Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor”. This is Part 4 of my series on Discipline and today I’m going to be looking at Almsgiving.
Almsgiving is the third of the three great ascesis, or disciplines, in the Orthodox Church. Combined with prayer and fasting, almsgiving can be another skill we develop to bring us into greater and greater union with Christ. But, I find it’s one of the hardest disciplines to talk about—I can talk all day about your prayer rule or fasting from chocolate chip cookies, but talking about giving up your hard-earned money in this day and age is just about as taboo as it gets!
We live in a particularly money-obsessed age that, in my mind, is driven by three things: first, our fallen nature’s tendency towards greed and jealousy and covetousness; secondly, our societal backdrop of the “American Dream” in which we are somehow expected to better ourselves in every generation—to have more than our father or grandfather before us; and thirdly, by our consumer-driven culture, in which we express ourselves and our measure of success in life by our consumption of things.
These three facets of our lives set us up for great discontent, that especially toxic passion which brings destruction and despair in its wake. We always want more, more money, more gadgets, more status and as we pursue these goals, they leave us feeling perpetually drained and depleted. We’re not just in monetary debt, we’re in spiritual debt.
To bring us back into the black on the spiritual balance sheet, so to speak, is almsgiving. It is the vaccine for this pernicious disease of discontent. Because, at its heart, almsgiving is about letting go.
As human beings, we’re not very good at letting go. We want to hang onto the good things in life (and ironically, sometimes even the bad things) as long as possible and we live in the shadow of fear that somehow they will be wrested from us. This is part of why we fear death as the ultimate letting go. We have the erroneous notion that we are in control and we associate letting go with a lack of control and power over our lives and we are terrified of it. I believe this is why it can be so difficult to talk about almsgiving—it brings us right up against some of our most primal fears.
But, if we can learn to practice almsgiving in our lives, we have at our disposal an all-powerful weapon for combating these potent passions of fear, greed, jealousy, and covetousness. What a gift our merciful Lord gives us—a way out of our fearful and terrified state.
So, what exactly is almsgiving? It’s a conscious giving away of your resources. This often includes monetary resources, like tithing to your parish and contributions to monasteries or missionaries or orphanages, but it also includes the wider scope of our resources, which might include time, skill, or knowledge. It begins with one person, but should work its way outwards and affect families and communities for almsgiving has a particularly stimulating effect on families and communities. It is as if there is a particular grace that is somehow freed to pour into our lives when we begin to give things away.
We live a few miles away from a shelter that houses women and their children escaping domestic abuse. Those of you who have heard my other podcasts know that I cannot bear clutter, which has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a mother. To a gal who likes a place for everything and everything in its place, it is has required my learning to clamp my mouth shut and avert my eyes when the kitchen table is covered with Playmobil yet again and the family room has given way to an architectural experiment involving 286 of the 288-wooden blocks we own. My daughters love to play and imagine and, as far as toys go, my girls have hit the grand jackpot—they are not only priest’s kids who get showered with gifts at Christmas and birthdays, they are the only grandchildren on both sides (it’s a charmed life, I can assure you!). But, occasionally, even the clutter gets to them and when I hear them snapping at each other in the playroom or taking an inordinately long time for the daily tidy, I know it’s time to clean out. This used to be really difficult for them and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but one day, it occurred to me to explain about domestic violence and how some children had to flee their homes with only the clothes on their back and that my girls could help by giving their toys to the domestic abuse shelter. Sitting amongst their mounds of stuffed animals and Legos, they were suitably horrified by the idea of a child living a toy-less life, and from then on, giving away some of their gently-used toys became a pleasant endeavor. As we sorted and cleaned, we talked about what little boy or girl might get this or that toy. By focusing on the recipient, they had an opportunity for empathy, which completely changed their attitude about this very necessary letting go of their toys. Here again, letting go opened up a new flood of grace in their lives and in the wider community, bringing in its wake cheerful giving, concern for those less fortunate, and peace in their less-cluttered environment. It banished arguments, hoarding, and self-absorption. What a rich reward of spiritual fruit from one small action!
Like the other disciplines, almsgiving trains us. Almsgiving teaches us to be comfortable with letting go. Because at every stage of our lives, we are faced with letting go. In childhood, we must put aside childish things as we grow, in adulthood, we must put aside our selfishness in order to embrace healthy relationships and families, in parenthood, we must let go our own wants and needs in order to serve those given into our care. As friends and relatives and co-workers, our lives are made richer the better we are at letting go because it opens these rivers of grace to ourselves and those around us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about letting go over the last few weeks because I’ve just gone through one of these phases. While I have been very blessed with my two daughters, I always thought one more child would be perfect. After many years and several miscarriages, I began to realize that this blessing was not to be, so over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been “working out” my letting go, just like we work out our salvation. I gave away my last few pieces of baby equipment and I boxed up the little hand-knit sweaters to lay aside for my eventual grandchildren. I’d still look a little wistfully at babies in church or the grocery store, but I began to make peace with the fact that this phase of my life was over.
But during Holy Week this year, one of the very pious women in my parish shepherded me into the coat closet and, in no uncertain terms, commanded me to begin praying for another child (this woman has had many answers to pray and has always been my go-to person in extreme needs of prayer due to her great faith and piety). I was a little taken aback, because even though I felt I had let go, it was still a bit of a fresh wound and this seemed like the proverbial salt. But, I knew the woman’s holy intentions, and I chalked it up to the Middle Eastern view that every family needs a boy, made some polite remarks, and moved on.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered a few short months later, that I was expecting another child. I was overjoyed and amazed and I kept thinking to myself, “But, I had let this go!”. It seemed too great of a blessing, one that I didn’t deserve.
Which brings me to another point about almsgiving: that often letting go opens us up to greater and better things. I am NOT saying that you let go of something in order to get your own way—definitely not. But, sometimes, you need to let go of something so that you can come to the place you need to be, spiritually. By letting go of my dream of another child, I experienced a deep thankfulness for my family and my daughters and all that God had already showered me with. The experience opened my heart, which had been closed, and I found myself just waiting to see which new direction God was leading me, living in a state of greater contentment than I had experienced for some time. It seemed divinely humorous that He was leading me exactly where I wanted to go. But I couldn’t get there on my own—I needed the outpouring of grace that true almsgiving, or letting go, brings with it.
So, while almsgiving requires of us our money and our time, it also requires that we give fully, out of the depths of our hearts. That we give our very souls to God, so that He can pour out His loving grace upon us, and bring us to a deeper knowledge of Him. We need to open not only our purses, but our hearts.
When looked at through this lens, the discipline or skill of almsgiving becomes much more broad than $20 thrown in the offering plate or a special contribution to your local monastery. Our money and our temporal resources are really the least we have to give, in comparison with our hearts and souls. This doesn’t mean that we don’t give monetarily—we need to give routinely and generously because this is how we practice almsgiving and how we open ourselves to greater and greater levels of spiritual giving. We have a long tradition of giving within the Church, from the widow’s mite in the New Testament to the many stories of wealthy saints who gave up all their earthly goods to follow Christ. They became saints because they gave fully. In giving fully, they opened up space in their hearts to receive Christ. When it comes to earthly things, there’s limited real estate in the heart—as Christ says, “A man can not have two masters”. Mammon restricts our heart, but Christ expands it. How typical of our loving and merciful God that when we give our little bit, He showers us with His all.
Because coming full circle, almsgiving is really about receiving. We can get very caught up in the uncomfortable giving part of the skill, when we have to say no to a Venti latte because we’ve made the commitment to tithe, but ultimately, the complete process of almsgiving is receiving Christ. There is a spiritual cause-and-effect at work here and when we give, we receive far more. Almsgiving changes our hearts. It reminds me of the “Platetera ton ourinon” icon, which depicts the Mother of God with her hands outstretched and a rondel of Christ in the center, and which translated means “She who is more spacious than the Heavens”. Physically speaking, no human being could contain the Creator of Heaven and Earth, but by giving her very life, her heart, her all, the Theotokos received Christ and became our first and best example of true almsgiving.
May we go forth and open our purses, and better yet, our hearts to our loving and merciful Lord.