Walt Whitman's 'Preface to Leaves of Grass' has long been a favorite of mine and it acted as a powerful flashlight for my soul as I struggled awkardly through the world in my twenties, bumping up uncomfortably with the secular modern world around me. The particular section beginning "This is what you shall do"- a key passage that was once printed out and pasted on my fridge door in university- was read out at the end of Integral Church at last year's ISE3 (you can read the entire section here), and somehow one line clicked for me in a new way and gave me pause. It was:
"give alms to everyone that asks".
I don't know if it was because of the space that was being cooked up at the ISE, or if it was something that I'd been absorbing during my first semester at seminary, but this line stopped me in my tracks in a way it hadn't before. I didn't do this. Not at all. In fact, I'd concocted a whole sophisticated narrative during my time in Vancouver (where there's lots of homeless folks) about why I shouldn't give anyone on the street money. There was plenty of resources for people on the street I told myself, and I was happy to pay my tax money to support those social services; but I wasn't just going to shell out coin to every single person I passed begging on the street. They could go down to the local shelter. So, well satisfied with my own reasoning, I just simply passed on by.
But as I said, this time Whitman's line tripped me up somehow. What was he on about anyway? He must know something of what he says, it can't just be a frivolous throw away line. So right then and there I said screw it, everytime I walk past someone who asks for change, I'm going to reach in my pocket and give them some. Let's see what this is all about. And I've been doing that. And it's turned out to be a powerful practice. It's hard to put into words what these things feel like inside, but this sheer unquestioned giving has opened my heart. It has imparted me with a strange sense of inner freedom and liberation, perhaps freedom from the bondage of the small 'self', I don't know. But I wanted to share this experience in this week's Sacred Sundays, because I have found it to be powerful in a surprising way. I suspect that this small practice is in some way connected to what the Christian tradition calls kenosis; there certainly seems to be an emptying here, and something seems to be filling in return.
There are loads of rational arguments that we could have about whether we should or should not give money to folks on the street, and that's an important conversation, but that's not what I wanted to do here. I simply wanted to share that this practice of giving over to another stranger has been a boon, a gift, however tiny or small the offering, however insignifcant it might be in the grand scheme of things. But I know it's somehow helping me grow in my capacity to open my heart to others, and move out of my self, and I appreciate the subtle riches to have already been found in this small gesture. So thanks Uncle Walt, I should've listened to you a long time ago on this one.