Lenten Transformation: Part 3 Fasting & Almsgiving
Yet how do we tie Lent into social transformation? Fasting, praying, almsgiving. How can these activities affect society? Let’s look at each one of these in turn. First, fasting. You know, my wife Sheri and I spend a lot less on food during Lent. A diet without meat and dairy can be healthier, but it definitely should be cheaper. We hear a lot in our country about the need to grow the economy; we’re told to spend—even though most of us are just putting it on a credit card. I guess the assumption is that we can eventually pay off that visa bill. But by changing our diet, we are actually being quite counter-cultural. You see, we’re not just accepting the society’s “Eat more, Buy more, Be more” mentality. And this is hard. There used to be a time in America when because of the Catholic population, there were always fish dishes on menus. Well, now that Catholics are not stressing fasting from meat on Fridays, that has been largely lost. And so, it seems that there are even fewer voices saying, “No, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.” We need these reminders. And so does our society, desperately. Our society, and we are part of it, have become satiated.
A Lenten attitude brings us back to things as they are. And what is that in this case? That, in fact, in two-thirds of the world, it is the norm to not eat meat--not for religious reasons but because meat is so expensive. Seeing things as they are means realizing that resources are limited, and should thus should be well-used. Did you know that in this country one in ten households experience hunger or the risk of hunger, or that 840 million people in the world are malnourished? One hundred fifty three million of these people are under the age of five. Churches have been very active in trying to alleviate hunger. It’s been churches running the soup kitchens reporting an increase in the number of people in their programs, increases that churches can’t match. The US Conference of Mayors reported that last year requests for emergency food assistance increased an average of 19%. Also, 48% of those requesting this aid were members of families, and 38% of the adults requesting help were employed, they had jobs. Some of the reasons given for this include high housing costs, low-paying jobs, unemployment, and the economic downturn.
So by looking at fasting and our relationship to food, we may get a sense of what it is like for most of the world’s population; it also moves us towards doing some things about hunger. Seeing things as they are includes coming to terms with the suffering of our neighbors. Because if we spend less on our stomachs, if we slow down our lifestyles to support a lighter diet, then we have more time to spend on helping our neighbor, both with our time and with our financial resources. I want to stress that the best way to give is to give of ourselves. As Orthodox we believe in the inherent value of persons. I liked what Father said a couple weeks ago about saying hello to a person on the streets. So often we avert our eyes, we get scared. After all, “He might push me beyond my comfort zone.” “He may ask me for something.” “She may want something I don’t want to give.” “What if I get embarrassed?” “Is that person really poor?” “What if he hurts me?” Seeing the face of Christ in the poor takes time; it’s a gift—but it’s also a muscle that develops through the ins and outs of service.
In 1993 I visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for the first time in Calcutta. On the third day, a few us were asked to work at a place called Prem Dan. Among other things, it serves as a shelter for the aged, retarded and disabled. We donned our aprons and went to work. But then I saw what we had to do: I looked out and saw scores of elderly and sick men who needed to be bathed by hand. I thought to myself, “Dear God, this is too much for me.” All around were men who looked like concentration camp survivors. Most were so thin and frail that we had to carry them to the large outdoor baths to be washed. I remember one man. He was nineteen years old, dying of tuberculosis. He was my height, but maybe 60 pounds. I remember washing him—every part of him--awkwardly, praying for strength. He looked up at me with these eyes full of life and understanding at the awkwardness of the moment, and a certain amount of quiet resignation. How beyond my comfort zone was this experience, yet how utterly ridiculous are comfort zones in such situations. There were few times in my life when I felt like I was doing the right thing, but at this moment, everything made sense. There was no room for rationalizations, for hiding, for the totalitarianism of the ego. This was one of the most real experiences I had ever had. The point of the story is that I couldn’t think my way into this understanding; I had to live it, I had to do it. And isn’t that the way of the Lenten disciplines? We have do them. You see, most often, we don’t think our way into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of thinking. And when we’re giving alms, we are not only changing our world, we are changing ourselves one action at a time.
Now the word almsgiving in Greek is “eliomousyne.” It literally means “doing acts of mercy.” So we should not think of this discipline as even being primarily financial. It is to imitate the merciful God, by which we mean the God who shows steadfast love. By imitating God’s steadfast love, we become like God. Nevertheless, doing acts of mercy will probably include the financial element. As we begin to see Christ in one of the least of these, it is also important to put our resources where our mouths are. You want to see what people really believe in? Take a look at how they spend their money. Through my work with non-profits, I’ve learned that you should be able to figure out the mission and values of the agency by looking at its budget. If someone were to look at your spending, would there be enough evidence to indict you as a one who cares for the poor?
Now giving alms in this day and age actually takes careful discernment. In this country we don’t often see beggars sitting at the church doorstep. Again, this is the reality in many parts of the world, and it certainly was true in the patristic period. This means that we have a tougher job. We have to discern the best ways to spend our money and time, the best agencies to work with, the best politicians to elect who believe in helping the poor in the best ways possible. Now if we’re just rushing from one activity to the next, not thinking about God and neighbor, then it will be nearly impossible to find time. But if we are dedicated to taking the Lenten lifestyle into the rest of the year, slowing down, taking stock, prioritizing our activities based on our values, then we will find more time.
Hopefully, you see that when I speak about almsgiving I’m not talking about writing a check. ELIOMOUSYNE. I’m talking about personal engagement, which might include writing a check. A lot of us don’t have much money. But we can give some time, we can give of ourselves, our most valuable commodity.