You Can't Give What You Ain't Got

But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk. [Acts 3:6]



I teach and putter about for a small Catholic institute at a rather big, basketball-famous state university. I call us small relative to the size our school (nearly 30,000 students), but when you tally up the number of students who come to our Center for Masses, theology classes, Bible studies, retreats, and the rest, we are actually larger than many a tiny Catholic college.

While my part of the circus focuses on their academic formation, I cannot help but take note of some trends in their larger formation. And if you were to stick around after our Sunday evening theology and beers at the local bar, and if you were to ask me what is the number one impediment to their growth––spiritual, academic, cultural, I would have one Latin phrase for you: Nemo dat quod non habet. “You cannot give what you do not have”.

A less charitable man would quote the Latin adage: Caecus caeco dux. “The blind are leading the blind.” And if I was feeling particularly apt to pull splinters out of their eyes, I would quote Our Lord, “And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit. [Matthew 15:14].”

But let us stick to the philosophic and legal principle of Nemo dat. If you read the Gospels closely, you will often see Our Lord “withdrawing”–-from crowds, to solitudes, to deserts, to pray, to rest. On the other hand, we have the modern student who suffers from FoMO (fear of missing out). Even alone they are connected, they are tagged, they are poked (or used to be), they are hashtagged, emojied, snapchatted into a whirlwind of transient burblings that are a greater punishment than the sinners cast about by perpetual whirlwinds in Dante’s Inferno.

If there is Adoration, there must be Praise & Worship.  If there is instruction in the faith, let it be an epic event with hashtags, streamed video, and TED-Talk levels of dumbed-downed-ness. But Jesus did not say, “I am the Rock-Climb, the PodCast, and the Event. [Hipster Gospel 4:20]”.

To be clear, I am not advocating you discard your gym membership, throw out your electronic devices, or cancel your plane ticket for that winter Bible conference. I am not so brave and so bold in my declarations as the late John Senior––the lodestone for those Catholics seeking to lead secular university students to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful––who asked us to throw our televisions out the window. But I would ask you where is the font of everlasting waters at which you refresh yourself to minister to others?

Just as John Senior’s classic The Death of Christian Culture demanded a follow-up, The Restoration of Christian Culture, so my words above await some solution. If students today suffer from a formation that seeks to give what it does not have, how do they acquire what should be given?

The answer is the Church’s call for Lent: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Beyond this: If you are going to lead a Bible study, spend some time learning the Bible from a good teacher. If you are going to invite a friend to Mass, make sure you attend as well. If you are leading a retreat, make one yourself. If you are going to evangelize on campus or in the office, seek the counsel of a good spiritual director or confessor so that you know what (or rather “who”) you are proclaiming.

But the simplest, surest way for students and young people today to have something that they might give is to pray the rosary every day. Just as I have seen a rise in Nemo-Dat evangelization, so have I seen a decline in student’s praying the rosary––individually or in groups. If you are hashtagging or “checking in” on your rosary, you are not doing it right. The hashtag may come before or after, but not during the rosary. And for that 20 minutes, you withdraw as the Lord asks you to withdraw. You store up treasure that you might then give freely.

But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. [Matthew 6:6]