By Denise Trull
This little saying has been part of our family’s lexicon for as long as I can remember. It is from a rather zany little play involving a house full of odd little eccentrics where a ‘Grand Duchess’ has mysteriously become a pastry chef. The point beyond all the silliness, however, is well taken. The point is generosity. To always err on the side of too much rather than just enough, or worse, too little.
Generosity abounds in the life of Jesus. He fed the five thousand with the mysterious loaves and fishes, but His generosity overflowed twelve baskets beyond what was absolutely needed. He taught that whoever asks you to walk one mile with him, go with him two. If a man sues you for your coat, give him the shirt off you back as a an extra gift, even before he asks. Forgive seven times seven times. Sell all, not some, of what you have and give to the poor. Peter’s nets were filled to bursting with the miraculous catch of fish -- not just enough to get his attention. Over abundance and generosity are signs that the divine is present. And they always bring surprise, joy, and a stupefying realization that we humans are not just loved with a careful set of scales proportionate to our gratitude, which is often quite small and grubbing, truth be told. No, we are loved almost to foolishness by a God who will not be outdone in generosity. He asks us to go and do likewise and just see what happens.
Today’s saint had a hard time with generosity. Her name was Joan Delanoue. I met her in a children’s book of saints some long years ago and I was charmed by her story.
Joan was born in 1666 to two loving and generous souls in Anjou, France. She was the youngest of their twelve children. We all have our one particular sin we are born struggling with. Joan’s was stinginess and love of money. Perhaps she wanted the certainty of security, or perhaps she had a strong sense of justice that had hardened her heart against the illogical foolishness of giving perfectly good things away to people who couldn’t pay for them -- or didn’t deserve them.
Joan’s father was a shopkeeper. He ran a lovely, big, general store filled with all sorts of wonderful things: sweets, dry goods, clothes, and even pretty lace veils, beautiful rosaries and fresh flowers for people to use when they visited the little shrine of Our Lady which was not far from their town. Her father gave away many things to the poor who could not pay, especially the flowers. He wanted the poor pilgrims to have something to give to Our Lady so they would not be sad. Her mother often gathered up food from the store and cooked it to feed the poor as they lined up outside her back door. Joan was flummoxed by her parents’ generosity. I wonder if she shook her head and worried that she would not get her due, being the twelfth child -- that they were wasting away her inheritance by right.
Joan became a great little business woman at a very young age, because of that worry and distrust. She watched everything like a hawk as she strutted her little, logical self around her father’s store. She enjoyed keeping the books and making sure there were profits. She made sure no one ever pulled a fast one by stealing a muffin or asked to pay later for food they needed today. Over time, she became what the townspeople whispered when her parents weren’t around, “a regular little shrew and miser.”
When she turned twenty-five, Joan’s father died. Her sweet mother died shortly after. Joan was given the house and the store as her inheritance. I can’t help but think that their deaths had a great affect on her. That she suddenly realized life was not logical and did not always shine with perfect justice. That death came for us all. That riches, no matter how treasured and guarded, didn’t help us in the end. I am sure she was sad and depressed, but she continued to stubbornly cling to the safe and familiar ways of running her store. She threw herself into her work to fight her sadness. She became a success in the town. She became wealthier than most. She had the satisfaction of knowing she was the smartest shopkeeper of them all. Her life was all in line, organized, logical and yet…strangely lonely. God took advantage of this soft little hidden place in the heart of her stinginess where love was still beating ever so weakly. God sent a sweet balm from, what to us, would be an unlikely source. Her name was Frances Souchet, a widowed pilgrim from Rennes.
The Widow Souchet mysteriously showed up at Joan’s door one cold night and announced, as Joan opened her door, that Jesus had sent her. She did not know why, but Jesus wanted her to come in. Perhaps Joan was lonely sitting by her fire or perhaps this strange little woman took her off-guard with her whimsical oddness. So, illogical as it was to let in an eccentric stranger, she opened her door just a sliver. And that was the beginning of the end for Joan, for in came grace.
Joan inexplicably fed the widow a more than usual portion of soup from her black kettle. She watched her with a kind of mesmerized wonder. The widow was dressed in rags and had no shoes. Joan dug up a wrinkled old dress she had in the back of a trunk and gave it to the woman. And here is the beautiful thing. Madame Souchet was so touched to be given something she had not asked for beyond the bowl of soup she had thought was enough. She began to cry and to tenderly hug the flummoxed, awkward Joan, who hadn’t hugged anyone in a very long time, I am sure. Joan at that moment felt the joy of generosity. The widow Souchet’s gratitude had melted her heart into tears. An old dress had done all that. Joan returned that hug with a warmth she had not felt in so long. And that warmth led her to be more generous.
The other side of generosity is a grateful heart. Gratitude draws generosity like a magnet. Even Jesus likes to be thanked. He once remarked with wonder that only one leper out of ten had returned to thank Him for being cured. Joan understood that generosity felt marvelous because of the widow’s gratitude. It made her want to do more generous acts to keep that joy within her. One could say that Joan became addicted to generosity.
Over time, and guided by the wisdom of Frances Souchet and a good priest from her town, Joan began to give away the things in her store to the needy. In the end, she emptied every shelf. She began to pray in the evening with the older woman and slowly her true vocation came into view.
She became one of the most giving people in the town. Poor people, hearing of her, showed up at her door. She never turned anyone away. She and the widow always had the soup going and a kind word for all. Joan learned to listen to their stories and to offer her prayers and sympathy. She left each with a flower to offer to Our Lady as they traveled to her shrine. I can’t help thinking her sweet father was smiling from heaven.
Joan began to call her house Providence House. Many young women came and offered to help her in her work with the pilgrims and the poor. They would often repeat among themselves with a smile what they had heard the widow say so often: “The King of France won’t give you his purse; but the King of Kings will always keep his open for you.” Joan learned to trust that saying whenever logic began to lap against her trust in God.
Over time, there were many Providence Houses all over France. Joan started a little community called the Sisters of St Anne of the Providence of Saumer filled with women who had discovered the joy of generosity. Joan lived to the age of seventy and died peacefully among her sisters on August 17, 1736. One of my saint books mentions that the people of her town were known to say, “That little shopkeeper did more for the poor than all the town councilors put together. What a woman! And what a holy person!”
Blessed Joan Delanoue became a saint of generosity. One might say she had learned never to be stingy with the blintzes. She teaches us to go to the heights of generosity even with the little that we have. Our time, our talents, our forgiveness, the hospitality of our homes. And the widow Souchet also teaches us the other side of generosity. Be grateful for the kindness of others -- for their generosity to you. It is an endless circle of joy running merrily round and round. Gratitude chasing generosity and generosity running toward gratitude.
We will let Jesus have the last word, as I know Blessed Joan would have it no other way: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”