February 15, 2013

Lenten Journey: Alms - Keeping Secrets from Ourselves

"When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.  Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." - Matthew 6:2-3
"Any material favor done to assist the needy, and prompted by charity, is almsgiving." (quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia)
For reflection...

Alms is such a funny word, isn't it?  I don't think I've ever used it in a sentence.  When I hear it, I think of giving money.  I might use language like giving to charity or making a donation or even tithing, but I would never say I'm giving alms.  Even writing it makes me feel like I've stepped into a Charles Dickens story.

But if I'm to believe the definition I found, it's about more than money.  What does it mean, I wonder, as I unpack "material help" for "the needy," prompted by charity"?

Material help seems easy enough.  That includes money, right?  And stuff.  Canned goods or new socks or toothpaste.  For the needy.

Here I have to pause.  Needy.  I'm needy sometimes, and I have plenty of food and clothing and toiletries. So what else might it mean to be needy?  For me, I think of myself as needy when I'm over-stressed and over-planned and overwhelmed and I feel under-equipped, under-prepared, and misunderstood.  I say feel because, what I know from my less needy moments, is that I do have everything I need, if...

If what?  If I remember.  If I ask.  If I stop and breathe and pray and breathe some more.  But I forget, and I don't ask and I hold my breath and try to do it on my own and the next thing you know I feel like I'm suffocating.

The problem is, I am a lot more comfortable being the almsgiver than being the needy.

Which brings us to charity.  "Prompted by charity," says our definition.  Charity is another one of those words, like alms.  It's positively Dickensian, until you look at its roots.

Charity started out as an old Latin word, caritas, which was used in the Latin Bible to translate the Greek word that John and Paul and the other New Testament authors used:  agape.  We're probably familiar with it  in 1 Corinthians 13 and in John 3:16, but what does it mean?

C.S. Lewis wrote a whole book on the different ways the Greeks had of expressing the concept of love.  The nutshell of agape love is that it is what we might call unconditional or sacrificial love, that is, the sort of love that God has for us.

Which is the long way round, but brings us back to what it means for us to be "prompted by charity," or agape.  I have to know my own neediness before I can really meet you in yours with agape.  If I start anywhere else, I'm doing you a favor, because I can.  Because I have more.  Because I see myself in some sense as richer or more privileged or better.  And that's not love.

Love is mutual.  It requires that you and I meet in our shared need.  We come together in a common recognition of our brokenness and helplessness apart from something that is outside of us both -- that is, God.

If I'm going to give someone else a handout or a hand up, I have to start with my hands empty.  It's a mystery, even to me, how I can give from my own nothingness.  It's not mine to give, because I don't have it to give.  It can only be given through me, through my awareness of my own want.

My right hand, doing the giving, can only keep the secret from her partner, the left, when the right doesn't know herself how she's doing it.

For entering in...

Find a quiet place to be.  Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body, in this place, at this time.

Even if you're not sure there's anyone listening, invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Do you give to charity?  Do you tithe?  Why do you do it?  How have these practices figured into your spiritual life, if at all?
  • Have you ever been in want for material goods?  Under what circumstances?  Were you able to receive help from others?  How did that feel?
  • Do you ever feel emotionally or spiritually needy?  When or under what circumstances?  How do you react?  What do you feel like you need in those moments?
  • Write your own definition of love.  In particular, how would you describe the sort of love you think God has for you?  Is this what you want from God?  If not, rewrite your description to reflect the sort of love you want from God.  Include as much detail as you can.  
  • Look back on what you wrote about the ideal love you wish for from God.  Can you believe that God is offering you that sort of love, right now?  What if it were true?  How would your life be different?  How could you allow that love to pass through you and into the world?
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?

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