We’ve all seen the images of people in Costco battling over toilet paper. Times of crisis seem to bring out shocking behavior in many people, often driven by fear. During the last two weeks, we’ve looked at the first two pillars of Lent, prayer and fasting, as they apply to the current coronavirus pandemic. This week, let’s look at the final Lenten pillar just before Holy Week, the pillar of almsgiving. This pillar can be particularly challenging for us as Catholics during a time of crisis, a time of uncertainty, and a time of fear.
Although many spiritual and moral obstacles to almsgiving can essentially be summed up by a lack of charity, this is not true when considering psychological barriers. The primary psychological obstacle to giving generously to others from our substance—not just our surplus—is insecurity.
Consider an example where we compare the lives of two toddlers during the Great Depression. Both of the toddlers’ families are similar: they have the same financial resources and the same expenses, and both toddlers leave the lunch table with an apple.
In the first toddler’s family, his parents are loving, patient, and trust in God’s providence. They are calm and provide what they can for the child and older siblings in the family, despite recent financial losses. Although today’s lunch may have only been an apple, the child runs outside into the bright sun on a mission to catch frogs. The toddler is secure in the knowledge that his parents provide for him. Therefore, all is right in his world.
In the second toddler’s family, the child’s parents argue and curse about their situation, complaining about not having enough. They are further embittered by recent financial setbacks. Their attitude toward their circumstances is profoundly different than the first family–much more negative and much less secure. This toddler leaves the lunch table with an apple, worried and burdened by his parents’ misery and insecurity. In his preoccupation, he doesn’t notice the sunny day, and his careworn spirit finds it hard to play.
Which toddler is more likely to share with the neighbor girl who doesn’t have an apple?
When we are insecure, feeling like we have to fight and struggle just to survive, we get much more self-focused and self-absorbed -- just like the second toddler in our example. For many of us, the current coronavirus crisis is stripping away the things on which we have relied on for security. And, herein, lies the opportunity for us. As this crisis progresses, we will see material needs in others in a way that we have not seen in our lifetime in this country. Others’ material needs are becoming more obvious to us day by day.
Here is the important question to ask ourselves when we feel insecure: “Do I have what I need right now?” The global pandemic is accelerating our feelings of insecurity and agitation primarily because we are uncertainty about the future, not because of a real physical need in the present. The people battling over the water bottles in the grocery store are not dying of thirst in the moment. Rather, the water symbolizes something about security for them in the future.
Ultimately, as Catholics, not only our spiritual security but also our psychological security relies on a deep, abiding trust in God. God gives us what we need, when we need it. We see this pattern in the book of Exodus, when He provided the right amount of manna and quail to feed the Israelites each day. Not for stocking their larders. Jesus teaches us to pray the Our Father and to ask for our daily bread, not to request a full freezer.
It is prudent to be prepared in any crisis. Reduce your trips to the grocery store to minimize you and your family’s exposure to risk, and be sure to think a bit further ahead. But, ultimately, we don’t know what tomorrow, next week, or next month will bring. This is actually always true, but it is more apparent in the current crisis situation. It’s a reminder that in our life of faith, we only have to worry about this moment. Tomorrow has troubles enough of its own.
Almsgiving is our third pillar of Lent. Although typically associated with donating money or goods to the poor, the idea of almsgiving is “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God.” (CCC 2462) Let’s take the opportunity to see the gifts we have and that today’s needs are met. If we can reach out and help a neighbor in need, we can use the opportunity to get outside of ourselves and be Christ to others. That may even mean giving up some of that precious toilet paper.