philanthropy: loving God by loving our neighbor

by Mother Raphaela

There are times when it seems as if we cannot truly love people and also love God. People have too many needs; they are too demanding. If one is called to love God with all of one?s heart, soul, and strength, what is there left over? Yet, reading the Scriptures and listening to the teachings of all those who have spoken of God through the ages, we know that we cannot truly love God unless we love our neighbor. It is not an ?either/or? proposition, but a ?both/and.?

Jesus said, ? ?You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,? and ?your neighbor as yourself? ? (Luke 10:27).

We also read, ?He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?? (1 John 4:20).

The Lord has told us that what we do to the least of our brethren we have done to Him (Matthew 25:31?46). When a man went to the great Pachomius, founder of communal monasticism in fourth-century Egypt, and asked to be shown God, St. Pachomius took him out to the garden and showed him an old, dirty, and not very pleasant monk. He then told the man that if he could not see God when he looked at this monk, he would not see him anyplace else, either.

St. James tells us in his epistle that our faith and our love must further prove themselves by action. ?What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ?Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,? but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ?You have faith, and I have works.? Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works? (James 2:14?18).

An old nun once told me that the whole point of the monastic life was to learn to love even when it isn?t easy. Men and women enter a monastery to learn to love God by loving and serving their brethren in difficult situations. They do not choose one another for romantic interest or because of family or social ties; they cannot get away from each other by going off to work or going out to social events; they cannot escape from each other and from their life together before God by watching television or hopping into the car to drive around for awhile or hang out with more congenial friends. And they must learn to listen to one another and try to fulfill the needs of their brethren, no matter how difficult or unpleasant this may be.

This is the most basic part of philanthropy, a word coming from the Greek philanthropos, meaning ?a lover of mankind.? Without this struggle to love and serve others, anything we may like to call love for God is merely empty words or sentiment. Further, as St. Paul tells us, even if we are very generous with our goods, even if we give our body to be burned, if we do not have this love, our efforts count for nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

Yet when we come to see God in our neighbor, when even a little of God?s grace allows us to experience the love that God Himself has for His entire creation, then we find ourselves searching for the innumerable ways before us that allow us to give generously of our possessions, our time and effort, our very being. We come to realize that our neighbor is our self. We come to feel deeply that our own greatest good is served when we serve God through our neighbor.

And we learn ?to put our money where our mouth is.? We find ways to give our abundance to help the poverty of others. St. Paul tells us not to give voluntarily to the point that we ourselves will be in such poverty that we will need the help of others, but if we have abundance, when we love, we will want to share.

Americans living in the United States have often had little experience of poverty and suffering. They often find it hard to believe that others could need desperately the amounts they spend having ?fun.? Yet even in the United States, there is growing poverty. In addition to the poor and the homeless, philanthropic institutions both within and outside the Church, seminaries, monasteries, and other such places find themselves struggling to survive. Those in this country who have given their whole lives to the service of God and His people?in organizations such as the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), or as missionaries, and even as monks and nuns?often know that the money to pay for groceries for the week is not in the bank and also know others with families who have not had such money for an even longer period. They often do not have enough to share themselves, yet often they have the incentive to find ways of helping in spite of that.

How difficult it can be at times for such people to listen to the conversation of well-meaning visitors who exclaim over the good work these people are doing and shower them with compliments. Often, then, such people will hand them a ?generous? gift of ten dollars, while talking about their latest vacation trip to an exotic place or the expensive clothes they just couldn?t resist buying. They seem to believe that they ?need? all these things. And truly, there are times when something seemingly frivolous is life-giving therapy for an ailing person. Yet the money saved by giving up even just one vacation trip one year and doing instead some activities with family and friends at home could save the lives of several children both here and abroad. Or it can give parents the tools and training they need to work to support themselves and their families. Or it can enable organizations to survive and grow so that their members will continue to pray and work for others without further compensation.

Let us pray that God will give us the grace to learn to love one another in deed as well as in word and intention, for then and only then will we truly come to share in the life of Him who is known most truly as the Lover of Mankind, the greatest of philanthropists.

Mother Raphaela is abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York. Drawing on her experience inside and outside monastic life, her practical wisdom crosses the boundaries of the monastic community and is valuable to anyone trying to walk a Christian path. Her two books, Growing in Christ and Living in Christ, are available from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

This article was originally written in 1996 for the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) program book. It was published as Chapter 9 of Mother Raphaela?s book Growing in Christ (St. Vladimir?s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 2003), pages 61 ? 64. Reprinted with permission.

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