There is a clichéd sentiment shared by many: "no good deed goes unpunished." Dear Jennie, what a pessimistic view of life that reflects; what a sad sentiment spoken by those who have known the keen heartbreak of disappointment or insufficient gratitude.
The statement begs the question: what should kindness do for us? Is generosity an investment we make in expectation of a greater reward, or can it be simply an end in itself?
The trouble with a "no good deed goes unpunished" attitude is that it very easily slips into a miserly frame of reference out of which operates a quid pro quo mindset-the expectation of reciprocal favors. In our humanity, this expectation is reasonable enough, but is it compatible with our Christian faith?
On one hand, in an attempt to be "more Catholic than the pope," Catholics shy away from the reward motive for living the moral and charitable life. Love of God is the only valid motivation for our good deeds; we'll have no need for rewards. That is not why we live for Christ and bring His love to others.
Our Lord Jesus never seemed to shy away from the promise of reward for those with whom He came into contact, even as a motive for their altruism in His name. The Scriptures are replete with Jesus' references to rewards; not only does He promise "treasure in heaven" for those who follow Him on earth, but the Beatitudes themselves are a veritable list of rewards for those who find blessings in the circumstances of their lives.
Protestations of any reward motive for living a Christian life certainly come from a good place-that extravagant love of God, which attempts to love for love's own sake as a free gift given to others. And yet I wonder, dear Jennie, if such complete, unconditional love-while certainly an image of divine love-is within the realm of the possible for most of frail humanity? I wonder if God even asks it of us?
The Scriptures bear witness that our Lord seems intent on rewarding us. But let us be clear as to the reward He really promises. It is not abundance here on earth, but rather the richness of the life to come. And if the reward is an abundance of His grace and a deeper friendship with Him, our true friend, then why not desire this reward more than any other? It, too, can spring from extravagant love.
Once we realize the true benefit of our good deeds, we will see them for what they are-an extension of the love of Christ and the building up of His kingdom on earth. Our participation in His goodness and our willingness to share it with others is so powerful and transformational, it takes little to spot the disordered thinking that leads to the conclusion "no good deed goes unpunished"; that is, we desire our reward from human beings.
Your story, dear Jennie, is a tragic one. I came across it on a trip to your hometown of Gettysburg. In July 1863, as the Civil War was raging, you were preparing for your future as a wife and mother. You were engaged to a local young man who had joined the Northern Army. The Union and Confederate armies met in Gettysburg in a savage three-day battle during which more than 50,000 men perished.
It is not so much the manner of your death that moves me Jennie, but simply the timeliness of it. You awoke at 4:30 a.m. on July 3 and spent the morning in prayer, reflecting primarily on the Book of Psalms. As with all true and noble prayer it led you to charity. You immediately set about the task of baking bread to feed the hungry and suffering soldiers around you. As you mixed the dough, stray bullets fired during the conflict pierced your door (see photo) and struck you in the back. You were killed instantly.
"Stay awake, for you know not the day nor the hour," our Lord said to His disciples. You, dear Jennie, indeed were prepared, for when the Lord came for you unexpectedly that day He found you ready-energized by prayer and engaged in kindness. For this reason I envy your short life, for there are many who live more years, but with less courage, mercy or charity.
To our earthly way of reckoning, your death appears as unmerited punishment as you were engaged in a good deed and act of selfless kindness. Undoubtedly, the Lord rewarded you for a life well lived. Good deeds only seem at times to be "punished" when our expectations are disordered or when we seek those lesser rewards within the framework of human capability. Only God's reward for selfless acts can satisfy us.
Today the home of your death is known as the Jennie Wade Home Museum. Many tourists who come to Gettysburg each year visit the site, which curiously is described in various books and travel brochures as one of the "top-10 haunted houses in the United States."
I toured your museum with my 91-year-old aunt-a loving, faithfilled woman with a long-standing fear of death and ghosts. Later that evening at dinner I asked my aunt for her impressions of the "haunted" Jennie Wade house. She reflected serenely for a moment and said: "I wasn't afraid in there at all. I only felt the beauty of young Jennie's love and sacrifice. She's like a saint."
My aunt was right, Jennie-perfect love casts out fear and the beautiful fragrance of your act of Christian kindness fills the rooms of your home. But the experience does pose a "haunting" question: if the Lord came for me today, how would He find me? What would I be engaged in? How would He view my attitudes and prejudices? Would He find my hands at work-like yours were on that fateful day-actively pursuing charity that He has a right to expect of me? Pray, Jennie, that it might be so-for me and all of us.
The issue surrounding the Civil War was huge: the emancipation of human beings under the yoke of others, as well as the declaration of human rights and freedoms for all people. There is a noble sadness in Gettysburg and a strange sense that our nation has not yet learned the lessons Gettysburg teaches, for many still yearn to have control over the lives of others they considered to be "less important."
I pray, hope and fully expect God has rewarded you beyond all your imagining, for when he came for you He found you awake and ready. If only it were so for all of us who often persist in our stupor and sleepiness, overconfident in our certainty there always will be another tomorrow in which to consider holiness. But you know better, Jennie. You know better.
(Editor's note: Father John Gabriel is the archdiocesan director of vocations. The Jennie Wade House and Museum, which provided the photo for this article, is located at 528 Baltimore St., Gettysburg, PA-phone: (717) 334-4100.)