The assignment was fairly simple: set aside time to contemplate and carry out this Lenten custom in a directed way, and then write about it.
Providentially, that blog content meeting—the divvying up of Lenten practices to expound upon on the Word on Fire blog during this penitential season—came on the very same morning of the provocative Gospel reading about the sheep and the goats. Those who did right by the least of their brothers and sisters were named sheep and were ushered into the presence of Christ, while those who ignored the suffering of these least ones were labeled as goats and were cast out to eternal punishment. In that biblical passage, the “least ones” were very specifically named and had tangible needs.
I remember driving to work that morning thinking, “Gosh, I don’t want to be a goat.” With appropriate starkness, the question hit me again like it does every time that Gospel comes around: what was I doing to alleviate that suffering, to meet those tangible needs? The equally stark answer: I was waiting for the least ones to come to me. In my car that morning, what had previously seemed to be active “openness to the Holy Spirit” in reference to charity was seeming more passive and indifferent, a glorious justification for a type of generosity that would appease my conscience in a moment of confrontation. I didn’t seek out need; I just hoped I would stumble across it.
And then, as if it came straight out of the pages of a C.S. Lewis book, I passed a Starbucks and was distracted by thoughts of frilly coffee. Those big thoughts of conversion? Out my car window in the drive-up line.
Good job, Screwtape.
Of the three practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—almsgiving has always confounded me. What to give? How much to give? What is the best way to give? What if I patronize? What if I enable? What if I am imprudent? What about the whole “give a fish or teach a man to fish”? I don’t even know how to fish. And what about when the man really, really just wants a fish right now? Questioning of motives and method seem to occupy all of the time that I have responsibly allotted to the task of almsgiving. Chalk it up to a road paved with good intentions…and carefully buffered from any hazards to my own safety, comfort, and stability. In trying not to do the wrong thing, I often don’t do anything.
Luckily, this blog post loomed in the distance. I would have to do something concrete, despite all the flipsides and the potential for failure, the probable misappropriation of goods, the accusation of one-time conscience appeasement.
So I caught the train to downtown Chicago yesterday after work to find the least ones on short notice, armed with a backpack of chocolate chip cookies, some extra cash, a rosary, and a mountain of misgivings. Sitting on the train, I looked down a bit shamefully on my Toms, my “One-for-One” shoes that were suddenly an ironic commentary on the shallowness of my thus-far charitable efforts. I thought about how I had subconsciously removed my jewelry in preparation for this expedition of giving, some sort of “leveling of the playing field.” I immediately felt both sickeningly naive and overwhelmingly self-righteous. “But it’s different for you. You can escape.” These words from a college professor in reference to some of our western world efforts at charity kept running through my mind. I almost caught the next train back. Who am I to flit around downtown and pass out ten dollar bills and cookies? How utterly off the mark.
I was becoming more and more debilitated by the back-and-forth analyzing of my ulterior motives when it occurred to me: this is just the sort of distorted pride that had previously squelched my efforts at almsgiving.
Not today. Keep going.
I stayed on the train and waited for the Jackson stop. The quote from Dorothy Day ran through my mind: “There are two things you should know about the poor: they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.” And, as I prepared myself for the lack of glittery fulfillment in trying to provide some meager attempt at assistance to these Chicago, Michigan Avenue poor, it struck me again—in referring to the “poor,” the collective “least ones,” I separated myself from them yet again. These were my brothers and sisters. This was personal. Smelly and/or ungrateful, they will be comforted for the suffering they endured on this earth—would I add to it or take it away? I didn’t know what I would see on the streets of Chicago, but I vowed that I would know who I saw.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours, I prayed as I stepped off of the train.
Teddy shook a cup around the corner from the train station, and he immediately struck me as a professional panhandler. He was a bright-eyed, smooth talker with a cell phone peeking out of his pocket and a well-rehearsed schpeel. Was he in need? Or was he just playing me?
Here we go again. I had lapsed into the familiar role of being the Arbiter of Need. I then saw a Starbucks on the corner, but this time that logo served as an indictment: my acquaintance with frilly coffee meant that Teddy needed my change more than me, even if only to buy himself a latte. So I reached in my bag for a cookie and a few dollars. Teddy asked my name and said he would pray for me. Not a bad exchange.
Carmen was cleaning the cracks in the sidewalks outside of the 7-11. She and I walked into the 7-11 to get some taquitos and ice cream, and when we got back outside, she offered to split the taquitos with me as she told me a little bit about her life. Just like a scene from The Human Experience, she spoke of what she had learned about people while living on the streets, and I squirmed as she seemed to describe me. A laundry list of unfounded assumptions, uneasy avoidance, indifference, even mock and disdain. She and I laughed, however, as she told the story of a man who threw a penny in her cup and told her to go buy a drink, to which she responded, “I’d like to know the place where you can get a beer for a penny!”
Carmen’s insight was profound and her simple wisdom had me struggling to add anything of value to the conversation. She said that if having money kept people walking along the sidewalk with their heads turned away from their fellow man, clinging to control of their lives and their wealth, than she would rather be penniless on the streets her entire life. She hugged me and went back to cleaning the sidewalk. And I kept walking.
Block by block down the Magnificent Mile, awkwardly waiting for the next manifestation of need, I realized that the most powerful part of my almsgiving experiment was coming in an unexpected change of vision. I got a sense of the reality of what Thomas Merton spoke about while strolling the streets of Louisville: “There is no way to tell people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Looking for signs of need with the vow to respond indiscriminately, I soon wondered about the needs of the couple walking next to me arguing about where to go for dinner, the busy woman in her high heels rushing home from work and talking on her iPhone, the man in the neon yellow vest sweeping the street. I reached in my bag, out of cookies, and pulled out my rosary.
Soon, I boarded the train headed back from downtown Chicago to my apartment, guiltily aware of my escape, knowing I was headed back to my warm bed and comfortable life, back to my secluded merry-go-round of daily joys and “sorrows.” And for the first time, I thought of the only person who has ever fully entered into the plight of the very least without the opportunity to escape, to be rescued, apart from his own death. I thought about that almsgiving and all that accompanied it, how smelly and ungrateful his recipients were, how he gave all he had in spite of their blatant rejection, how they yielded weapons and insults and ultimately took his life…and how one of those recipients is me.
It occurred to me last night that almsgiving is never finally an effort aimed at fulfillment, at a satisfied feeling of having changed the world and made it a better place. It is not merely a philanthropic gift or a duty. It is an attempt to imitate the Incarnation in rejecting the desire to escape. It is a shaking away of indifference, a denunciation of the measuring of need in favor of simply elevating another’s need above one’s own. Not just another, actually—any other—and we can choose between the tools of time, talent, and treasure to do it. Almsgiving is an earthly introduction to one’s fellow sheep and a refusal to live the life of a sad, secure, lonely—and ultimately bewildered—goat.