The real meaning of almsgiving is showing up with mercy.
Once, when I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, I was walking through the downtown of the city towards my apartment after a long day of seminary studies and saw a homeless man roar like a lion.
It was a full-throated, primal expression of happiness—not in a way that made me concerned for his mental health or my safety so much as it was totally unselfconscious. It was a random expression of joy at the beauty of a warm New England afternoon. It brightened my day because it was so off-beat and I would never have the courage to roar like a lion if the mood had so struck me. After that, he asked me for money. Since he had me at “roar” I gave him a few dollars, but in the past I’ve struggled with how to respond when people make such requests.
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It’s easy to shrug these requests off and declare that the money given to a beggar will only be wasted on alcohol or drugs. Pope Francis recently talked about this, noting that “there are many excuses” we can make to withhold giving. The problem is that the excuse isn’t really out of concern for someone else; it’s only meant to make me feel better about refusing to share.
What Francis says makes me question my own motives. Do I pretend to worry about how my few dollars would be spent only so I can avoid an awkward encounter? Is it to avoid the discomfort of spending a few moments with a person who has had a materially worse life than me? Perhaps making a small gift to someone will actually make me feel guilty by reminding me that I don’t give in more significant ways.
During Lent, we are reminded to give alms, but that doesn’t mean we all have to drive downtown and shake the coins from our pockets into the collection bucket at the soup kitchen. The practice of almsgiving isn’t only about giving money to the homeless, otherwise for most of us it would be pretty easy to avoid. So what is it?
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Alms giving is related to the virtue of mercy. Mercy is a quality we can always stand to use a bit more, and there’s never a point where any of can declare that we are completely merciful, so it is good for all of us to examine ourselves this Lent to see if we might give a bit more.
Yes, alms might be a gift of money or food, but primarily it’s a gift of mercy to a person in need. Everyone appreciates a bit of mercy in some area or another. Some are in need of company during times of loneliness, others need a friendly ear and good counsel during times of distress. Some need prayers, or forgiveness, or a kind friend who can look beyond their flaws and treat them patiently.
I asked some of the young children in our parish school what alms they’re giving away this Lent and their creativity impressed me. One child is going through her toys and setting some aside to donate, another is forgoing pizza day at school and donating the money she saves. A number of them mentioned how they want to pray for their families, and a few mentioned that they are giving the gift of peace by giving up fighting with their siblings. Really, there are countless ways we might offer a gift of mercy.
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This means that our entire lives can become an act of almsgiving, and it can be a habit we practice throughout each day. Like with a beggar on a street corner, it’s shockingly easy to ignore these opportunities and we can always justify it by telling ourselves that we don’t want to waste our mercy on those who wouldn’t appreciate it (kind of like assuming the beggar would only use it on drink). But the interesting fact about mercy is that it doesn’t belong only to those who deserve it. Actually precisely the opposite is true, mercy belongs to those who don’t deserve it—including you and me.
Not only does almsgiving create an expectation that we would show mercy to others, but also that others would show mercy to us. If we all followed through on that commitment, wouldn’t such a world be a happier place? Thinking through how we would all benefit from the practice of almsgiving shows that, even though it may be a sacrifice, it sets us free. Not only does giving alms become part of a virtuous cycle by which human beings care for each other, it also reminds us how lucky we are, how blessed life can be, and how it is more blessed to give than to receive.