Almsgiving is the third Lenten virtue after prayer and fasting. It’s also the most mysterious of the three. “To whom should I give?” “What should I give—and how much?” Because it’s a complex virtue, here’s a little help unpacking it. Below are 5 things about almsgiving you may not have known!
Bank robbers can’t give alms
A virtue is a habit of doing good for love of God. So, if a bank robber is in the habit of giving stolen “alms” to the poor, it’s not a virtue because he isn’t doing it for love of God (unless he has a conversion between the robbery and the poorhouse!) Sorry, Robin Hood.
Almsgiving includes the Corporal Works of Mercy
Writing checks to our favorite charity is a good thing. But almsgiving also includes feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.
and the Spiritual Works of Mercy
Surprisingly, almsgiving isn’t just about material things like money, food, and visits. Instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing insults patiently, forgiving offences willingly, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead all qualify as almsgiving. That means there’s no excuse for not giving alms—God has us covered by providing everyone something we’re capable of giving.
The “forgotten” work of mercy
Today, the sixth Corporal Work of Mercy is to visit the imprisoned, but it was originally to ransom the captive. Centuries ago, tens of thousands of Christian captives were, and some still are, held hostage for money by Muslim captors. The most famous captive is Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. More than one religious order was founded to raise money and negotiate the ransom of these hostages; sometimes a religious would offer himself as a prisoner in return for a captive.
Family and neighbors come first
The adage, “charity begins at home” holds true. Those God has put close to us are the first recipients of our help. This ensures that almsgiving is first of all a one-on-one encounter with the compassion of Jesus. We need to get used to being emotionally vulnerable to the poor: the thirsty beggar on the heat grate that we pass on our way to work, the 90-something lady on our block who needs a ride to the doctor, or the daughter who needs extra TLC today. That way, when we help organizations that serve those we’ll never meet, those within arm’s reach have already received the mercy of God in person through us.
For stories of my adventures (and misadventures) in almsgiving, click here. I’d love to hear your stories—scroll down and leave a comment!
Some put their special gifts and talents to work for almsgiving. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz played for soldiers in combat zones during WWII and, after the war, campaigned for adoption of the emergency number, 911. Luciano Pavarotti held fundraising concerts raising more money for refugee children than any other individual. Perhaps any talent we have becomes a special talent when we put it to work serving others in need.
Yes, it’s a win-win then — enjoyable for everyone involved — bringing beauty in the midst of the mess.