Why do we give alms? Because when we share gifts or charity with those in need, we’re acknowledging the fact that we’re not in this alone, that the things that we own are meant for others. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that we have the right to private ownership, but not the right to private use. The use of private property must be for the sake of the common good.
How do we signal that public use? We give alms. Lent is the perfect time to survey our material possessions, which often results in realizing we have too many, and then give some away.
There are many practical ways to do it. For example, during Lent, whenever you get a letter in the mail from some reputable organization asking for money, give them something. Now I know you’re probably on every mailing list in the entire world, and maybe you only give $1 or $5 to each request. But decide that over the next six weeks, whenever a respected person or group asks you for money, you give them something. This is a tangible way to follow Jesus’ command from the Gospel of Matthew: “Give to everyone who asks you” (Mt 5:42).
Here’s a similar idea: whenever you see a homeless person or beggar asking for help, give them something. Don’t ask questions, don’t weigh the pros and cons, just give them something. It doesn’t have to be money, in case you’re worried about enabling an addiction—you could give them gift cards, bottles of water, or bus tickets. But give them something.
One final suggestion: this Lent, whenever you buy something—whether a big purchase like a car or television, or a smaller purchase at a restaurant—choose the option you like best and can afford, and then buy the next cheapest alternative. Take the difference and give it to the poor.
Commit yourself to these simple but challenging choices, and you’ll discover concrete ways to give alms throughout Lent.