The last talk was on fasting, and fasting is certainly an important aspect of Lenten penance. Fasting helps us to subdue our passions and bring our appetites into proper expression, and it helps us to set aside the outward things that excite our appetites and to focus on our other nonmaterial needs. But as good as fasting is, it can sometimes be too focused on self: on what I'm giving up, what I'm doing, and what I'm refraining from. Those are not bad things to have in mind, but it can inadvertently narrow our spiritual focus to ourselves, and that focus can turn us to much inward.
Lenten penance should help us to focus more on the two greatest commandments that our Savior gave us: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All other commandments, all virtues, and all discipline are geared to aid us in living these two great commandments because they are at the heart of the gospel. Almsgiving in particular can help us to live out these commandments in a radical way. We're going to talk about almsgiving and its relationship to detachment, but I want to start first with our obligation to give alms.
A Basic Obligation
First and foremost, we give alms because it is a basic obligation of Christians. In fact, it's obligatory in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. The fundamental reason for this is that everything we have comes to us not from our own creative power but as pure gift from God. Life itself is a gift, and our capabilities that allow us to sustain life are gifts as well. One of the Psalms I pray regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours begins with this line: "The Lord's is the earth and its fullness, the world and all its people" (Ps 24:1). To put that in plain English, everything on earth belongs first to God. We are born into a particular time in a particular place, and none of that is something we can take credit for. When you think about all that had to happen to put you here in the wealthiest nation on earth at this time in history, you can get a sense of just how little our worthiness had to do with it and just how much God's graciousness did. And for that you should feel some gratitude for God's gift.
The Old Testament Law has commandment after commandment on providing for the poor and alien. These commandments, or mitzvot, dictated the obligations of the people of Israel for the widow and the orphan, and people did follow these laws out of a sense of obligation. However, the primary reason for practicing a mitzvah was love of God. You follow God's commandments because you love God. So while giving alms is a basic means of showing love to neighbor, it is also a way to show your love to God for the gifts that He has bestowed on you.
One of the best books in scripture about the virtues of almsgiving is Tobit, which as some of you probably know, is part of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Tobit is sending his son Tobias to Media to collect some money he had left in trust. To his son, he imparts this wisdom: "Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you" (Tobit 4:7). So not only are we to give, but we're supposed to be happy about it. Jesus tells us to go even further and give more than people ask of us! He goes so far as to tell the rich man to give away everything and follow Him.
Finally, our Church has two important social teachings called the "universal destination of goods" and the "preferential option for the poor." These concepts are discussed in the Catechism in paragraphs 2402 through 2406 and 2448 respectively. The first concept posits that all the goods of the earth are universally destined to all people and that we, as stewards, are obligated to seek the greatest good for the most people in our use of these goods. This doesn't preclude private ownership. It actually requires it, but it obliges us to share what we have to those who have not. Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum paragraph 14 that proprty ownership is a right with a complementary obligation of almsgiving. The second concept, the preferential option of the poor, simply notes that the Church recognizes the poorest among us and puts a priority on their aid.
The Effect of Almsgiving on the Giver
Almsgiving can, if we are conscientious, involve all of the disciplines of Lent. Mike Aquilina pointed this out in an interview a few years ago for Our Sunday Visitor. He said this:
Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting.... Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is ‘giving to God’ — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.
So almsgiving can direct us, in a sense, toward a concrete expression of our faith, and it naturally corresponds with and involves both prayer and fasting. And it should be done with the same spirit of longing in which we engage in prayer. A homily on prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom states:
[W]hen it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God and call Him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God's love, and so make palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. (68)
So when we give alms prayerfully, our works are an offering to God, not simply charity to our neighbor. So again, we see that almsgiving appeals to and exemplifies love of God and neighbor.
But it also has effects on us. When we give alms in the proper spirit, our actions mold and shape us. Just as all works of faith form us and help to shape us, so does almsgiving. If you think of it this way, when you perform an act intentionally on a number of occasions, you build a neural pathway for that action—a habit, in plain terms. Just as working out regularly becomes a habit that improves our physical health, exercising a virtue like charity helps to develop habits that improve us morally and spiritually. But almsgiving has a double effect. First, we get used to being generous. Second, we get used to letting go of our material possessions. And it gets easier as we do it more often. When we get into the habit of tithing, for example, we adjust to our new circumstance and live with what we have left. We come to realize that we can afford to give that first 10 percent of our income to the Church and charity. We might need to adjust our other purchases and expenses a bit, like eating out less often, buying cheaper brands, or simply forgoing certain items that we recognize we don't really need. And suddenly, a habit becomes a spiritual discipline: detachment. We have learned to let the unnecessary slip out of our hands.
It doesn't stop there if we are diligent. If we cultivate the habit of almsgiving, we come to understand a number of facts. First, that what we own truly comes to us from God's graciousness. We could just as easily have grown up sleeping on a dirt floor in a favela in Rio than in a middle-class home in Boise, Idaho. What would our experience of need be then? Would we need another new pair of shoes? Would we need the latest iPhone? So as we come to understand God's graciousness, our understanding of need changes. What we once thought of as necessities are revealed as mere desires, until we finally come to see that the item is not only unnecessary, but truly not important to our well being or happiness. We even begin to see that many of the things we possess burden us to a degree. People have to maintain households in which to keep their stuff. They have to put the stuff they don't use often enough in storage. Now, for those of you who are currently in a fairly transient time of life, it's understandable. But what about those of us who are established and own our own homes? Our stuff becomes a liability. We can't move without knowing what to do with our stuff. We are preoccupied with getting more stuff. But by cultivating a true sense of value, by practicing detachment, we can let go of the stuff we don't need. Better yet, we can see someone else in need and give our stuff to them. And when we really master charity and detachment, we can give it away with real joy.
This detachment frees us for both service to others and for greater intimacy with God. It is what Thomas Dubay calls in his book Happy are the Poor, "a radical readiness for the kingdom" (44). Sadly, he notes how few of us are ready to put this into action. He writes:
If the goods of the earth are extensions of my person and if I love my neighbor as myself, I naturally share my good things. It is idle for me to proclaim concern for the poor, the homeless, for example, and at the same time indulge in elegant dining and drinking, pleasure traveling, and an extensive wardrobe. My life belies my rhetoric. (51)
To be fair, he recognizes and stresses that not all of us can be called to the same degree of detachment. The religious take vows of poverty, and many religious are what we call mendicants: they depend on alms for their food and shelter. Dominican and Franciscan orders are both mendicant orders. That is radical poverty, but that is also a degree of detachment that most people cannot sustain for various reasons. If you are a parent, you have to provide a certain material standard of living so that your children can thrive. DO they need every new gadget or cable television, or time in every afterschool sport? No, but they do require appropriate clothing they can wear to school, tools like computers on which to do homework, and the ability to socialize with their peers, which usually costs money. Or what about those of us who have children who are older but have aging parents who rely on us? I need to have a decent vehicle to help them get around or so I can go visit them when they can't get out. As a business man, I am expected to dress to a certain standard. Where detachment comes into our lives is in our ability to possess such things appropriately. Not to seek what is fashionable or desirable, but which serves the purpose. And most of all, when we have enough of something and see someone without, we know well enough that we are merely stewards. If I have two shirts and someone has none, my extra shirt belongs to that individual. If I have two bacon double cheeseburgers, and that guy with a sign hasn't had anything to eat, one of those burgers belongs to him. And if I truly cultivate a spirit of detachment and charity, I give him both.
When we talk about virtues, we're talking about these very habits that form us and shape us. Thos habits that shape us for the good are virtues, and those that deform us are vices. All virtue is aimed at perfection, and so habitual detachment perfects us and prepares us to be fully open to God. We can't be free to intimacy with God if we are too tied to the things of this world. A true spirit of detachment and humility helps us to be radically ready for the kingdom.
More than Material Giving
Finally, I want to make clear that not all almsgiving involves giving away your possessions or money. What the Church asks of you is your time, talent, and treasure. We take up a children's collection every mass at St. John's. When it is my turn to call for the collection, I always say, "We invite the children to come forward with their offerings of time, talent, and treasure." Some children do bring money, but they can also bring their drawings, or a note with an act of service they did for someone else. Think about it. A child's drawing really is the essence of almsgiving: something offered out of pure love. And that is how our almsgiving should be: actions motivated by love for God and neighbor. Your actions can be material gifts, or it can be the donation of your time to a ministry, or of your talent as a musician in the liturgy. Some people have the gift of hospitality, which makes them great as hosts at coffee hours or other parish events. Whatever gift you have to offer, start with that. Even a gift of time requires a detachment. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, God loves a cheerful giver. So give of your time, talent, and treasure with love and true joy, and you will store up for yourself treasure in heaven.