In the last post on this I tried to argue that we need to re-imagine our language of spiritual gifts, and used some of Lewis Hyde’s thinking on gift to consider how, in fact, any transaction that occurs in the ‘gift economy’ is actually rooted in God’s breathing into us.
When you let someone into traffic. When you hold a door open. When you pay for a stranger’s bus ticket. That feeling that somehow this is how life should be: generous, amicable, inclusive? It’s God. That’s the gift of the Spirit: taking us above the apes into humanity, into the realm of the gift. It’s not a ‘power manifestation.’ But we only need to read article’s such as this – thanks to Sanctus for the link – to see how powerful the gift is.
I want to come back to this idea of generous action later. But before I do that, I want to examine why Hyde is keen to point out that there is a further level of complexity in true gift exchange. According to him, a true gift must go ‘out of sight’ before it is received and passed on.
Two salient examples: first, we wrap presents. Why? Because at the point of giving they are invisible. To give it straight would impoverish the gift. Secondly, you cannot have a ‘gift cycle’ of two people. Connecting back to presents, don’t you just hate that thing around Christmas where you feel an obligation to give someone a card or a present simply because they gave you one? That’s not gift. It’s what we used to call at Vaux ‘Petrol Station Flowers’. Hyde notes a Hindu legend about two Brahmin women who decided to get round their alms-giving obligation by simply giving back and forth to one-another. And they ‘became a well of such bitter water that no one could drink there.’ Gift cycles need to go out beyond our sight, beyond our full understanding.
He cites a Maori hunting ritual as a good example. The bird-hunters go to the forest to catch birds. When they return, they give a portion of the caught birds to the priests, who in turn cook the birds on a sacred fire. The priests then eat some of the birds and prepare the rest into a gift which they offer back to the forest. Thus the gift of the birds goes from forest to hunter to priests to forest.
The importance of this third person in the cycle is that it breaks the ‘give and take.’ As Hyde notes, “With simple give and take, the hunters may begin to think of the forest as a place to turn a profit. But with the priests involved, the gift must leave the hunters’ sight before it returns to the woods.” The gift the priests give enters the realm of mystery: it invokes ‘the other’, that which is beyond the rational…
So a true gift disappears before we see it return to enrich us. It is part of a cycle of 3+ to ensure that there is ‘other’ involved, not selfish profit. Note any strangely trinitarian resonances? Precisely. God is three because God is gift. And in the ultimate act of giving to us, God was incarnated (disappeared into Mary’s womb), disappeared again into death before being resurrected, and disappeared again before the ‘gift of the Spirit.’
So what are we to make of pentecost in the light of this? And ‘baptism in the Spirit’? Well, ever been in love with someone for ages, but come to a particular point where you’ve had to admit it to yourself? A wonderful feeling. A release. It’s always been there, but now it’s even more there…
In the next post I want to look further at the trinitarian aspect of gift, and connect it a little more practically to our communal practice. But to conclude thus far: be generous. It’s godly. Not just praying or healing or speaking. Widen your gift circle and see how life-affirming it is. Practice enough random acts of kindness, and one will eventually come back to you. From out of sight. From where you didn’t expect it. Out of silence. Out of advent. A gift from the East.