During these solemn days of Great Lent, we are introduced if not brought into a more intimate and sincere relationship with Christ. We are to generously give alms, dedicate ourselves to fasting, and increase both our personal and corporate prayers. Why? The answer is simply because it was the Lord Himself who established these disciplines for His disciples saying: “When you pray…”, “When you fast…” and “When you give alms…” not “if!”
For Saint Maximos the Confessor, almsgiving, fasting and prayer correspond to the powers of the soul: “Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for contemplation of created beings.” Having previously expounded upon the merits and means of both prayer and fasting, “Come let us…” now discuss and then, to quote the hymnography of the Sunday of Orthodoxy:
“ …cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor, not sounding a trumpet or making a show of our charity. Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing; let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving; but in secret let us call on Him that knows all secrets; Father, forgive us our trespasses, for You love mankind.”
What is almsgiving? It is first and foremost for St. Basil the Great a realization that:
“The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.”
Saint Gregory of Nazianzus explains that an act of mercy ought to stem from the awareness that “The Lord of all asks for mercy, not sacrifice and mercy is greater than myriads of fattened lambs. Let us then show him mercy in the persons of the poor and those who today are lying on the ground, so that when we come to leave this world they may receive us into everlasting dwelling places.”
Expressing the same truth but in a more familiar vernacular, Elder Joseph the Hesychast directs the faithful to: “…Send your treasures to the heavenly storage room. Deposit your wealth in God’s Bank, distributing it to the poor, the orphans and the widows, so that you can receive a million times more in the Second coming of Christ…”
If we need a further motivation to give alms, Saint Clement of Alexandria writes:
Remember that Jesus gave his all to save us. For each of us he gave his life. Because he gave up his life for us, he demands we give our lives for each other. If we owe our very lives to our brothers, shall we hoard our wealth, and keep it away from them? Shall we keep things away from each other only to have those things burn at the end of the world? No, no! If we do not love our brothers, we are children of the devil and heading for the flames ourselves. But the true Christian loves his brothers! Love seeks not her own, but is diffused on the brother. About the brother love is fluttered, about him she is soberly insane! And, as Paul tells us, love is the only thing that lasts.
Some may hear this and say, but who is my brother? To whom shall I give? In the Shepherd of Hermes we are taught to “Do good and with a simple heart share the fruits of your labor which God gives to you with all those who are in need, not wondering to whom you should give and to whom you should not give. Give to all, for God wishes that you give to all from His many gifts to you.”
But what am I to give? If we heed the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, we simply give what we can. “Give a loaf of bread yourself, someone else can give a cup of wine, and another gives clothes. In this way one man’s poverty is relieved by your joint effort.”
Theophane the Recluse similarly says:
“…do whatever comes along - in your circle of friends and in your surroundings -and believe that this is and will be your real work. More will not be demanded of you. It is a great misconception to think, whether for the sake of heaven or, as the modernists put it, to “make one’s mark on humanity,” that one must undertake great, reverberating tasks. Not at all.
It is necessary only to do everything according to the commandments of God. Just what exactly? Nothing in particular - only those things which present themselves to everyone in the circumstances of life, those things which are required by the every day happenings we all encounter.
This is how God is. God arranges the fate of each man, and the whole course of one’s life is also the work of His most gracious foreknowledge, as is, therefore, every minute and every encounter.
Let’s take an example: a beggar comes up to you; it is God who has brought him. What should you do? You must help him. God has brought the beggar, of course, desiring you to act toward this beggar in a manner pleasing to Him, and He watches to see what you will actually do ...If you do what is pleasing to God, you will be taking a step toward the ultimate goal, the inheritance of heaven.
Generalize this occurrence, and you find that in every situation and at every encounter one must do what God wants him to do. And we know truly what He wants from the commandments He has given us.
Regardless to whom or when you give, “…let the cheerfulness of your face precede your gift, and comfort his sorrow with kind words. When you do this,” says St. Isaac the Syrian, “by your gift the gladness of his mind surpasses even the needs of his body.”
These moments are good and unto our salvation though, only “…when to [them are] united the amendment of the heart from pride, malice, envy, slothfulness, indolence, gluttony, fornication, falsehood, deceitfulness, and other sins. But if the man is not careful to amend his heart, trusting only to his alms, then he will obtain but little benefit from them, for he builds with one hand and destroys with the other.”
I close with the words of St. John Chrysostom,
Lift up and stretch your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor; for if you stretch forth your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven; but if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing…The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar, the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.