We all know Lent is a penitential time of the year. However, what often happens during Lent is that many of the penances we adopt revolve around fasting, abstinence and prayer. Some of us give up coffee, desserts or snacks, others take on spiritual practices like trying to attend daily Mass.
But sadly, almsgiving, the traditional third form of penance in the Christian life is often neglected. This is unfortunate, because giving alms is a powerful way to grow in holiness. Catholic writer Scott Hahn even goes as far as saying that almsgiving is superior to prayer and fasting, because as he put it, giving alms includes both prayer and fasting, and surpasses them.
Why should I give alms?
Jesus gives us a clear mandate to give alms (Mark 6, Luke 12). Strictly speaking, almsgiving means giving financially or materially to someone in need. In a broader sense, almsgiving refers to acts of mercy, covering the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The fact that God blesses those who help the poor and needy is clear throughout the Bible. Giving alms purifies us and helps us grow in virtue, particularly those of charity, mercy and generosity.
We are called to give, driven by a love for God and neighbor. The famous maxim, “whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me,” derived from Matthew 25:40, is Jesus’ invitation to recognize his presence in the poor. Almsgiving is indicative of an authentic conversion of heart because it is rooted in real actions and sacrifices for someone else in need.
Thus, it must become more than us fumbling for change when encountering a homeless person, and certainly far more than just a nice, pious thought. Think about it: If we see a homeless man on the street, does it make sense to wish him well or would it make more sense to ask if the man would like some food to eat (see James 2:14-16)?
How can I give more?
Giving is one area that we as Catholics fare quite poorly. For instance, studies show that Catholics tithe just about one percent of their household income. One way to learn to give more is by examining our lifestyles and stuff we own. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, we can divide our possessions into things we absolutely need to sustain our lives (and the lives of those who depend on us); things that we need to maintain our state of life and position in society; and things that we do not really need, for they go beyond our present and probable future needs, and he categorized these as ‘superfluous’ possessions.
We are bound to give alms out of our surplus, i.e. of our ‘superfluous’ possessions. With regards to the first two categories of possessions, we are not obligated to give out of these things, as they are actually needed. Nevertheless, it is still praiseworthy to do so, for in doing so, we alleviate a need in someone’s life with something we might be surprised to discover we can perhaps actually do without. Moreover, we see how Jesus commended this in the story of the widow’s mite, when a poor widow made an offering of two copper coins, and despite her poverty, gave all she had (Luke 21: 3-4).
Here are five simple ways we can start giving more in concrete ways:
- Cut out ‘superfluous’ stuff in our weekly budgets and give away the money saved from that. We can even go a step further by downgrading some of our so-called needs. For instance, instead of getting a tall pumpkin-spice latte at the local coffee shop everyday, we can switch to a cheaper option and then add those savings to our almsgiving fund. Similarly, whatever money we might save this Lent from not eating out or cutting back on desserts or whatever else, can be given to someone in need.
- Sign up to volunteer with an outreach program on a regular basis. Most parishes have some form of outreach towards the poor, single mothers, seniors, etc., and by making a commitment to serve at one such program, it will help us give of ourselves for the benefit of someone else.
- Set up an automatic regular donation from a credit card/bank account towards a charitable organization. This would save us the hassle of having to do this each week/month and also lower the risk of us changing our minds. A word of caution: we should make sure that the group we choose abides by Catholic teaching, as some prominent charitable organizations supply contraceptives or even provide abortions in the name of helping the poor. Some organizations that we can consider contributing to regularly include Caritas, Society of St.Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities, etc.
- Start keeping a supply of snacks or care packages in our cars. I know many people who pack small care packages or keep a box of granola bars in their cars, so when they come across poor people on the streets, they are ready and able to help them by handing these items to them.
- Go over the list of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Pick the ones you can realistically do, and then go out and do them. It’s more possible to do several of these than one might think. Check out the book, Mercy in the City, which recorded one woman’s attempt to practice works of mercy in a meaningful way without making any dramatic changes to her lifestyle.
What do I do next?
The answer is simple: start giving more. Whether that means donating money or material goods to the poor, or intentionally performing acts of mercy, it all starts with the decision to do so in a real way. We should plan our lives, so that on one hand, we are always prepared to make individual, spontaneous gifts to poor people we meet, and on the other hand, our home budgets should be organized in a way that allows for almsgiving to become a regular habit.
As St. Teresa of Calcutta explained it, Christ wants to give us the chance to put our love for him in living action: “He makes himself the hungry one, not only for bread, but for love. He makes himself the naked one, not only for a piece of cloth, but for that understanding love, that dignity, human dignity. He makes himself the homeless one, not only for the piece of a small room, but for that deep sincere love for the other. And this is the Eucharist. This is Jesus, the Living Bread that he has come to break with you and me.”
And that’s at the heart of why we give alms. Not so much because Jesus commanded us to, nor because by doing so we can expect more virtues or blessings in our lives, though all that is true. But we give alms because by doing so, we are drawn into a deeper encounter with Christ himself, who is present in those to whom we give of ourselves in love.
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