He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. —St. Maximus the Confessor
Lent is a time for intensifying our practice of the three pillars of Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Judaism, and so Christianity, though all are seen as essential to human flourishing, almsgiving is unquestionably the crowning glory of the three.
I love etymology. The English word ‘alms’ is tied to the Old Saxon word alamosna, which stems from the Latin eleemosyna, an offshoot of the Greek eleēmōn (“compassionate”), which itself comes from the Greek eleos (“healing mercy”). We cry out to God in the Mass for eleos every time we cry out “Kyrie eleison.” Alms, then, are gifts of compassion, mercy, and kindness done for the poor, suffering, and needy. These are the “works of mercy.”
In the Old Testament, giving alms to the poor has immense spiritual power. As Tobit 12:8 says:
Prayer with fasting is good,
but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.
A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing.
It is better to give alms than to lay up gold.
For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin.
And Jesus adds a twist to this in Luke 11:41: “So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.” Alms that heal the world of sin’s diseased incurvature come from “within,” from a purified heart of flesh, etched with the law of love, signifying the sincere gift to another of oneself—which for the Christian is at once also the gift of the three selfless divine persons who dwell within each selfless heart.
Prayer opens the human heart to the heart of God, to join with the action of the God who is eternally compassionate and merciful. In this way, prayer empowers us to grow bit by bit in God’s likeness and spread his alms into the world.
Fasting breaks down our natural narcissisms, our tendency to feed ourselves first and best. Fasting uncovers a deeper hunger and reveals our own absolute dependance on God and others. And fasting frees up food and funds for more lavish almsgiving.
But it is secret prayer, fasting, and alms that Jesus commands in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel as the royal road to “your Father who sees in secret.”
This is a singular path of love, as it teaches us to love God first, last, and above all. The inner attitude it cultivates permits God to forge us into the image of his own self-less love. Put another way, just as God’s providential goodness toward all things is largely anonymous, largely undetectable, so our providential care of others and of creation is to be without fanfare, hidden. This helps in it all being not about me but about thee and Thee.
A suggestion: Fill your Lent with lots of small hidden acts that no one can easily trace back to you. For example:
- Skip lunch and furtively give the money to someone in need
- Rejoice when others get credit for your work.
- Pick up trash that you didn’t leave behind.
- Withhold some just complaint as a sacrificial offering.
- Send someone an encouraging note with no identification.
- Pray, fast, and make small sacrifices for people or special intentions, telling no one save God that you did.
- Skip your fancy coffees for Lent, drink instant, and use the monies saved to pay for the food ordered by the person behind you in a drive-through line.
- Take time to fill out a customer satisfaction survey and rave about a great experience.
- Return all shopping carts to a cart station at the grocery store.
- Put a quarter in an expired parking meter.
- Let a merging car into your lane.
- Do some kindness to a person you dislike.
The possibilities for low-key prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are endless. Be wildly creative, do small things with great love; be lavish and try to surprise God with your ingenuity and desire to imitate his love for the good and the wicked, grateful and ungrateful.
Then silently offer them all up with the bread, wine, and alms you present at the Sunday Mass offertory, allowing Jesus to fuse them with his own Paschal alms in a final consecration of the bread and wine—“This is my Body broken for you, my Blood shed for you”—and remembering all along that the new creation is entirely built of such alms, patterned after those of the Knower of all secrets.
Then fuggedaboutit, and go out to do it all again.