Those two little words were at the forefront of my mind as I sat down to eat lunch last summer in a restaurant in hot and humid Memphis, Tennessee. I had been there for a little over a month, working at a women’s homeless shelter through Notre Dame’s Summer Service Learning Program. Joining me for lunch that day was my site partner, Elizabeth, along with two other women who were long-time volunteers at the shelter. Kathy and Sandy had treated us to a beautiful day of sight-seeing. We visited at least three or four museums, walked along the river soaking in the bright sun, and enjoyed peeking into little shops we passed along the way.
This care-free day, roaming the streets of Memphis, was an unusual one for us. Up until that point, we spent most of our time on the grounds of the shelter, working with the religious sisters who lived there, and spending time with the women and children for whom the shelter was a temporary home. The shelter was really just a beautiful old house, built in the early 1900s, and under the care of the Missionaries of Charity for the past twenty years. While the house itself was chock-full of laughter, prayer, and Southern cooking, it was lacking in airflow. I had therefore grown accustomed to the very particular feeling of sweat soaking through my shirt.
Which leads me back to the air conditioning. I was so overjoyed by the coolness of the restaurant that day that I began to feel slightly guilty about the whole excursion. The volunteers whom we had gotten to know over the summer were exceedingly generous people, and many of them had offered to take Elizabeth and I out for meals. We were delighted to accept these offers, but our delight did not quiet our subtle, yet persistent, feelings of guilt: Should I really be taking a break right now? There is work to be done at the shelter, conversations to be had, joy to be shared with the residents. Shouldn’t I stay?
As I sat in the cool restaurant that day, those questions lingered in my mind as I ate my lunch. About halfway through the meal, Kathy began to tell us a story about an encounter she had had at the shelter many years ago. As she prepared to leave the shelter one evening after serving dinner to the residents, Kathy was surprised to find the “head Sister” waiting for her at the door, holding a pie in her hands. Sister insisted that Kathy take the pie home to enjoy with her husband and young children. Kathy was taken aback at this and began to recite a litany of excuses as to why she could not possibly take this pie home with her. “Sister,” Kathy said, “Someone donated this pie to be given to the hungry, to those who couldn’t make one for themselves. I can go home and make a pie, or go to the store and buy one. I can’t take this from you!” Sister smiled and replied sternly, “Kathy, the harder part of charity is receiving it. Take the pie!”
That simple, fleeting story, shared in passing during our casual lunch conversation, struck me to the core that day. It’s a story that’s completely seeped into my heart and constantly resurfaces, challenging my routine ways of thinking, acting, praying, and loving. Like any challenging nugget of wisdom, it has brought about many more questions than it could ever hope to answer: Why is reception the harder part of charity? Why was it so difficult for me to receive the generosity of Kathy, Sandy, and the other volunteers? What does it mean, for me personally, to “take the pie”?
When I returned to the shelter that afternoon, my eyes were drawn, in a new way, to an image that I had passed by hundreds of times before. On the wall next to the main staircase hung a large photograph of Mother Teresa. Clothed in her blue and white sari with her hands clasped together in a sign of peace, I noticed her wrinkled skin, her dirty fingernails, and her subtle, yet beaming smile. Beneath the photograph, someone had written one of Mother’s most well-known sayings: “Give whatever God takes, and take whatever He gives with a big smile.” In that moment, those words struck me as the key to understanding Sister’s words to Kathy. Mother Teresa understood, arguably better than anyone else, the reality that God is love. If God were simply loving, if “loving” was just an adjective tacked onto God’s name, then it would be enough for us to simply give love. But God is more than loving. God, the Trinity, is an exchange of love, the giving and receiving of love. He is love himself. And in his baffling humility, he invites us into that love, into himself.
In that moment, I realized that I understood the importance of giving what God takes, carrying my cross, and forging ahead in the day to day, seeking to share the love of Christ with others. What I was not so keen on, I realized, was taking what God was trying to give me, trusting in his generosity by receiving the loving generosity of others. I did not know how to say “yes” to the gift of another, to humble myself in receiving the generosity that I was so desperately trying to give. Quite simply, I wanted to bake my own pie. I wanted to be in control, always on the giving end of charity. But God was inviting me to something different, something beautiful, something more in line with our eternal goal: union with the love of God, which must always be received.
Learning to “take the pie,” to receive and live out the gifts God has given me, is an ongoing challenge, but it is a challenge which I try to embrace with joy and open arms.
May we all have the courage not only to take the pie, but to enjoy every bite.
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Featured Image: Apple pie, December 2012, by Vincent Ros; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.