The Alms of Words

by Catherine Doherty

Millions in our dark and fearsome days do not know God. But the fate of our own world and civilization and of our own eternal life depends upon our knowing and loving him. It is time for us, the children of his light and love, to make him known.

How can we do this? We can do it in many ways. The simplest and most direct way is through almsgiving. Not only can we give money, food, and clothing (not all of us may be able to give these), but we can give the alms of words.

All of us possess these alms. All of us have them to give. And the need for such alms is everywhere.

However, like all other alms, words must be given lovingly, gently, thoughtfully. We must try to see with gentle eyes, think with a clearsighted mind, and love with a burning heart.

For alms given without love, without compassion or graciousness or deep understanding, bring hurt and pain, and do even more damage than indifference or coldness. Without these, we prostitute the very act of giving.

But when, watchful and alert in the cause of Christ, we see our neighbors as Christ sees them, love will give us understanding.

It will enable us to read the signs of hungry minds, numbed hearts, frightened and lonely souls, and broken bodies. Love will enable us to hear symphonies of pain and hurt, fear and near despair, that life and the Prince of Evil play, with endless variations, on the strings of people’s emotions.

Everywhere the ministry of love—the alms of words—can be exercised.

Do you see that lonely and sad child? Have you a moment to spare to give him the alms of a few little words? They will bring light into a darkness that should not be there.

To make friends with a lonely, lost, or unloved child, be he poor or rich, is to bring Christ to him. Take the child into your heart. Those who do, take Christ into their hearts. And surely he will reverse the process in eternity by taking you into his heart.

Do our eyes really see? Are we not blind to the thousands of little signs that exist in our own family? Father is a little grayer, a little more worried, a bit more silent. Mother is more tense, often with eyes that reveal tears. Sister or brother is sharper, thinner, less pleasant, more withdrawn.

Maybe this is the beginning of a tragedy.

Is our love watchful, ready to give the alms of gentle, key words spoken in time? Such words may keep the door to a heart from closing.

Are we convinced that we are our brother’s keeper?

Do we understand how far this “keeping” goes? Business associates, friends, fellow workers, strangers who cross our paths now and then, our whole work-a-day world—all are our brothers and sisters whom we must cherish in the Lord.

A smile and a pleasant word about the weather given to an ill-clad poor person in a public conveyance, or to a stranger within our gates, might mean the difference between his hatred of all that we stand for, and his understanding.

For example, with regard to foreigners in our midst, clearly enunciated words, spoken slowly, lovingly, with a smile of encouragement, are rich alms. Here especially, the alms of our words can change the fate of a nation.

For this stammering, shy alien, who barely speaks English, may tomorrow become the leader of hate and revolt, and may do untold damage to minds, souls, and bodies. And all this because no one took time to give the alms of gentle, understanding words.

The sick may be tiresome at times in their self-centeredness, in their urgency to take us through every step of their domain of loneliness and pain via their fretful, halting, rambling, repetitious speech.

How are we to console them, bring them back to the realm of God’s light and love, show them the treasure that can save worlds of souls everywhere?

We can teach them to offer that loneliness and pain to Mary, the treasurer of God.

How else but through the alms of our comforting words and our patient, interested, unflagging care, can they learn the importance of offering everything through her?

The forgotten, the unwanted, the lost, the rambling alcoholic, the neurotic, the borderline “psychos”—would they be what they are if someone had given them the alms of words when they so desperately needed them?

Such words of love, understanding, compassion, patience, and help are oils that sooth the burning wounds of exhausted minds. They are cool waters that quench the thirst that almost kills them.

They are food that nourishes a starvation resembling that found in concentration camps.

Words are often keys that open prison doors. They are so easy to give, yet so often withheld.

Alms of warm, kind words are like a mother’s lullaby to the unwanted and the elderly who often have a hungry loneliness.

These words bring peace and joy into joylessness and unpeace, make crooked ways straight, and people feel wanted and loved again.

The pariahs of our modern world—the “bums,” the panhandlers, the prostitutes, and those in prison—what about them? Who has the time and courage to give them the alms of words, or the courtesy of an attentive silence?

Everywhere, at all times of the night and day, people are crying out for the alms of words. They are crying silently not even knowing why they cry. Yet they do know that they are desperately hungry and thirsty for love and friendship.

But love and its flower, friendship, are God, for God is Love, and God is the Word, and he clothed himself with flesh for love of us.

Let us then lovingly show him to our brothers and sisters expressed in the thousand ways of love’s ingenuity, but especially in the alms of loving words.

Adapted from Dearly Beloved, Vol. 1, Oct. 1, 1962, pp. 275-278, out of print