Give Alms to Everyone That Asks

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Walt Whitman's 'Preface to Leaves of Grass' has long been a favorite of mine and it acted as a powerful flashlight for my soul as I struggled awkardly through the world in my twenties, bumping up uncomfortably with the secular modern world around me. The particular section beginning "This is what you shall do"- a key passage that was once printed out and pasted on my fridge door in university- was read out atZakat-GivingAlms the end of Integral Church at last year's ISE3 (you can read the entire section here), and somehow one line clicked for me in a new way and gave me pause. It was:

 "give alms to everyone that asks".

I don't know if it was because of the space that was being cooked up at the ISE, or if it was something that I'd been absorbing during my first semester at seminary, but this line stopped me in my tracks in a way it hadn't before. I didn't do this. Not at all. In fact, I'd concocted a whole sophisticated narrative during my time in Vancouver (where there's lots of homeless folks) about why I shouldn't give anyone on the street money. There was plenty of resources for people on the street I told myself, and I was happy to pay my tax money to support those social services; but I wasn't just going to shell out coin to every single person I passed begging on the street. They could go down to the local shelter. So, well satisfied with my own reasoning, I just simply passed on by.

But as I said, this time Whitman's line tripped me up somehow. What was he on about anyway? He must know something of what he says, it can't just be a frivolous throw away line. So right then and there I said screw it, everytime I walk past someone who asks for change, I'm going to reach in my pocket and give them some. Let's see what this is all about. And I've been doing that. And it's turned out to be a powerful practice. It's hard to put into words what these things feel like inside, but this sheer unquestioned giving has opened my heart. It has imparted me with a strange sense of inner freedom and liberation, perhaps freedom from the bondage of the small 'self', I don't know. But I wanted to share this experience in this week's Sacred Sundays, because I have found it to be powerful in a surprising way. I suspect that this small practice is in some way connected to what the Christian tradition calls kenosis; there certainly seems to be an emptying here, and something seems to be filling in return.

There are loads of rational arguments that we could have about whether we should or should not give money to folks on the street, and that's an important conversation, but that's not what I wanted to do here. I simply wanted to share that this practice of giving over to another stranger has been a boon, a gift, however tiny or small the offering, however insignifcant it might be in the grand scheme of things. But I know it's somehow helping me grow in my capacity to open my heart to others, and move out of my self, and I appreciate the subtle riches to have already been found in this small gesture. So thanks Uncle Walt, I should've listened to you a long time ago on this one.

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  • Comment Link Scott Payne Tuesday, 08 May 2012 17:36 posted by Scott Payne

    This is a great piece as a practice for staying present in your heart as well as your head, Trevor. The rationalizing mind has all sorts of tricks to confound the feeling heart. And not all of them are wrong. But a balance is both necessary and healthy.

    I wonder if we can't also look at "alms" in an interpretive sense that pushes away from a monetary reading. I've little doubt this way the context that Whitman meant, but for me there is also a way that the notion of giving alms can be whatever means you have of giving gifts of value to random strangers, whatever value might be in your power to give.

    So how can we be more giving people in the most rounded sense possible? What would that do for our world and for us?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 08 May 2012 19:36 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Scott, thanks for extending the scope of the piece like that. It's interesting, given your comment, how much I'd emphasized a certain specific context when beginning to take Whitman's phrase seriously. It was obviously up for me given I live in downtown Vancouver, and walk all over hell's half acre, so this was obviously the most immediate thing I focused on.

    But I love this idea of looking at alms in a broader, more general way. And all I can say is that it will be a practice, but I look forward to opening my receptivity up to this and exploring what happens. Can't say for sure what the outcome(s) will be, but I appreciate the nudge in that direction.

    I also saw this quote this morning on Facebook, and it reminded me of your comment and what you might be intuiting/pointing toward here.

    It was from the filmmaker Ian MacKenzie quoting from a recent article:

    "We could say the collective mind is rediscovering and relearning its true nature. Or we could say we are. We are growing into a critical mass. We are remembering that we are not separate from each other. We are remembering our interconnected beingness and our interconnected ways of being. The organizing models of our society are just beginning to reflect this love-consciousness. Soon, love and compassion could become viable alternatives and then, we could say, ours is a paradigm of love".

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