All is Gift
A Reflection on Being Religious and Being Happy

Doug McManaman
Date: Winter, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Any image of heaven that we might have conjured up over time is always deficient, for "what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Co 2, 9). The life of heaven simply exceeds anything that our imagination can possibly present to us. But after my daughter demonstrated to me what heaven is going to be like according to her own understanding, I thought it would be a good idea to try to provide her with a more hopeful image; for she got off her chair, proceeded to lie down on the kitchen floor with her hands to her side, eyes closed, and said: "That's what we're going to do in heaven!" she said. In other words, heaven, in her mind, was death.

My daughter, like most children, seems happiest when opening gifts. So I told her, "No, Sarah. Heaven is life. It's Christ. It's Christmas every day. It's Easter every day." She laughed at me, as if to say: "Don't be so silly, daddy. That couldn't possibly be true." But after a few minutes of persuasion, she began to realize that I was serious. She couldn't contain her excitement. "It is as if you are going to be opening presents every day, and there is only one day, and that day never ends, and it is both Christmas and Easter, as well as your birthday, all at the same time. In fact, heaven is unimaginably greater than that." The thought was simply too much for her.

This weekend my daughter was inundated with gifts. It was her birthday and her First Communion all within the same weekend. She was visited by good friends, good relatives, beautiful weather, and she couldn't have looked more beautiful. So it should come as no surprise that it was her happiest weekend of the year. Still, she is a child, and there is much she needed to be reminded of, for example, to thank everyone for the gift that he or she brought. One reminder was not enough. She had to be reminded frequently. I hate to imagine the very real possibility that had we left her alone to open her presents without us at her side, she might not have thanked anyone.

I think there are lessons in all of this. Imagine a person coming into your life and writing you a cheque for 15 million dollars. Or, better yet, imagine a very wealthy person suddenly entering your life and telling you that $100,000 is going to be automatically deposited into your bank account every month for an as yet undetermined period of time. You don't know when, but one day the cash flow will stop. It may stop after a year, or it may continue for a decade or two. If it continues, you will have received a million dollars within the year.

Why do I bring this up? We know from Exodus that God is "He Who Is" (Yahweh). On the basis of this text, Aquinas argues that God is His own Act of Existing, whereas the rest of us in creation have only a received act of existing. God's nature is "to be." As such, God is the First Existential Cause of everything that is, whether it be a thought, a meson, a photon of light, a human person, or an angel. Now over the years I've met some young people who have lost loved ones very close to them. Some of these people responded to their loss by drawing closer to God, while others became angry with God and consequently cut themselves off from the sacraments. I have no intention of judging the latter. But I do offer a thought. A person cannot be in debt if the creditor does not exist. In other words, God cannot incur debt. Existence is sheer gift. It is not possible to earn the right to exist; for if one does not exist, one cannot earn anything. Everything we have from God is pure gift, given gratis, that is, without our having earned any of it, not even the slightest moment of time. If God chooses to give my sister only 5 years, I cannot justifiably claim that God owes her more, any more than I can demand that the $100,000 I have been receiving monthly be continued for another ten years or so, or any more than I can demand 30 million instead of 15 million. That money was given gratis. It was all bonus. It belongs to someone who has chosen to share it with me, without my having any right to it. Perhaps I have rights to that money in relation to others around me, that is, I have a right not to be robbed of it. But even my right not to be robbed of that money is in some respects the owner's right to share it with whomever he pleases. But I do not have a claim on the source. Similarly, my life does not belong to me, but to God. Should I or my sister or my brother be called home after 25 years, or 15 years, or even 5 years, no one can accuse God of depriving me, or her, or him, of what is rightfully mine, hers, or his. Everything was bonus from the start.

The same is true for my child. My daughter has been entrusted to me, not for my sake, but for hers; for she is not my right, but a trust. A human being cannot be made an object of a right; a child is a gift, the supreme gift of matrimony. To make a child the object of a right is to violate the requirement that other human persons be treated in a way that respects their status as equal in dignity to myself. And so it is on the basis of this trust that I am bound by duty; but not God. My life has been entrusted to me; and so my own body is not, properly speaking, my own. It is on the basis of this trust that I am bound by duty to protect my life, to revere it and preserve it. But God is not bound by duty. For everything I have in life is bonus, that is, pure gift.

I contend that the reason so many people are not nearly as happy as they could be is that they go through life without the explicit awareness that everything in their lives is pure gift. There is something wrong with the way they see things. Our insistence that our daughter thank each person for his gift was not merely an exercise in etiquette. It actually helped impress upon her that these gifts are gifts, not rights. And the realization that what she was receiving were gifts only rendered her more able to taste joy than she would have otherwise been able. Her joy was a learned joy. Left to herself, she might not have experienced as much. Most people have not learned joy, because their vision is darkened by a confusion between what is gift and what is a debt. But each day is gift. Our very life in the flesh is gift; our friends are gift, education is gift, intelligence is gift, and parents are gift. There is a sense in which every day is our birthday. Look around and try to find one thing that is not gift.

Like the child, people have to have this pointed out to them, but pointing it out is never enough. It must become a personal insight. Unless a person has come to accept that all is gift and thus see it for himself, his "thank you" remains a formality. When we really see that all is gift, we will turn to God with a desire to "thank" Him, and our thanks will contain a genuine experience of the joy of God, who is His own Joy. A longing to thank Him every day will arise within us, and every day we will taste a small portion of the joy of heaven. Then it will strike us as mysterious that there is so much unhappiness in the world.

This return to God is the essence of religion. The religious spirit is a spirit of thanks. And what is particularly remarkable about this is that as we turn to God, we discover that He turns towards us, drawing closer to us, thus giving us more of Himself: "If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul, to do what is true before him, then he will turn to you and will no longer hide his face from you" (Tb 13, 6). In this way our debt continually increases, and so too our desire to thank Him and enter more fully into His Joy. For He gives us His body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist at every Mass. The very word "Eucharist" means thanksgiving. It is Christ in the act of perfect worship of His Father. It is the sacrifice of the cross, the most perfect religious act, the reconciliation of the human race to God. It is this perfect act of religion that brings eternal life to those who enter into it. The Eucharist is our entry into the heart of God. And so not only have we been created gratis, we have been bought back from the prospect of eternal death, as sheer gift.

It is impossible to ever satisfy the debt we owe to God, but as we try, He goes further by refusing to allow us to lessen the balance by replying to all our attempts with greater blessings. When a person first chooses to turn to God in an act of religion, he has no idea of the blessings that he opens up for himself and for all those who are and will be a part of his life.

"And I saw that every man's age will be known in heaven, and he will be rewarded for his voluntary service and for the time that he has served, and especially the age of those who voluntarily and freely offer their youth to God is fittingly rewarded and wonderfully thanked." (St. Julian of Norwich)