Everything is gift. That’s a principle that ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality and every commandment. Everything is gift. Nothing can be ultimately claimed as our own. Genuine moral and religious sensitivity should make us aware of that. Nothing comes to us by right.

This isn’t something we automatically know. During a class some years ago, a monk shared with me how, for all the early years of his religious life, he had been resentful because he had to ask permission of his abbot if he wanted anything: “I used to think it was silly – me, a grown man, supposedly an adult, having to ask a superior if I wanted something. If I wanted a new shirt, I would have to ask the abbot for permission to buy it. I thought it was ridiculous that a grown man was reduced to being like a child.”

But there came a day when he felt differently: “I am not sure of all the reasons, but one day I came to realise that there was a purpose and wisdom in having to ask permission for everything. I came to realise that nothing is ours by right and nothing may be taken as owned. Everything’s a gift. Everything needs to be asked for. We need to be grateful to the universe and to God just for giving us a little space.

“Now, when I ask permission from the abbot because I need something, I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I feel like I’m properly in tune with the way things should be, in a gift-oriented universe within which none of us has a right to ultimately claim anything as one’s own.”

This is moral and religious wisdom. But it’s a wisdom that goes against the dominant ethos within our culture and against some of our strongest inclinations. Both from without and from within, we hear voices telling us: if you cannot take what you desire then you’re weak, and weak in a double way. First, you’re a weak person, too timid to fully claim what’s yours. Second, you’ve been weakened by religious and moral scruples so as to be incapable of seizing the day. To not claim what is yours, to not claim ownership, is not a virtue but a fault.

It was those kinds of voices that this monk was hearing during his younger years, and because of them he felt resentful and immature.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection