Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.

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3 Comments

  1. Dana Ames
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for putting this one up, Scott.

    One (very, very) small thing I do for the almsgiving piece is to keep a $5 bill at hand in my car to give to the folks who stand at the end of the freeway off-ramps holding cardboard signs. It’s highly likely I”ll not see them more than that one time, so there’s no way I can get more personally involved than that. I’ve simply made a decision to give to those who ask of me, and not judge the people, their motives, whether they’re here to work the marijuana harvest, whether they “really need” money, what they will do with it, etc. I figure that amount is enough to get them a meal or some gasoline, but will not get them enough of an addictive substance that could kill them…

    Dana

  2. Posted May 19, 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    My wife is better at giving than I am and usually better at perceiving the need. She does something similar to what you describe. It could be money. It could be food. Once, I remember she had just pulled out of a fast food restaurant and handed someone her lunch because she felt she should.

    I’m also struck that this does not just operate on an individual basis. Many churches that run food pantries, for example, have rules and procedures in place to try to make sure that people “really” need the help or are deserving or don’t “abuse” the service. Although she hardly fits the description of your typical (small ‘o’) “orthodox” Christian, I was struck by the difference in Sara Miles approach in her book, Take This Bread. After she found herself unexpectedly Christian (an experience with which I can empathize), she started a food pantry where she gave food to anyone who came. No hoops. No paperwork.

    I think that strikes close to the heart of this issue. Our deepest problem does not lie in how much we do or don’t “do good” toward others — though we do need to learn to love. Our deepest problem in this area is that wealth binds us. Even when we “give it away” we want to still control it. Even when we tell ourselves that it’s just to make sure that it is used for “good” purposes, as long as we continue to try to control it, we are still bound to our possessions.

    I’ve been both poor and comfortable. Obviously I prefer comfortable, but for whatever reason I’ve never been one to have great attachment to possessions or the same sort of desire for more. It’s never been an issue to me if my car or truck is old or beat up as long as it could get me from point A to point B. In fact, I only recently bought my first used car that wasn’t acquired second or third hand from someone in my family. I do love my books, but other than that I’ve never felt the need to “keep up with the Joneses” that seems to consume so many in our culture.

    And yet even so, I find the Christian discipline of almsgiving more difficult than all the rest. I’m still not very good at it after all these years. And if wealth so binds me, I begin to understand why Jesus, our Holy Scriptures, and teachings and practice of the Church focus on it so much. We are a wealthy people in this country. I don’t think that makes it easy to be Christian.

    BTW, I recall a story of a bishop who did as you did. When challenged on it by a priest after the bishop gave alms to a man the priest “knew” would use the money poorly (can we ever truly “know” what another will do in response to our actions?), the bishop simply said that if he failed to give, that would be his sin. Yes, people might abuse the money we give them. But if we have truly “given” it, then we have relinquished control. The gift might warm their heart toward God or it might not. One point of almsgiving has to be that we are willing to give up any sense that through our money we can control another human being. (Now, that does not relieve us our responsibility to try to act in love and help someone break free from addiction if that opportunity presents itself. But that strikes me as something different from almsgiving.)

    Thanks for the comment. I had hoped that others might appreciate the centuries of love as I do. St. Maximos is not always easy to decipher, but I find he is worth the effort.

  3. Dana Ames
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    “St. Maximos is not always easy to decipher, but I find he is worth the effort.”

    Indeed!

    D.

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