Fr. Philip LeMasters recently offered an excellent summary here of the Cappadocian fathers on the disciplines of almsgiving and fasting and their elevation of the status of the poor in the early Church. He quotes St. Basil, who said,
When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not — should you not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All these you might help and do not — to all these you are doing wrong.
And Fr. Philip goes on to write,
St. Basil’s exhortation cuts to the quick of the situation of many Orthodox believers, as well as others, in North America. Though we did not steal our money and possessions from others, we have more than we need. When that is the case, we have an obligation to share from our overabundance with those who lack basic necessities. If we fail to do so, we incur the guilt of a thief. Indeed, we have a greater guilt, for we have ignored the needs of the Lord Jesus, Who identified Himself with “the least of these.”
What I would like to focus on is how we are to process such a challenge in our present context, summarizing some of the principles of the Cappodocians’ teaching and then offering a few rules of prudence to help guide our application.
We must begin by determining those essential principles, which Fr. Philip does a great job summarizing. It is not simply that we ought to meet the needs of others out of our own surplus (though that is true) but that
When we imitate God’s generosity by giving to the poor, St. Gregory [of Nyssa] says … we grow in the divine qualities of “mercy and kindness,” which “inhabit a person, divinize him and stamp him with imitation of the good in order to bring to life our original, immortal image which transcends conception.”
Again, he writes that there is a deep connection for the Cappadocians between the poor and Christ himself. One might call to mind the words of Christ: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36). As a result, Fr. Philip writes, “It would be difficult to find a more radical transformation of the status of the poor than this one. Those thought to be ‘nobodies’ by the world are now raised to the glory of the Body of Christ.”
Thus the following principles emerge: All those who have an overabundance of wealth have an obligation of stewardship to serve those who do not; one of the primary ways in which this is done is through fasting and almsgiving; since these disciplines conform our souls to a greater degree of the likeness of Christ, they are fundamental to the ultimate process and goal of our salvation; when we serve the poor in this way we serve Christ himself, thus showing the degree of our true faith in him; and the poor are not simply a problem to be solved but persons meant to be essential members of the Body of Christ.
These principles also rely upon another more implicit one: Spiritual disciplines are not for our own good alone but also for the good of others; conversely, they are not for the good of others alone but for the health and salvation of our own souls. The principle hinted at here is one of personalism or sobornost, a topic I have briefly explored in a previous essay. The basic idea is that human beings are neither faceless masses nor atomistic individuals but persons in relation. “Deprive a man of what he owes to others,” writes Vladimir Solovyov, “beginning with his parents and ending with the state and world-history, and nothing will be left of his existence, let alone his freedom.”
Perhaps the first rule of prudence we can discern beneath these principles, then, is that reductionism requires an impoverished anthropology. We must be wary of anyone who would say, for example, “St. Basil says ‘the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute’; therefore, the state” or “therefore, the market” or “therefore, the family” or “therefore, the Church” or “therefore, local communities” or “therefore, our nation” or “therefore, globalization” and so on in a manner that singles out just one or two of these areas and excludes the proper roles of all other essential facets of human life and society. More than that, however, the rich tapestry of interdependent relations that compose our social life are not only essential to our existence but to our salvation in Christ and ultimate fulfillment as human persons. As such, we must be wary of simplistic, one-sided policy proposals when life itself is, in reality, far more varied and complex.
The second rule of prudence we can discern can be seen in Fr. Philip’s statement: “In a faith that teaches that the Son of God became a human being with a real body, it should not be surprising that there is a profound spiritual significance to the unmet bodily needs of human beings.” If the body matters that much to our salvation (and it does), then concrete details matter as to how best to meet the bodily needs of others. It is not enough to have the right principles or the best intentions; we must also take the time to wade through the mess of conflicting studies and statistics, as well as the lessons of history, to discern what truly “works” — what makes compassion both effective and dignifying rather than mere moralizing sentiment, ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. The words of (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ring true here: “A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality.”
The last rule I will highlight has an epistemological emphasis: The standard for determining what is “overabundance,” especially given a context where we enjoy great wealth but also face a high cost of living, is the conscience (more on this here); and our sensitivity to it often depends upon our degree of spiritual formation. Here we would do well to remember that while all people “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Romans 2:15), we also are capable of “suppress[ing] the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). The solution is the grace of God, and asceticism is the means by which we grow in communion with and conformity to that grace that God freely gives to us in Christ.
Thus we come full circle. Happily, it is a virtuous one: True almsgiving and fasting (as well as other disciplines) serve both our souls and our neighbors’ bodily needs and, at the same time, work to purify our intellect from the passions that so easily cloud our spiritual, moral, and pragmatic judgment. When faced with the daunting challenge of St. Basil that if we fail to give out of our overabundance, “we incur the guilt of a thief” and further “have ignored the needs of the Lord Jesus,” the first step to discerning precisely what that looks like is actually through practice. At a certain point, we must simply act in order to learn how to act better. Not merely trial and error, it is more like an athlete who conditions her body to perform better through trial runs. What little rule of discipline can you embrace right now? And what small duties do you know you have to others? If we start there (but do not end there), then just as a great fire begins with a tiny spark, so also the love of Christ may be kindled in our hearts and warm and enlighten all those around us, whether in our communities, in our nations, or across the world.