Some years ago, during a lapse in my better judgment, I was engaged to an artist. I lived in Japan, he spoke English, blah, blah blah. I had this sickness at the time, which I probably still have to some degree (come to think), whereby I thought that if I just tried sincerely enough to enter into his world, that he would do the same towards me, grow up, stop living in a fantasy world, and become a stable person with whom life would not be a total disaster.
Well, that didn't work.
But, I did glean at least one positive from my attempt. One day during Lent, I drew a picture as my Lenten meditation. I can't really draw worth (bleep), but it sure made that meditation stick with me. The particular verse I landed on was "give alms from what you have" which I think was being drawn from Luke 11:41, from the Jerusalem Bible. That particular phrase pierced me then, and it is piercing me again.
Since my first encounters with the Catholic Church, whenever I have heard someone talk about "the poor" or "giving to the poor," I've always had a puzzling reaction deep inside me. Almost without fail, these references have been to nameless, faceless "other people" that the speaker and the listeners are presumed to neither be, nor be like. Sometimes they have been specific other people, such a the beneficiaries of a special collection or some such. Maybe I am too poetic, but this has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Yes, I know that people have concrete physical needs for food, clothing and shelter, and that one need not live in a third-world country to experience that need. Yes, I know that monetary donations are an efficient way to get those needs met by apostolates and organizations that specialize in this.
But what about Western poverty? Remember Mother Teresa's claim that the West has the deepest poverty of all? If we are right in the thick of the world's worst poverty -- made of up loneliness, emptiness, of feeling unloved and unwanted, of lacking a living relationship with God, which is all that can fill these needs -- doesn't it seem that someone should at least mention it?
Today I stopped in a certain business, and an employee there was complaining loudly of her depressed and anxious state caused by one of her favorite characters on a certain TV show dying off. She went on to talk about how terrified she was of zombies, and how she had an escape plan for herself and her cats, should there be a zombie invasion. She appeared neither mentally imbalanced, nor to be joking. I would like with all my heart to believe that she was joking. But I left feeling I was witnessing a most painful poverty. I recognized the yearning for connection, as if it were scrounging through the scrap heaps for something of value there. And I was reminded again "give alms from what you have."
Jesus directed those words in Luke 11 to Pharisees who were so concerned with their religious observance that the real needs of others escaped them. But I think perhaps the real reason those needs escaped them is that they did not, could not feel their own poverty. They couldn't feel their own need, their own longing, their own desire for Love that the Messiah could have filled, had they recognized Him in their midst.
Giving alms seems to boil down to opening one's heart to another's need. To be "comfortable" with need, you have to get close enough to your own that you don't run away from it in fear, avoiding the mere thought of not being 100% self-sufficient. When I get close enough to my own need, I either collapse in despair, desperately try to cover it up and avoid it, or call out with faith to God and ask for grace and help.
Having received grace and help, God then calls me to give toward the needs of others. Giving alms as a Christian is about that. It is a witness to a living hope, one that has reached me and is now reaching beyond me.
It's not just about dropping $5 in a collection for nameless people so that I can pat myself on the back with a feeling that I've balanced some sort of world disparity. That's a fine place to start, though. To "give alms from what I have" I need to look constantly at what is in my own heart, my own hands. How can I incarnate that love today? And can I share it as a gift, without strings, never forgetting my own need?
artwork from http://theanimatedcatholic.blogspot.com/2012/02/christs-arms-and-alms.html