Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — these three practices form the heart of the Lenten season. In my own life, prayer and fasting are easier practices to adopt. Give something up for 40 days? Got it. Take on an extra spiritual practice? Check. I’m not saying these two are easy, but I’ve understood their purpose for much longer.
Almsgiving, though, has been a different story. I’ve rarely felt that I had extra money to give, so until recent years, I more or less skipped over this one. As I strive to grow in my own practice of this Lenten discipline (and I’m certainly still growing!), I’m learning a lot. If you’d like to add almsgiving to your Lent this year, but are not quite sure how to start, here are some of the lessons I’ve discovered along the way.
What is almsgiving? Why the heck would I do it?
Almsgiving is (unsurprisingly) making a gift of alms, which are physical gifts (money, food, or goods) intended to help those who are poor.
Choosing to give alms makes a difference for those who give. It is an exercise in detachment, a reminder that money is not an ultimate good. Money can, in fact, be a distraction from things that are more important, so giving up some money helps to redirect our attention to what we really value.
Giving alms is also a social practice, perhaps the most social of the Lenten trio. Giving always occurs in relationship. This social aspect of almsgiving can remind us of the social aspect of all of Lent — it reminds us that we’re not alone on this journey. At its best, almsgiving is an act of solidarity with those who struggle with poverty, helping us to recognize our common humanity.
Above all, though, giving away money or possessions is an act of love. Even though it might also help the giver, it’s really about choosing to help someone else above ourselves. It’s a way of embodying our desire for others’ good. It’s about making a sacrifice that echoes the self-giving love of God. And it’s about returning that love; all our acts of love for others are ultimately acts of love for God.
How do I start?
First of all, just decide to do it. Don’t worry about the amount right away — that’s another decision that takes a little more thought. The choice itself is what matters most here. In making it, you’re already starting to get outside yourself.
Next, choose a beneficiary. This can be an overwhelming choice because there are so many good organizations out there. None of us could possibly contribute to every good and beautiful mission, so don’t let the fear of this choice paralyze you into doing nothing at all.
To narrow down your options, think about what you’re most passionate about: can you connect your love for sports or music or children to a way to help people who are poor?
If you’re really struggling to choose, I suggest starting with the Rice Bowl project, which has become kind of a classic Lenten almsgiving opportunity in support of Catholic Relief Services. I have fond memories of receiving a flat piece of cardboard from my Catholic grade school that I could fold into a small box ready to receive my spare change throughout Lent. (Of course, no one carries cash anymore, so literal spare change is hard to come by — but CRS has an app for that!)
Once you’ve found a place for your money to go (hopefully one you are excited about!), set a goal and make a plan. When you’re deciding how much to give, remember that any amount counts; feeling that your offering is inadequate shouldn’t keep you from making any offering at all!
If you use a budget, Lent is a great time to take a closer look to see where there might be money you can give away. Maybe it comes from temporarily cutting an unnecessary expense; maybe you set aside a small amount for each of the 40 days of Lent. Planning ahead for your giving can make it much easier; if you make the decision once and set the money aside (or even give it away up front), you won’t have to make the decision repeatedly to ensure the money is still there. And if you really don’t have the financial wiggle room right now, can you find a way to offer your time or talent?
To take it to the next level, make your giving a spiritual practice. Tie your almsgiving to the other Lenten practices of prayer and fasting. Pray for those who will benefit from your gift, and use your beneficiary’s resources to find a way to engage with their stories. Tie your giving to prayers of gratitude for the gifts you’ve been given. Connecting to your fasting might be a little trickier, but if you’ve given up something for Lent, is it saving you any money? Could some of this go toward almsgiving? If not, could your meatless Friday meals save you a little money that you could donate? CRS provides global recipe suggestions that can help you simultaneously observe the Lenten Friday abstinence, save money that can benefit the Rice Bowl project, and be in solidarity with those living in poverty around the world.
In the end, all of our Lenten practices are meant to draw us closer to Christ. The record of His life in the Gospels shows that He always showed a special preference for those who are poor, and almsgiving is one way we can follow Him more closely.