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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
By St. Theophan the Recluse
Give to every man that asketh of thee. (Luke 6:30)
This is one of the first Christian commandments. The Lord and His holy Apostles often remind us of it, and in order that we may be the more earnest to act upon it, they encompass it with the most moving incentives and the most striking admonitions. There is no one who is not familiar with this commandment, and everyone should act in accordance with their conscience to help the needy as far as they are able. If we examine our actions more closely, however, we shall not find any other area of Christian duty which is so shamefully neglected. Certainly, we do a little here and there -- just enough to get rid of the tiresome suppliant; sometimes we refuse altogether -- which is, in fact, more often the case. Our conscience somehow remains calm; it is silent and does not reprimand us for not helping -- or for extending such meager help. Why is this? Our sinful soul has adopted a calculated understanding of poverty which comes to mind in situations calling for our help. It frustrates our good intentions to the extent that not only does our conscience remain silent at our refusal -- or feeble beneficence; we even convince ourselves that we do better in evading the petitioner.
What have we not thought up, in our selfishness and avarice, to justify our coldness and hardheartedness towards those in need! We attribute ulterior motives to the one asking for help; we suspect his needs are not genuine; we think of what we lack, of hard times and the need to store up for a rainy day…All of these thoughts wander through the minds of those who are careless towards their obligations as Christians; they even enter the minds of those who are mindful and often throw them off the right path of action. Do we want to give freedom and space to feelings of tenderhearted compassion, not to allow them to be darkened by falsehoods? Then let us tear away these prejudiced thoughts and restore a healthy Christian attitude towards the giving of alms. Planting this firmly in our mind and keeping it clearly before us, especially when our assistance is called upon, we shall perfect the carrying out of this duty. Then we shall be able to hear the words: “Thou good and faithful servant.” Let us do this now, so that once and for all, having rejected what is wrong, we shall settle upon what is right.
The moment we find ourselves called upon to give help, the thought strikes us: Is this person really in need? who knows him? Perhaps this is a routine practice and he isn’t needy at all. We believe these thoughts and - either we turn aside altogether, or we help only minimally. Is this right? It’s true; there are cases which support our skepticism. But are we sure that the person standing before us with his request is a case in point? If we do not know this for a fact, why do we jump to conclusions and, even worse, act upon our unfounded suspicions? In fact, this may be a mother who has hungry children at home, or a husband whose wife is ill and his children in rags; perhaps it is the eldest of several homeless and helpless orphans; of a similar unfortunate soul. In such cases, of course, we would be willing to give help We must regard everyone, who approaches us for the first time, in like manner, and not grieve them with our suspicions. What if the person, whose heart is already burdened, should read in our eyes such distrustful thoughts? This would only add to his misery, and instead of being consoled, he would walk away from us with an even greater burden.
Today there is a widespread attitude of suspicion towards the poor. We must react to this with the following resolve: to make certain about those who have no cause to ask for help, and not to give to such a person; but to deny help to everyone simply because there are those whose demands are unjustified -- this is a sin.
When faced with an opportunity to give, we sometimes ask ourselves: with what? We can barely make ends meet ourselves. When there’s nothing to give, how can we feel obligated? The Apostle says we are to give out of our abundance: “For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not. For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened” (II Cor. 8:12). But is it really true that we have nothing left after our own needs are satisfied? And are we being honest in defining what it is we cannot do without? What we consider to be “essential” may easily be reduced or expended. If we eliminate those “needs” which arise out of habit, whim, vainglory, the empty demands of the world, our passions…how much we shall have left for the use of charity. Even if we have already cut down on nonessentials, where there is a desire to give, good will always find means to set aside something for Christ.
One also often hears the criticism: Why are they uselessly loafing about? They should work and earn their daily bread.” A reasonable demand. Even the Apostle enjoins us to work with our hands so that we might satisfy not only our own needs but also have something to give away (Eph. 4:28). With this rationale we can easily dissuade ourselves from offering charity. Are we so certain, however, that whoever asks for help is able to work, or can find work? He may work and still be unable to meet his needs, especially if he has many mouths to feed…
People give all sorts of reasons to excuse their lack of charity, their hardheartedness! Some say, “hard times.” But if the times are hard for those who have a sufficiency, how much harder are they for the poor?! This pretext alone should lead one to give all the more generously. Another says, “I have to save for a rainy day.” Even so, this must have its limits. Otherwise our projected future needs will never allow us to help the poor in their immediate and very real distress. Furthermore, does the future depend on our prudence or on God’s Providence? Of course, on Providence. Let us, then, draw upon ourselves God’s mercy through extending mercy towards those in need; thereby we shall have real security for the future…Yet another says, “Someone else will meet his needs,” and he sends away the suppliant. But will another meet his needs, or will he also say, “Someone else…” and a third, “Someone else…” and so on? This is to leave the poor to the mercy of fate. No. The Lord sent this needy person to you; it is you who should help him. Do not miss an opportunity which may never repeat itself…
You see how many cunning rationales the devil has devised to deter even well-meaning people from charitable deeds. We have to admit that we have all, to a greater or lesser degree, succumbed to them at times. Let us resolve in our hearts not to give in to them anymore… How will these weak excuses hold up before God’s righteous judgment? The Christian mind and the Christian heart should not look upon poverty and the poor in this way. A true Christian adopts the mind of Christ…and carries the law of God in his heart to guide him in his actions Such a one regards the poor as Christ’s “lesser” brethren, or as Christ Himself Who draws close to us through them and accepts what is offered to them as being given to Him…
Let us maintain a charitable disposition and chase away all unkind thoughts. Then our heart will not allow us to break God’s commandment, Give to every man that asks of thee, and it will always urge us to be gracious, to love our brothers, to be courteous (I Peter 3:8), to be filled with compassion and kindness (Col. 3:12), and zealous to be merciful, even as our heavenly Father is merciful.