Father Freddy Washington, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish, Chicago, washes the feet of parishioners on Holy Thursday. Karen Callaway/Catholic New World

The Spiritual Practice of Letting Go and Receiving

How the gesture of almsgiving helps priests deepen relationships with God, their own lives and with people

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In the summer of 1999, I attended a retreat and conference at the University of Notre Dame. Our retreat master spoke on the topics of prayer and the spiritual life. The wise priest insisted that if we were serious about finding God we should give a physical possession away every day. He said when we give away an item that is from our ownership, our souls and bodies learn how to let go, and then how to receive with joy and compassion something unexpected and new. Our bodies, souls and spirits begin to imitate the pattern of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Then, at the end of our lives, we will offer our complete life back to God.

This gesture will have become second nature for us when we take our last breath. This pattern will eventually enable us to surrender our complete lives, all of our desires and accomplishments, all of our sin and heartache, all that is lacking and beautiful, all that is both broken and wondrous, back to God.

After that conference, I took this holy suggestion seriously. I started to give a single possession away at random every day for an entire year, beginning with the pen in my shirt pocket. At the end of the year, my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, offered back to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles the parish in which I was serving as associate pastor.

After giving away the entire parish, I understood the meaning of our retreat master’s proposal, the real demands of such an undertaking. I also understood deeply the inner change that had begun to take place in me. I do not own my life or even my life work; all is a gift from God.

Even though I stopped the daily practice after letting go of the parish in which we served for 46 years, this simple gesture of giving has taken root within me. This spiritual practice of letting go and receiving in order to be more closely formed in Jesus’ life and death is also at the root of almsgiving in the Lenten season.

Almsgiving

The ancient practice of almsgiving coincides with fasting and prayer as Lenten practices designed to move our souls into the love of Christ Jesus. All three practices become a matter of body and soul, a real-life surrender that may transform our lives into deeper faith and hope. I offer here some brief reflections on the giving of alms as we move toward the Triduum, the source of faith in Jesus Christ.

Almsgiving is not an empty gesture or a pious notion. As priests, we may resist entering into the true meaning of this Lenten practice. Sometimes we get stuck in thinking that we “gave at the office.” If part of a parish that supports numerous charities and good causes, those offerings may be perceived as enough for us. Many parishes even tithe regularly to social service organizations or places that support local homeless families.

As priests, we must take to heart this path of letting go in order to receive something new and fresh. We do not abstain from our parishioners’ Lenten practices. We may excuse ourselves by falsely thinking that we have already given our entire lives to such a reality. Yes, the cost of discipleship is real for us on a daily basis. We may face even deeper obstacles as priests in learning how to let go of our own possessions in order to discover a deeper, richer grace and a kinder more compassionate heart.

Priesthood is not about privilege or cultural status, but rather needs to be a deep and abiding notion of becoming a humble servant. We do not serve people from a spirituality of entitlement or from the gospel of prosperity but as a witness to lifting up people in physical and spiritual poverty.

Some priests resist people surviving poverty. We might fall into cultural traps of blaming people for their generational poverty, their long-term addictions and even their mental illness. Almsgiving helps us encounter the real stories of our people who are lost in back alleys, who live paycheck to paycheck or who face horrific diseases such as schizophrenia.

People living in poverty cannot necessarily pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Almsgivers become a lifeline to survival for the desperately poor. However, as a priest learns to enter into this letting go, we are the ones who are converted, we are the ones who give so that faith may take root in our obstinate lives, in our lack of surrender to love, in our daily prayer for true liberation and freedom. We give in order to create deeper relationships with God, with our own lives and with people.

Building Relationships

The giving of alms from our own pockets is a step toward building relationships. This is the core of the Lenten season, to create bridges with people who are lost, forgotten and whose lives need God. Our work as priests reaches far from comfortable postures in our sanctuaries and into the real-life places where people live without hope and comfort. Our giving up and giving away enables people to witness that the love of the Church reaches well beyond the church parking lot and into the messiness of life, into the fragility of floods and storms, into the violence and chaos of war, hatred, xenophobia and malicious behavior. Creating healthy and honest relationships within the Church may very well begin with our letting go of power, control and needing to be correct.

Almsgiving helps us all come to terms with status and privilege. Once we learn how to enter into the path of dying to self and rising with Christ Jesus, we begin to live a more simple life, a life that is honored with gratitude, not anger about the possessions we do not have. The regular practice of offering alms carves a deep path for us priests into the real kingdom of God.

Prayer in Action

Almsgiving is our prayer in action. Almsgiving shows us that our deepest journey into the heart of Jesus is not about our own authority or power in our daily ministry. Learning to give from our own possessions teaches us that even the things that we think we “own” actually come from God alone. God alone is the source of our possessions, even our gifts, talents and faith. Giving things away is a reminder that on this side of the grave, all is of God. We are instruments of God’s bounty and care for the world. God initiates our prayer within us as well as the giving away of our lives and possessions.

With a practice of almsgiving, we learn to stand at the altar with open hands and hearts, with our lives free to love and serve. As we lift up our arms in prayer, we come to understand that this simple gesture has deep meaning for our own lives. We stand more humbly at the altar when we come to a richer faith in God, well beyond our own sense of control over the externals of our ministries. So often for us as priests, we confuse theological training about how the Eucharist should be celebrated for our own faith.

We think that if the items in the liturgy are in proper order then we are praying. Our personal prayer goes far deeper than the style of vestments we wear or the music that is being sung. Our prayer at the altar is about self-emptying, discovering a profound humility that God is God and we are not.

As priests, most of us live very secure lives. We may even fall deeply into a well of self-sufficiency, a trap where we live comfortably on our own, even without God. Almsgiving helps us remedy such sickness by opening our lives to a renewed dependency on God alone.

From our almsgiving, we encounter the gift of real engagement into a life of prayer and service. When we empty our pockets, we encounter the reality of people who struggle without insurance, people who have lost their employment and others who struggle to care for a sick child with cancer. Almsgiving invites us into a deep and profound understanding of how we are all relying on the bounty of God.

Foundation of Vocation

The connection of prayer and service, of love and action, of Eucharist and justice, is key to our lives of almsgiving. We give alms from the core of our faith, from the actions of Jesus himself. This link does not end in the Triduum or the Easter season. This connection exists as the foundation of our vocations as priests. Jesus offering his own Body and Blood in the Eucharist is only half the message on Holy Thursday. The washing of feet is also a sacramental moment of action and love.

As I reflect on the action of almsgiving from the perspective of the giver, I realize that such divine service happens fully only in the course of a lifetime. This action flows from the second half of our lives, when giving may become second nature to us as priests, when our lives are preparing for our own old age and even death. This heart-to-heart connection of Eucharist and service is more clearly seen when we as priests have nothing to lose. We give money, food, clothing and hope to people. We are extremely generous at heart. This realization comes perhaps only in the second half of life. This spiritual discipline carves out a space in our own hearts so that Jesus may rest within us. This ongoing action of fidelity and trust changes our lives here on earth and the lives of so many other people.

In many ways, almsgiving is an act of heavenly grace here on earth. Learning how to see almsgiving as an act of self-stripping from false ego and attachments offers us a new faith even as it lifts up people in poverty, illness and hopelessness. This Lenten practice is an act of maturity. Almsgiving over the course of a lifetime becomes a source of conversion and real consciousness about how Jesus loves and redeems his people. One act of charity may indeed lead to a life of washing people’s feet and offering our true selves to those who most need us. This action of love and tenderness will take us safely home on the day we take our last breath. 

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Colorado Springs, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel in Manitou Springs and Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade, Colorado.

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Insights to Almsgiving from the Lenten Gospels

We ponder the Sunday Gospels during the Lenten season (Cycle A) that give rise to further insights into almsgiving. On the First Sunday of Lent (Mt 4:1-11), we hear for ourselves the urgency of the coming of the kingdom of God and our call to resist temptation of all kinds. In the desert, we reflect on our material possessions and our unwillingness to shed our comfort and our control. We cast our old selves aside and follow with those who wait for the refreshing newness of baptism.

On the Second Sunday of Lent (Mt 17:1-9), we follow Jesus along with the disciples up a mountain to capture a glimpse of his transfiguration. This light leads us to Calvary and the ways he will transform our lives. God will do the leading, and all we need to do is to let him lead us. If we can do that, our lives and our offerings will change completely.

We so often resist cleansing and forgiveness from God. Our hearts long to be known, similar to how the woman at the well experienced Jesus (Jn 4:5-42) in the Gospel on the Third Sunday of Lent. We need to trust that Jesus is leading us with hope so as to bring that hope to other people.

The Gospel of John (9:1-41) gives us sight and insight on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. If we prefer darkness, we will hesitate to learn how to see. However, God is carving a new home within our stubbornness and lack of faith to help us see for ourselves the amazing joy and love that the light of Christ will bring to even the most stubborn and cranky.

Sometimes our negative attitudes as priests are hard to crack. We cling to our own vision of the Church, of our interpretations of the liturgy from seminary days and how our local churches should be run. For us priests, it is often easier to cling to these things than to change. We fear that if we truly let go, there will be nothing left in our lives to hang on to, to control. Our identities will certainly change. Indeed, we will be stripped down to realizing we are children of God.

This change is also part of our almsgiving. The real almsgiving that we offer one another might very well be our change of hearts and attitudes with a gentle and more loving spirit. We will be reborn. We hear this in the Gospel (Jn 11:1-45) for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Letting go, dying to self, allowing change remains at the center of this Gospel and of our conversion during the Lenten season.

On Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, we come to see Jesus in a new identity. Various people reveal the identity of Jesus in the Passion narrative (Mt 26:14—27-66). We also have journeyed to this day, letting go of false notions and understandings of who Jesus is for the sinner and for the self-righteous. We shed our past sin in order to give away our redeemed and bounteous lives in Jesus Christ.

Holy Thursday becomes the core image of our almsgiving in this season of conversion. We enter into the mystery of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in the Gospel (Jn 13:1-15). Meanwhile, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 we hear the memory being relayed to us of Jesus taking bread and wine, lifting them up and saying to his disciples that he will remain forever when they continue such a gesture. This scene of the Eucharist is not portrayed in John’s Gospel. The Gospel gives us another radical and genuine portrayal of Jesus bending down to wash the feet of his followers. This is not a gesture lost among ancient Scripture texts, but a living reminder of how we extend our lives to others in faith and hope.

As priests, we are confronted on Holy Thursday with how we wash feet. This is not just a physical gesture, but also one of great spiritual worth for us. Who needs to have their feet washed from us on Holy Thursday? How do we need to learn to bend down and give of ourselves with what little we have? What does it cost us to learn to serve in this way? These are formative and essential questions for priests on Holy Thursday. These are the spiritual realities we need to continue to pray about in our lives. How is the Eucharist lived and carried forth from our sanctuaries?

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