Material, or Spiritual Reciprocity?
We have had a week to think about reciprocity and the resist factor. There are still three decks of cards waiting for us – our intent, our mode of operation, and our help. It’s a slow-moving process being a contemplative ministry, but hopefully, it’s bearing good, rich fruit.
Reciprocity, you will recall, means a state of mutual dependence, an exchange of benefits, a cooperation and bestowal of privileges between people in power, all of which guarantee connection and spiritual nourishment. The degree to which we resist reciprocity determines a large part of our risk for spiritual starvation.
“Resist” implies something we actively do to push something away.
People resist things all the time, and many times we have no idea why. We are not purely logical beings, especially when it comes to relationships, acquired habits and all the subtle ways that fear influences our decisions. Resisting reciprocity is a habit with deep roots, many causes, and far-reaching spiritual implications.
Let’s have a look at that second deck. Pick up your card and see if you drew MATERIAL or SPIRITUAL. This is going to direct the orientation of your giving, receiving and reciprocal expectations.
MATERIAL reciprocity is the cleanest, most predictable and most logical to study. It is safe, in many ways, because it focuses on things rather than people. We learn this kind of transactional thinking from our earliest lessons in fairness, sharing and generosity:
As we progress through elementary years, we go from a concrete understanding like this to more abstract, subtle concepts of giving and receiving. By middle school, we start to see that fair does not always mean equal. Sharing is not always mandatory. Generosity is more a measure of the heart than a quantity given. Adolescents begin to see how these concepts transition from material to spiritual. Adults can give praise. People can share stories. Friends can be generous with their time.
The material side of giving, receiving and reciprocity never goes away, however. Money is earned, saved and spent. Donations are collected out of kindness and desire to help people struggling. Gifts are given – and expected – on special occasions. How we manage material things both fosters and reveals aspects of our character like prudence, wisdom, discernment, sacrifice and self-governance.
Generally speaking, material givers are those who spend on others, and material receivers are those who anticipate and plan for financial needs. (Did we catch you in thinking that material receivers are those who reap gifts? To a degree, yes, this is true; material receivers do get more than they give, preferring to take in than pay out).
Lest we turn our RPG into a financial planning game, do remember that this is about relationships. And what about that resist factor?
Those with material orientation and moderate resist factors may occasionally decline an opportunity to give, or may politely thank you but turn down a gift you offer, but the key is: they do not act from fear. In contrast, those with highest resist factors will try the hardest to block material reciprocity. They may refuse donations, gifts or acts of monetary kindness. They will easily make excuses to avoid contributing or volunteering. Keep in mind that these actions are not necessarily a love of money or a fear of poverty – they are a shrinking away from reciprocity.
Once more, there are far too many variables and possibilities to make an exhaustive examination. However, as we venture further into the details of the simulation, we start seeing how our material habits point to our spiritual habits… or, in some cases, make for a good smokescreen to hide our spiritual habits.
Materially speaking, our ease of giving and receiving can be impaired by fear of loss, fear of debt, or demand for security. Reciprocity adds the pressure of expectations when we think transactionally, if we feel like we need to appear impressive, generous or magnanimous. To many, receiving assistance or donation bears the unspoken obligation to give something in return, and this is a greater burden than bearing the hardship alone. Some feel awkward receiving a gift for the same reason. People who resist reciprocity are reluctant to give because they do not want to set a precedent or create expectations that their gifts will be regular or recurring. Some people refuse giving because their recipients have not demonstrated adequate standards of reciprocation in the past, along the lines of “why should I give them anything when they have overlooked me time after time?”
What if we drew the SPIRITUAL card? Can these same principles be said of our relationships, in the spiritual sense?
Many of us overlay the material rules of giving, receiving and reciprocity onto our spiritual lives. Not only do we hold ourselves to these principles as though they were rules, but we also expect others to apply these rules to us. How easy life would be if everything were transactional, able to be tabulated, and judged according to quantities.
But it does not hold up.
Humility says that we embrace what we have equally with what we do not have, and offer it all just as it is. Humility does not wait for satisfaction or demand it from others.
Mercy and forgiveness can only be begged because, by their very essence, they are a lessening of the sentence, a release from the debt we owe with nothing expected in return. If mercy is expected, that’s presumption, and negates the grace. If forgiveness is demanded, that’s extortion, and is anything but sincere.
Love? Love is at once gratuitous, irrational, sacrificial and laden with risk. In fact, the purest form of love is the highest risk.
How, then, can SPIRITUAL giving and receiving be discussed with any logic or application?
MATERIAL giving and receiving is finite because things are finite.
SPIRITUAL giving and receiving is infinite because God is infinite.
MATERIAL reciprocity must be approached with caution because things (money, gifts, donations) get used up and run out. Scarcity will always be a factor.
SPIRITUAL reciprocity can be approached with abandon because God Himself is humility, mercy, forgiveness and love… and can never run out, because God is infinite.
We forget this.
All the time.
What if we played this RPG as though nothing were finite, everything were in abundance?
Some of us would still hoard, and some would still demand equality and exact balance. Some would give more to their favorite players and hold back from the ones with whom we have grievances.
Some would hang back and not play much, because they have everything they need. Once giving and receiving reach stasis and an abundance is achieved, there’s not much left to do. What do those players do? Leave the game, or sit and watch… and grow distant?
Perhaps. Until one of us comes along and gives without counting, engaging you just because you are in the game.
Our basic framework is in place. Play away, and notice how the variables interact. See how similarly or differently you play with MATERIAL intent versus SPIRITUAL intent. See how well your game play parallels your spiritual life, whichever card you’ve chosen.
All of this sets the stage for the weeks ahead, when we start to see the effects of spiritual nourishment… or spiritual starvation.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, your ways are not our ways. Sacred Scripture shows time and again how material thinking clouds our faith and understanding of the Kingdom of God. Show me, through this exercise, how I approach humility, mercy, forgiveness and love… and any ways in which my habits keep me from experiencing these things in my relationships.
CONTEMPLATE: Do I approach relationships more spiritually or materially?
RELATE: Focus this week on your weaker area (giving/initiating or receiving/anticipating) by making a point to perform an action of just this kind. What made it easy or difficult?
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak