Giving Hidden Alms
On December 5, 2014, Fr Philip Cleevely made the following chapter address to the community.
I think one of the most striking of the maxims which St Philip gives us is for July 6th: ‘Let us pray God, if He gives us any virtue or gift, to keep it hidden even from ourselves’. This idea of gifts and virtues being hidden even from those who exercise them beautifully elucidates the saying of Christ in the Gospels: When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. We might object that the parallel is inexact, because giving alms is one thing, having gifts and virtues another. But the objection is itself inexact, if the gifts and virtues which God bestows upon us are themselves kinds of alms: not simply because we receive them from God, though of course we do, but because we receive them from Him only so that we may hand them over. Virtue thus redoubles the gift: it is given, only for the sake of being given away.
Now for this to be possible, we have to see that gifts and virtues as fundamentally not our own. They are not first for ourselves and only subsequently for the sake of another. They are first for the sake of another, and only subsequently and consequently ours.
But knowing what we are like, knowing how readily we convert gift into possession, and elevate being over loving, our Lord and St Philip, in the words I have quoted, speak to us of our need for a kind of unknowing of ourselves – an unknowing which however makes possible a better understanding, of a larger and deeper truth. When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing. We are to have consciousness of our poverty and indigence, and yet also of a desire to love, to give, which we know we can in no way fulfill, unless God makes His gifts pass through us and beyond us into the world. Let us pray God, if He gives us any virtue or gift, to keep it hidden even from ourselves. Such destitution is the necessary condition of the only kind of enrichment which grace gives, which in truth is the only kind of enrichment there is, and it is everything, for it is our participation in the very life of God.
We can accordingly say that the mystical is the air which virtue breathes from first to last. Even if, in what is ascetical and disciplinary in the spiritual life, there must be self-consciousness in planning and doing, even if there must be self-exertion and self-reflection, and even if there is something which feels like attainment and acquisition – still we should know, from the very beginning, that these are, as it were, only expressions, perhaps we might call them signs, of something else. From the beginning and for ever, virtue means only one thing: the breaking open of our autonomy and self-possession, so that we can become, in unconditional poverty, sharers in the Trinitarian communion of love. Union with God, the mystical in other words, isn’t a kind of appendix to the story, reserved for the elite and esoteric; it is the story, from beginning to end. The stages of the spiritual life, its articulations for us in times and phases, about which the Father has taught us so much, are in the end – I hope he will agree – best understood as themselves a grace or a mercy, concessions to the intransigence of our minds and hearts before the mystery which God is enacting in us.
This mystery is being enacted in each of us not in isolation but in community. Community life is indeed impossible, or at the very least unlovely, without order, custom, discipline, and thus without the ascesis which these things require of us. From one point of view this is what we might call the virtue of community life: its precision and its rectitude. But none of us has been moved to seek it, nor have we been gifted with it, as something to be possessed, and hence manipulated self-assertively. Each of us should consider his way of participating in the community as a kind of alms he gives to the others, something he has received only so that he may give it away. He can consider it, in other words, as a participation in charity. Charity, the love that is God, is the beginning and end of our community, as it is of the whole world. Only in this way does the form of community life, and indeed any form whatsoever, find its origins, its meaning and its fulfillment.