By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 6, 2008
Years ago, when I was an atheist, I became involved in a Red Cross charity drive at work.
People were encouraged to bring in supplies to help folks who had been through a natural disaster, and I found myself at the grocery store, eagerly buying things for people I had never met.
Someone was needed to deliver the goods to the nearest Red Cross office, and I volunteered. And that day, as I drove toward the office with my car packed to the gills, I remember experiencing a very odd emotional moment.
It was the chills-up-the-back-of-the-spine feeling that accompanied me on the drive, intensifying as the Red Cross volunteers unpacked the car and thanked me profusely.
Driving away, I was moved almost to tears by a sensation that I could not quite name.
Over 40 years ago, Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter to a young Emory student who feared he was losing his faith. Instead of trotting out complex theological arguments, she had a simple piece of advice for this young man seeking God.
She could not have realized it then, but her remarks would be echoed in Pope Benedict XVI’s message for Lent: “By drawing close to others through almsgiving, we draw close to God.”
This point makes resounding sense when we consider that the evangelist St. John defined God very simply by telling us that “God is love.”
And our expressions of love bring us closer to him.
The pope also underscored the scriptural message about joy coming from giving rather than receiving: “We have been created not for ourselves but for God and our brothers and sisters,” he said.
As a non-believer I couldn’t comprehend the rush of joy I experienced that day long ago, and it was only when I returned to the Catholic Church that I realized the truth: God had rewarded my generosity with that spine-tingling feeling.
During Lent, Christians make loving sacrifices, large and small, but we have to face facts: The word “sacrifice” has a different meaning for rich and poor.
Well-to-do folks may skip lunch or go without meat on Friday, for example, but many poor people go all week without meat, and many are forced to go hungry every day.
The well-heeled person may decide to do without sweets or wine, but the poor rarely get to sample these luxuries anyway.
“When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her,” wrote Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. “It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”
The pope has urged us to connect our Lenten sacrifices with the poor, and perhaps we can do that by tweaking a few habits.
Think of the ridiculously priced fancy lattes in the lah-dee-dah coffee shops. Think of the costly restaurant sandwiches you could make at home for pennies.
And picture your closet, which, like mine, may be stuffed with clothing.
It is somewhat humbling to realize that a mere $22 a month will feed and shelter a poor child overseas through Catholic Near East Welfare Association. And $19 helps St. Jude’s Hospital in Tennessee provide care for children with cancer.
The conclusion is shocking, but obvious: The money I spent last month buying myself treats and trinkets would support a whole bunch of children.
St. Francis of Assisi was born into a well-to-do family that had plenty of trinkets. He lived a luxurious life for the first 24 years but then had a life-changing encounter with Christ, living the rest of his life in poverty.
One of his followers reported that there were times when Francis seemed “out of his mind for God in a wonderful manner.” Something as simple as a butterfly could move Francis to the heights of great joy.
The season of Lent beckons us to prayer and fasting because that is what Jesus did when he went into the desert for 40 days.
But there was something else that Jesus did all the time.
He ministered to the poor, the weak and the lowly. He promised that when we took care of the “least of these,” we would find God.
Lent is a time to see the truth of that promise. It is said that charity covers a multitude of sins, and by giving alms, we do indeed repent for our wrongdoings.
But here’s a lovely Lenten secret: In giving alms, we also draw closer to Jesus, the source of peace and joy that know no bounds.
Lorraine Murray’s new book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Artwork featured in the print edition, “Francis of Assisi,” is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may write the Murrays at firstname.lastname@example.org.