April 22, 2017

The Joy of Being Indebted

By Alice von Hildebrand *
Credit: Lamppost Collective / Shutterstock. 
Credit: Lamppost Collective / Shutterstock. 

The word bankruptcy is a nightmare to finance people. Literature is eloquent on this topic. Consider Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, among many other books: to be bankrupt is to be disgraced, to be an irredeemable failure, to be a good-for-nothing everyone has a right to look down upon. From time to time the headlines inform us that a titan of finance and known to the world for their command over billions has gone bankrupt, due to unwise and rash speculations, due to too great a self-assurance: “I cannot err in financial matters. I have a perfect mastery of this field.” Quite often, crushed by their defeat, they take their own life.
 
This brief essay is also devoted to bankruptcy, but a very different type of bankruptcy: the joyful discovery that we are totally bankrupt toward God. Indeed, is there anything that we have not received? But it is joined with the joyful awareness that our debtor is an infinitely loving Father, who opens his arms wide to his repentant children, whose eyes have finally been opened to their misery and who throw themselves into his arms. Indeed, there is more joy in heaven over a repentant sinner than over a just man who is not (or believes himself not to be) in need of repentance. The greatest victory is to be defeated by God’s grace.

This has been wonderfully expressed by St. Augustine in his Confessions, one of the most admirable books ever written, and one which is addressed to God. Book VII expresses poignantly the work of grace in the soul of a man richly endowed and who for many years had chosen what Dante describes as “la via smarrita” (losing the straight path). His rich gifts, not baptized by humility, were in fact one of the great obstacles to his conversion; brilliantly talented he relied on himself, and needed many years to realize that he was bankrupt. Thank God, he gratefully acknowledged defeat and burst into tears, tears of repentance and gratitude. Indeed, one of the great sources of joy is to realize that one is defeated by God’s love and then to shed tears of gratitude.  

How beautiful is it to be aware that “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), followed by the words of St. Paul, “I can do all things in him that strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), which clearly imply that God expects our full collaboration. It is a theme that often comes up in this great saint: “I rejoice in my weakness so that the grace of God can triumph in me” (2 Cor 12). The lives of saints are eloquent on this theme. Let me just mention the Little Flower, who writes that “I have never been able to do anything by myself” and rejoiced in her weakness. She always turned to God for help, and this sheds light on her admirable life in which every single step sings God’s glory.

To be a self-made man – while not denying its merits – can be a source of temptation: “I owe my success all to myself. I am not indebted to any one; hard work and perseverance are keys to my success.” Many millionaires owe their wealth to themselves. It should however be mentioned, that to inherit a fortune also has its dangers. Man should always be on the alert because pride is not the only moral danger threatening us. Every situation has its own dangers, and the wise man is always on the alert, following the words of St. Peter: “Fratres, sobrii estote et vigilate” (“Be sober and watch,” 1 Peter 5:8-9). 

Sadly enough, life teaches one that many of us prefer to be “self-made” than to be indebted to others because they are allergic to gratitude, and tempted to demean the gifts received in order to escape from the burden of this virtue rarely mentioned. If the gift is financial and has saved a person from bankruptcy, a beneficiary might tell us: “it was no great matter; my benefactor is so rich that it is truly not a generous act.” Some will tell you that he had done the benefactor so many favors, that the gift is really only a repayment of long overdue debts. Others will tell you that the donor did it because it gave him a feeling of nobility, when in fact he was “flattering” his own ego, adding another feather to his hat. Or perhaps the benefactor highly advertised his generosity, whereas the truly generous person will keep this noble act to himself following the advice of the Gospel.

One of the most cynical proverbs I have read is a Hindu one: “Why do you persecute me? I have never done you any good.” It is heartbreaking and yet, life confirms it. But the most cynical remark justifying ingratitude I know is the one of the talented Heinrich Heine, expressing his certitude that God will forgive him: “After all, it is his job” (“Bien sûr, il me pardonnera; c'est son métier.”)
 
Many are those who resent being indebted to others. It gives them a feeling of inferiority unbearable to their pride. They do not want to acknowledge defeat; they want to be in control and their own master. This reminds me of something my dear husband said, which made a deep impression upon me. Having escaped from Hitler’s clutches at the very last minute, he and his wife left Vienna with a minimum of luggage hastily put in two suitcases and arrived free but as beggars in Switzerland. They were totally dependent upon the charity of Swiss Catholics. I recall asking my husband whether, having lived in a great villa for many years and now finding himself a beggar, he did not suffer. He looked at me with astonishment and said, “for nothing in the world would I have missed this opportunity of tasting the sweetness of Christian charity!” 

I do not know which moral theologian first drew up the list of the seven capital sins. But late in my life, it surprises me that ingratitude is not mentioned, a sin that goes back to our first parents, and, alas, plays a great role in our poor human lives. Ingratitude. It is certainly one of the very ugly sins, but how many of us are aware of it, and mention it when we confess our sins? 

May these few remarks be a clarion call to all of us to pray: “give me a grateful heart, O Lord,” that I may join the angels whose song is gratitude to God’s gift of being.    

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.