I was giving a talk to a Theology on Tap group this Ash Wednesday and found myself coming back again and again to the common thread between the Lenten practices of fasting, praying and almsgiving: each strengthens your connection to God, to the divine in others and all around you. Praying, whether verbal prayer or contemplative meditation, puts you in relationship with the divine. Giving softens your heart of stone and opens you to others. Fasting clears away distractions and reveals your attachments to things that crowd out the divine.
About five years ago, I got the idea to fast from judging whether or not beggars are worthy — instead of deciding if each is truly needy, a slacker or con artist, a good street musician or bad, I just give a dollar to anyone asking. It’s sort of a combination of fasting and almsgiving. I know it’s one of those newfangled fasting-from-something-bad-equals-doing-something-good approaches, but it’s not for self-gain, and it’s been a powerful experience for me.
Unlike most of America, New York City is a walking community. We walk from home to work, or at least to the subway; we shop and go out on foot. Most New Yorkers don’t even own cars. This means we walk past a lot of people. All my life, I’ve done what we in the city do, keeping my eyes averted from panhandlers and judging some as legitimately needy and others not, and giving to only a few that really break through the noise.
Since I started the practice during Lent of making eye contact with every beggar and giving them a dollar, it has altered my thinking. It has broken my heart open — changed my attitude permanently towards those who beg. There’s a street punk on my block who I genuinely care about now, because I’ve truly seen her on and off for several years. In the past, I would have just dismissed her without looking, thinking she could go home to suburbia if she really wanted to. That doesn’t matter; what matters is the suffering human being in front of me. And, besides, I was once a homeless street punk on this same block. How could I lose touch with that?! This practice made me stop and remember, and connect with the fact that I didn’t really think back then that I could go home. And that I was truly hungry. This Lenten practice softens my heart and helps me empathize with the suffering souls around me.
Sometimes, I trudge right past someone asking for change, forgetting my commitment, or even remembering and willfully denying it — feeling entitled to do the wrong thing because I’ve had a hard day or I’m running late. Often, when I catch myself resisting because I don’t think the beggar is worthy, it is so hard to give that dollar, especially in a situation where my “beliefs” tell me it’s not helping. I’m always reminded of Jesus’ example: help first; talk later. The whole point of this practice is to let go of that judging and just help. (And remember what I said in this post about going easy on yourself when you slip.)
The thing about behavior modification — like a Lenten practice, New Year’s resolution, or new diet or exercise plan — is that it works until it doesn’t. It’s not enough on its own. You have to change interiorly. But this “fasting” practice, because it softens my heart, begins that interior work, which extends beyond the end of Lent.