible impression in my life.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.