Every year when Lent rolls around, Catholics across the country pick up cardboard “rice bowls” at the back of their parish churches. We fold flap A into flap B and make a decision to set aside some extra donations for Operation Rice Bowl, a program of Catholic Relief Services. If we’re particularly ambitious, we may even follow along with the accompanying calendar, complete with prayers for and recipes from Third World nations where people are desperate for our assistance.
Things often start out strong. Spare change is collected. Rice and beans are eaten. Families are committed. And then, as often happens when we struggle to create a new habit in our lives, we miss a day or two, or 39. And the next thing we know, we’re heading to Holy Thursday Mass with an almost empty rice bowl, shoving a hastily written check into the little slot.
Sure, the money is needed and important, but almsgiving — one of the three pillars of our Lenten practice, right up there with prayer and fasting — is meant to be about more than simply writing a check or donating material things. It is meant to be a prayer that leads to a new perspective and perhaps even to a permanent change of heart.
“Jesus presented almsgiving as a necessary part of Christian life,” said Mike Aquilina, author of numerous books on Catholic teaching and Catholic devotions and vice president of St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio. “He does not say if you give alms, but when . Like fasting and prayer, almsgiving is non-negotiable.”
Aquilina told Our Sunday Visitor that almsgiving is the “most neglected” of the Lenten practices, despite the fact that in the one place in Scripture where all three — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — are mentioned together (Tobit 12:8-9), the emphasis is on almsgiving.
“Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting,” he explained. “Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is ‘giving to God’ — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.”
If we go back to the earliest days of the Church, we see almsgiving at the heart of Christian community. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read, “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (4:34-35). Almsgiving was woven into everyday life, a given, a Christian attitude that has since lost some of its edge.
More than philanthropy
Often, in our modern world, giving has been divorced from prayer and fasting. We may give each week to our parish, each month to a special charitable cause, each year to a diocesan appeal. And yet, prayer may never enter the picture. Too often, faith giving has come to resemble secular giving — generous, perhaps, but separated from the thing that turns plain old philanthropy into Gospel-inspired almsgiving.
“We are bombarded with demands for money. It’s terrifying. You just feel overwhelmed sometimes. With communication and technology, you just have the whole world in front of you and you want to throw up your hands in despair,” Celia Wolf-Devine, author of “The Heart Transformed: Prayer of Desire” (Alba House, $16.95), told OSV.
Wolf-Devine said that cultural and societal circumstances — people’s busy lives, what she calls the “institutionalization” of charities — “militate against” people having a personal connection to those who receive their donations. There’s a big difference between simply putting a check in the mail and personally delivering blankets to refugees, for example.
“What’s different about giving to charity if you’re a believer? Mother Teresa wasn’t a social worker. The important thing was doing what she was doing for the love of God and giving to others with God’s love. And that’s different for the recipient. They are receiving more than just a gift,” she explained.
It begins with prayer
So how do we infuse our giving with God’s love so that it is truly almsgiving and not just giving? We must begin with prayer, said Wolf-Devine, who echoes the words of countless spiritual masters who stress that prayer must always be at the heart of both almsgiving and fasting.
“It’s really important to have God show us, beg him to show us, what kind of fasting, what kind of almsgiving he wants,” she told OSV. “Give God the opportunity to bring a person in need to you or call your attention to something. Each person is in a different situation for almsgiving. Prayer is helpful to discern which each person’s situation is.”
Almsgiving can take many forms. Yes, it can be a straightforward monetary donation, but it could also be a work of mercy: visiting a shut-in, knitting a prayer shawl for an elderly person, tutoring a child, mentoring a young mother, treating someone with kindness, even offering up suffering. And if we cannot do something extra, we can cut back or make do with less in our own lives to benefit others and our world, says Wolf-Devine.
Marist Father Thomas Dubay, spiritual director, retreat master and author of “Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom” (Ignatius, $14.95), says that almsgiving and prayer must go together, and by prayer he does not mean only traditional vocal prayer but silent meditation and contemplation.
“Deep prayer is part of the package. It’s not simply almsgiving. There’s a big connection between sharing with the poor and deepening prayer life,” he told OSV. “Prayer means deepening communion with God. I can’t really be serious about a prayer life unless I’m also sensitive to the needs of the poor. They just go together — self-denial, almsgiving and deepening prayer.”
As much as almsgiving is simply part of our Christian mission, it is also meant to be part of our penitential practices, something that often gets downplayed in a contemporary culture where people would rather view their generosity as an act of altruism than as an act of penance. And yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that fasting, prayer and almsgiving “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (No. 1434). And we accomplish that conversion through interior penance by way of a host of spiritual practices, including “the practice of charity.”
Father Dubay explains that the sacrificial element of almsgiving is connected with self-denial and, therefore, Lent. “I should be sharing with the poor and with some personal sacrifice, and I should be growing in intimacy with the Trinity,” he said. “The time at prayer with God — meditation, which leads to contemplation, which leads to greater intimacy — and sacrificing reasonably, in small ways as we do in Lent, that’s all connected.”
Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism” (Alpha, $14.95). She blogs regularly for osvdailytake.com.