Blind, unwise, and of a narrow mind as I am, I was not foolish and unknowing enough to believe that Christ asks us to give from our surplus: that, even the pagans do. I was however unskilled and lost in the darkness enough to think – what seems entirely in accord with Christian teaching – that we are asked to give from the little we have, if not even from the very little. I even went as far as agreeing with the idea that from the parable of the two talants thrown by the widowed woman in the offering box (Mk 12:41-44, Lk 21:1-4) follows that we should give all we have, our entire possessions.
It was needed that I stumbled upon reading, a while ago, a text of the French poet Henri Michaux (1899 – 1988) to understand, trembling, shuddering, that Christ asks something entirely different: to give what we do not have.
How blind, unwise, and of a narrow mind I was. And locked in the chains of the most lamentable common sense. How could I imagine that Christ-God who accepted to take on a body and be crucified on the cross lust like the unhappiest and most wicked of mortals, would ask us to give from the surplus or the little possessions, or even to give their entirety? How would He have called us to actions so simple, so of this world, that is, so possible! Did not Paul Claudel define God for us, attributing to Him the saying: Why do you fear? I am the impossible who looks at you.
Christ, thus, asks for exactly this: the impossible: to give what we do not have.
But let us listen to Michaux: in the monastery where he would like to be received, a simple candidate to monasticism shows up. He confesses to the geronda: know, Father, that I have neither faith nor light, nor essence, nor courage, nor trust in myself, and I cannot be of any help to myself, much less to any others; I have nothing.
It would have been logical for him to be rejected at once. Not so, however. The geronda (abbot, as the French poet says) replies: What does that have to do with anything! You have no faith, have no light; giving them to others you will have them, too. Searching them for another, you will gain them for yourself. Your brother, your neighbor and fellow man, him you are duty bound to help with what you do not have. Go: your cell is on this hallway, third door on the right.
Not from the surplus, not from the little, but from your unpossession, from what you lack. Giving another that which you do not have – faith, light, confidence, hope – you will acquire them as well.
„You have to help him with what you do not have.”
„Giving what you do not have, you acquire too, the naked, the deserted, that which you lack.”
„With what you believe you have not, but which is, which will be in you.
Deeper than the depth of your self. More mysterious, more covered, clearer, fast spring which flows unceasingly, calling, inviting to communion.”
Yes, only in this way you will be able to speak as a servant of Christ, of the One full of mystery: paradoxically (as he always has taught us: if you want to rule, serve; if you want to be exalted, humble yourself; if you want to save your soul, lose it for me; if you want to recapture your purity, admit your guilt) and amazingly (if you will give what you do not have, you will also gain what you have given others).
I think that nowhere, except for the Gospels, have more clear and more Christian words been spoken than in Michaux’s little poem, which stupefied and enthused me. Maybe in some fragments of The Brothers Karamazov and The Demons, maybe Cervantes creating El nuestro Senor Don Quijote, El Christo espanol, maybe Albert Camus in the text about Oscar Wilde (titled The Artist in Prison) and about the way to Christ not through suffering and pain (a good way, though an inferior one) but by an excess of happiness and moments of euphoria (a superior way). I think nowhere a poet or writer has spoken more closely of the unapproachable One.
Giving what we have no, we gain by rebound what – with unimaginable outrageousness – we have dared to give to another. The lesson is valid for any Christian, clergy or laity. For the monk, especially. Let him not worry, not fear, not be anxious, the monk who feels his inner-self deserted, haunted by lack of belief and weakness, full of darkness and aridness; let him not mind these in the least. Temptations of hopelessness, unbecoming tricks of the evil and dry one. Let him give those who come to him, in his cell, in the monastery garden, on the porch of the guest-house, at the alter gates – so they can find faith, strength, light, and a ray of hope, that which they expect from him and which he very well knows that in that moment he may not have. Let him give them. And, giving them, they will also refract back on him and he will be benefited by the gift made unto others.
„Giving the light you do not have, you, too, will have it.”
Do Michaux’s words, perhaps, not clarify in more depth the text from Matthew 25 about the fearful Judgment? Perhaps, have not the good ones given the thirsty from the water they lacked; the hungry from the food they did not have, the naked one the clothes they themselves were straining after?…
The secret of monastic life shows itself to be: to dare to give that which, temporarily, you may be lacking. Here then, is the Christian paradox in its entirety, splendor, and virtue. But here is the amazing promise: giving what you do not have, you gain what you knew to give from the emptiness of your being. The supra-natural gift is reflected on you, comes back to you like a boomerang, like a ray of light projected at a mirror, and enriches you, fills you up, overwhelms you.
Of course. If could not be otherwise! How could we think, even for a moment – not to say anything about years – that Christ wants to give from what we have: the surplus, the little, everything. Big deal, worthy endeavor! Too human, the poor, pitiful work! Something different is asked from us: what seems to be impossible. Something else is promised: what which cannot be conceived or believed.
Let every fear, uncertainty, shyness, fear of hypocrisy disappear from us, the monks: the monk is meant to give others faith and light even if he may be lacking them a shorter or longer while. Even if he is in a crisis of listlessness. Even if he were guilty of a weakening in the zeal and steadiness of monasticism.
Could he? Could he fulfill the miracle? Of course, since he is part of those about whom Christ says that „they are not of this world, as I am not of this world” (John 17:16). And again, „But not only for these I pray, but for those who will believe in Me through their word.” (John 17:20). And in the Book of Acts (20:35) Paul also says: „You have to help the weak and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus: it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Truly, giving above nature, we receive grace above grace. Let the weak, thus, say: give me, Lord, when I am lost and naked, strength and impudence to be able to give from what I do not have. And You make this gift of mine – paradoxical, absurd and daring – return to me through your mercy which counts human wisdom ad madness and the adage „Nemo dat quod non habet” sounding brass and clanging cymbal. You who ask only the impossible and do only what the human mind cannot understand.
Monk Nicolae Steinhardt
Nicolae Steinhardt was born July 12, 1912. He was jewish and mostly known for his “Happiness’ Diary”. His father was the architect and engineer Oscar Steinhardt. In 1934 he graduated from the Law and Literature School of the University of Bucharest. In the same year he published under the pseudonym of Antisthius the parody novel „The same way as Cioran, Noica, Eliade…”. He refuses to join and to agree with the communist ideas and becomes a truck driver for a food shop during the communist regime until he has a serious car accident. Following his friends’ pleads he re-enters the literary activity again. In 1980 he becomes a monk and he dies in March, 1989 before he got to witness the Romanian revolution against communism.