How Can I Help?

March 23rd, 2020

Peter is the abbot of the Great Lake Zen Center. After meditation practice, he sometimes gives a brief dharma talk. When discussing why we spend time silently sitting on cushions, he often says that we do it in order to answer the following question: “How can I help?”

A person needs a clear mind to know how best to help somebody else. In theory, meditation clears the mind. Then the individual can see what really is, and act accordingly. There are times when it is difficult to see through the chaos.

Now is one of those times.

The whole world is scared and suffering at this moment. Maybe it is always scared and suffering, and it is just more obvious now. At present, the problems surrounding us seem overwhelming. What should we do? Where should we start?

The Catholic Church has something called “The Corporal Acts of Mercy”. It is a list of seven ways to help others. The list seems simple and straight forward. Maybe it is. However, right now, I find it hard to put some of these actions into practice. I need to think about it.

This list is as follows:

  1. To feed the hungry.
  2. To give drink to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To shelter the homeless.
  5. To visit the imprisoned.
  6. To visit the sick.
  7. To bury the dead.


Since the guidance of our government is for citizens to avoid being in groups larger than ten people, some of the actions on the list are difficult, if not impossible, to do in traditional ways. For instance, “feeding the hungry” has often meant me helping at a meal program (soup kitchen). A meal program that is run by a church or other charitable organization requires the efforts of dozens of participants. People need to get together to cook and to serve meals to potentially hundreds of poor and homeless persons. It is obvious to me that a typical soup kitchen cannot function like that now. So, how does it operate? The poor and outcast are still hungry. Where do thesse people go now? How are they fed?

I don’t know, and I’m not sure who to even ask. The organizations that typically run these operations can’t get together, at least not physically. The new rules are only a week old. Has anybody even had time to brainstorm ideas? Can food pantries hand out free bag lunches? What happens now?

The coronavirus crisis has forced us to exist as isolated pockets of humanity. Okay, let’s work with that. In our case, Karin and I are providing food, drink, shelter, and transportation/health support to a young woman who we love dearly. This person was in prison just two months ago. By assisting her, we are covering some of the items on list, and doing it up close and personal. Maybe that is our calling for the present time. Maybe we are most needed here, as opposed to some place else. We have to do what we can, where and when we can.

Paradoxically, it is often more difficult to help somebody close than it is to help somebody at a distance. I mean this both in geographical terms and in an emotional sense. It is sometimes easier to serve a meal to a stranger far from home than it is to help somebody who lives in the same house. I can ladle out spaghetti for a couple hours at a St. Vincent de Paul meal site, and then walk away from it. Love is tested in close proximity, where a person can’t just run away from problems. Helping sometimes involves open-ended commitment.

A friend of mine, years ago, defined love as being sacrifice. I think that is an accurate description. Love means giving up the things I want in order to provide the things that someone else needs. That’s a bitch.

Maybe this current crisis will teach me how to love.





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