Thursday, March 5, 2015

Almsgiving

"A Welcoming Oasis"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

"Almsgiving," - now there's a word I don't hear used a lot nowadays, and yet almsgiving is a spiritual practice common to all the major religions - any act of charity done on behalf of the poor and needy is an act of giving "alms."  

In biblical times it was a common practice for poor or sick people to sit outside the temple gates in   Jerusalem and beg for alms. According to the temple law, the sick the poor and the destitute were essentially barred from entry into the temple because it was a common belief that poverty or sickness was a sign of being outside God's favor; and certainly there was no place in the house of God for those who were not on God's "A-list."  And so the outcasts of society would camp out at the temple entrances, begging alms from the good religious people as they came and went into the temple to pray - a morsel of food or a few coins from their purses.

Interestingly enough I see this biblical scene of "begging for alms" repeated over and over again every day in the community where I live - not at the gates of a religious temple but outside the doors of a great secular temple, a modern-day supermarket. 

I often see many high-end cars in the parking lot of this market, all owned by rather "well-heeled" people, many of whom live in million dollar homes within guarded and gated communities.  And every day a man sits at a table outside the doors of this market "begging for alms" - a dollar or two to help support a local homeless mission here in the Coachella Valley.  

The owners of the supermarket put up a sign near to the place where the man sits advising their "valued customers" that management does not support this man being there - "just enjoy your shopping experience and feel free to ignore him."

And yet the man outside the doors shows up almost every day to sit at a little table with his little metal box asking for help for the helpless and the homeless. In fact he has pretty much become a fixture outside that secular temple, and you can expect to see him there even when the temperatures outside swell to well over 100 degrees, sitting patiently, begging alms for the poor.

I shop at that nearby market quite often and I have become fairly well acquainted with that man outside the temple doors.  He has a gentle but ragged face that shows the signs of having lived a very hard life. He, himself, has been homeless, hungry and addicted - much of his life was spent on the streets; and then he was lifted up by people who cared. Now he spends his days "paying it forward," giving just as he has received. 

As I shopped at the market yesterday I stood well-off to the side and watched the folks as they left the gates of the market temple - some people sneered, some put a few dollars into his box, most people refused even to look at him as they rushed to their cars and drove back home to their gated communities. I have no doubt that he makes people uncomfortable - such a visible reminder of that vast chasm between those who have and those who have not, those who belong inside the gates and those who are forced to sit outside the doors.

I am reminded of something once said by Saint Basil, a bishop of the ancient Christian church:

The bread you store up belongs to the hungry;
the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked;
the gold you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.

I am so very grateful for that man who sits outside the doors of the supermarket - he is indeed a visible and sometimes uncomfortable reminder to any who pass him by that we all have a moral responsibility to take care of one another, to live in and build up a world in which everyone is welcome to the feast of life - no gates, no locks guarding those within and keeping others out. 

The practice of "almsgiving" involves far more than donating a can of food to a local food pantry, more than tossing in a few dollars to help to the homeless.  Regardless of whatever path any one of us may be on, the practice of "almsgiving" calls us all to a deep awareness that none of us actually "owns" anything on this earth - everything we have is given to us to be shared.  Our "bread" belongs  to the hungry, our closets full of clothes belong to the naked, and the gold in our bank accounts belong to the poor. 

We all belong to one another. 



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