Mission for Lent

Lent is fast approaching and as many of us do, I start thinking about what I want to learn and experience this year.  In my search and discernment, I encountered an old letter from Fr. Bob McCahill, M.M., Maryknoll missioner in Bangladesh.  I have a poster of Fr. Bob hanging in my office.  The photo is of him (known locally as Brother Bob) carrying a young man in his arms through the halls of a hospital in the capital city.  The poster represents the Fifth Commandment (You Shall Not Kill) from the Maryknoll 10 Commandments set of posters.  Fr. Bob has his familiar look of determination on his face as he carries the young man in for treatment.  Facilitating the healing of the very sick and disabled comprises the greater part of Fr. Bob's ministry in Bangladesh.  Moving from village to village every 3 years and attending to one person at a time may seem like a drop in the bucket but each drop is a sacred life.  You Shall Not Kill means more than not taking someone else's life, a commandment most of us have no trouble obeying.  It means preserving life, returning life, giving life, wherever possible.  Not only physical life, but mental and spiritual life. 

Lent is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  I've always thought that almsgiving should be the unaviodable response to prayer and fasting, an act of charity meant to bring me closer to God and to my brothers and sisters.  If I look at the word charity from a superficial perspective, it almost seems to be something I do for myself...an act I could choose to do or not, depending on how serious I want to be about this Lenten ritual.  But shouldn't it really be an act of justice?  An attempt to level the playing field in the beggar's favor?  The recipient of the alms, the beggar, has no luxury of choice.  Begging is an absolute requirement to preserving her life and it's more than an act of humility on her part.  It deserves to be met with more than a act of charity.

Anyway, back to the letter.  Fr. Bob tells of Kookee, a disabled, middle-aged woman who begs door to door to support herself and her mother.  Kookee has just returned from making her daily rounds.  She sat in the corner tea stall of the bazaar counting the coins people had given her.  Counting was difficult; her eyes are bad.  Finally she finished.  Her day's income amounted to 16 takas (20 cents U.S.) Then Kookee treated herself to a cup of tea - poured into a saucer to make it easier to soak a small piece of hardened bread.  It was both her breakfast and a reward for a successful Friday morning begging.  Her livelihood depends on one of the five pillars of Islam (the predominant religion in Bangladesh): almsgiving.

Kookee, like the poor everywhere, deserve justice.  Instead of reflecting on what almsgiving is meant to do for me, I thought about what the beggar gives me, a person who never goes hungry.  Without romanticizing the poor, I realized that she gives me the gift of being able to participate in the creative action of God's Mission.  Not to make me a better Christian, although that may or may not be a side effect, but to preserve life in God's creation, to be an active participant in creating justice and from justice comes peace.