During this season of Lent, the Church directs us to the three disciplines of Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. She recognizes these three as privileged instruments of formation and education, deepening in us the life of Christ, because they are directly oriented toward correcting and perfecting our relationships: with God, with things, and with people.
Almsgiving has always been the hardest of the three Lenten disciplines for me. Not because I don’t like giving money, but because I always feel at a loss as to how best to accomplish this in an authentic and meaningful way. How do I determine the best causes for my money? Who needs it the most? Do I send a donation to poor people in another country? Or maybe, I need to give of my time: volunteer at a soup kitchen, tutor children in need. These are perhaps more creative, and thus more initially attractive ways. But I find myself so anxious to discover the best possible way, that usually, by Easter, I find I’ve neglected this third category altogether. I wanted this year to be different.
It was a bitingly cold Saturday morning in February, and even in the warmth of the car, I was bundled up, my hands in my coat pockets, and my face buried in my scarf. I was enjoying the rare chance of spending a Saturday afternoon between the busyness of our lives with the 84 year old priest who was like a grandfather to my family. We were stopped at a red light, at a busy intersection, waiting for the left hand turn signal to get onto the highway.
I was chattering away, catching him up on everything going on in my life, and had barely noticed out of the corner of my eye the familiar sight of a man in ragged, dirty coat, holding a cardboard sign, standing on the median. Fr. Bob, being a Franciscan friar, had of course seen him right away, and even as I talked on, he was reaching into his glove box, and pulling out a granola bar. When the man made his way toward us down the line of cars, he rolled his window down, and greeted him with that radiant smile that tells you you’re the only one that matters in the whole world, coupled with kind words, and his simple offering.
The man thanked him. “You folks don’t happen to have any coffee, do you?” he asked, then.
No, we said, regretfully. We didn’t. The light changed, the window went up, and we started off.
But I was strangely struck by his request. Coffee! I had never thought of that. For someone spending their days begging on a street corner, you might think a cup of coffee an extraneous luxury, and not the first order of concern. But this ragged, dirty, person on the side of the road was a man, like any other.
And on that frigid morning in February, what his humanity wanted more than anything else was what anyone would have wanted: the comfort, warmth, and joy of a steaming cup of coffee to wrap his hands around, and warm him all the way through, even if for twenty minutes! And what a simple, easy thing to be able to give! I made a new resolve: Every time I got a coffee for myself, I would buy a second cup, and find someone to give it to on my daily commutes. Or I would take an extra with me in the mornings, from the full pot at home, half of which usually ended up down the drain at the end of the day.
Suddenly, that Saturday morning at the corner, I realized that sometimes almsgiving is a warm cup of coffee to thaw the freezing soul of a lonely brother on a street corner; sometimes, when we have nothing else to offer, almsgiving is looking someone in the eyes, and giving them a smile. And sometimes, giving these things actually demands more of me, because they have to be given out of my poverty: they require that I admit my own inability to give anything substantial enough to effect real change in their lives. It is easy to hold off giving because we are looking for an opportunity to give something significant enough that it feels worth it to me. But who is this really serving? Am I giving for the good of the other, or to feel myself affirmed by the “value” of the gift? Thus, this kind of giving also requires my humility, because it requires me to surrender my own ideas of what the other needs: It is to accept a different measure than my own.
Not only do I want to have something substantial to give, I also automatically want to look for the person with the most dramatic needs to give to. Therefore, I assume almsgiving means going to the city soup kitchen that I’ve never set foot in before; to the nursing home across town, that I have no connections to, in contrast to the very commonplace, obvious, right-under-my-nose-in-every-day-life people and places that I find easier to overlook. Like my roommates. My co-workers. The people that are already a daily part of the weft and warp of my life, and are therefore, a lot harder to look at, to serve, to give to than the people I can conveniently drop in on and never see again.
I came home last night from a long day at work, a host of to-do items racing through my mind, poised momentarily to collect and order everything before rushing out the door again to the store. In a moment of half-hearted distraction, I was aware of my roommate standing absently with her coat still on, in the middle of the kitchen, and threw out a half-conscious, “How was your day?” before preparing for my next task. I had no idea what I had asked, as I quickly discovered in listening to the next five minutes of her distress and worry.
Carving out the time to ask your roommate, “How was your day?” at the end of a long day of your own, and sitting still long enough to really look at her, and listen to her, without checking your phone, or your email, or letting your mind wander to all the list of things you want to accomplish before bed…this was my second lesson in almsgiving. This is, again, a giving that demands all of me: it demands that my person be present; it demands, once again, both of those qualities that the cup of coffee to the man on the street demands: my poverty in accepting to give something so commonplace, and my humility, in surrendering my measure, and submitting to the real, immediate needs of the other.
If you start paying attention, our lives are full of very real opportunities to give in this way: a way that challenges us to be truer, more real…more holy. And just as in carving out time for prayer, and fasting from the things that we rely on inordinately, this kind of almsgiving also requires a sacrifice: it requires letting go oftentimes of the way we would choose to give, the ways we want to give, and instead, give in the ways that are being offered to us, in the opportunities the Lord is directly giving, every day, that He knows will stretch us: the stuff through which we have the chance to become more fulfilled, more true, and perfect in exactly the ways we need to.
I’m discovering that almsgiving, as with prayer and fasting, is in fact an ingenious way to teach us to listen: to be present and attentive to the action and invitations of Christ for our own holiness, through the people that He has surrounded us with in our lives. And there is something so deeply right, so freeing about this invitation to surrender to His initiative, rather than making Lent a neatly controlled project of my own. Perhaps this is the true value of this season, and these disciplines: to train our hearts into a recognition of Christ’s Presence, His invitation to us in the ordinary, daily circumstances of our lives. And maybe, if we come to find Him in this daily ordinariness, we will truly recognize Him on Easter Day.
Siobhan Maloney works for the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. She also assists with their online review journal, Humanum. She studied Humanities and Catholic Culture at Franciscan University, and Theology at the John Paul II Institute.