“We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.” – Saint Vincent de Paul
Believe it or not, tomorrow is already Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Today, we finish our series on preparing for a good Lent by focusing on the last of three pillars: Almsgiving.
The word alms comes from a corruption of the Greek word elenmosyne, meaning mercy. Simply, to give alms means to show mercy. The practice of mercy is not optional, and it is rooted in the character of God himself. God is merciful, and we must be too.
The basis for almsgiving is a spiritual law summarized in the words of Jesus, “Give and it shall be given to you” (Luke 6:38). I refer to this as a law because countless times in Scripture, this theme is elaborated upon, and the message is driven home that God will not be generous with a heart that is unmerciful and closed to the needs of others. We have been given much, and our gratitude for what we have received should inspire generosity in return.
Giving to the poor is critical because we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we make excuses for not giving, it is usually because we have never experienced want or hardship, and thus have no compassion. But I assure you, if you were in need, you would want others to be generous with you. Therefore, if you neglect the needs of others, it is a grave sin against charity.
But beyond the command to charity, Our Lord makes the call to generosity still more urgent by identifying himself with the poor so intimately as to say that we do to them, we do to Him. Likewise, what we neglect to give to the poor, we neglect to give to Him (see Matthew 25). St. Augustine, the great Father of the Church, makes the point crystal clear: “Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh. He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says, ‘Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me’.”
How terrifying it would be to be told that you would not enter heaven because you were cold hearted toward the unfortunate, and therefore toward Jesus himself! On the other hand, what a privilege it is to serve Christ himself in the poor and needy. Those who do so will not be without reward.
What Almsgiving is Not
Almsgiving is not about the government, it is about you. Unfortunately, any mention of giving to the poor immediately leads to arguments about socialist utopias, liberalism, social justice, Marxism, and the welfare state. But almsgiving is fundamentally different than these ideologies, and it is not merely an excuse to justify government redistribution of wealth. The fundamental problem with socialism and communism is that they are inherently godless. They seek to create a heaven on earth through human efforts, neglecting the eternal soul and the necessity of grace.
Another problem with these systems is that they depersonalized generosity. Giving is only valuable when it is personal and comes from the heart. Jesus did not say, “When the state takes your money and gives it to someone else, it will be given to you.” He said, “You give.” When a beaurocracy gives, when a government committee gives, it has no meaning.
While almsgiving may seem straightforward, you may still wonder how exactly you can practice it this Lent. To guide us, Mother Church outlines 7 corporal—or bodily—works of mercy, as well as 7 spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy are:
- To feed the hungry
- To give drink to the thirsty
- To clothe the naked
- To harbour the harbourless
- To visit the sick
- To ransom the captive
- To bury the dead
The 7 spiritual works of mercy are:
- To instruct the ignorant
- To counsel the doubtful
- To admonish sinners
- To bear wrongs patiently
- To forgive offences willingly
- To comfort the afflicted
- To pray for the living and the dead
As you can see, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are opportunities for mercy. Visiting a sick person in the hospital, being patient with the driver who cuts you off, paying attention to one who is lonely, or praying for the souls in purgatory are all acts of mercy that we can practice. The Church lists 7 of each because 7 is a mystical number, but the possibilities are endless. The point is, we must give of ourselves to those who need it—and if we pay attention, we will find countless opportunities to do so.
We have been shown endless mercy by Our Lord, and we must show mercy to others if we are to be obedient to the Gospel. This Lent, seek opportunities for generosity. Perhaps someone has physical needs that are clearly seen, but maybe someone else has spiritual needs there more easily hidden. Pay attention. Once you are aware of a need, give generously of yourself— until it hurts. Be literally compassionate— feel the suffering of others and seek to alleviate it.
PS: Stay tuned tomorrow for an opportunity to practice the corporal works of mercy.