Ash Wednesday Reflection – Giving in Secret

In this annual series, current and former volunteers reflect on the Lenten Gospels and the Four Pillars of Faith-Based Service: Social Justice, Simplicity, Community and Spirituality.
Presented by Catholic Apostolate Center and Catholic Volunteer Network.


Ash Wednesday Reflection By Joanna Bowen, Augustinian Volunteers

“Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret” (Matthew 6:1-18)

I often find myself speaking in idioms. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” is one I say regularly, many times expressing exasperation. It’s my go to phrase when I want clearer communication, am frustrated with inefficiency, or feel that things are disorganized. I often use it to call attention to what I think could be better or more successful.

In today’s Gospel, we encounter the origin of the phrase. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.” Jesus is using this imagery to emphasize that acts of service, as well as prayer and fasting, are meant to be done, not as a vehicle to receive public praise, but instead to be in communion with God. This is quite different than our use of the colloquial version of this phrase. Jesus is proclaiming that secrecy, so strong that it’s represented by disjointed parts of the same body, is actually positive. In fact, it’s the goal.

As a volunteer, this might be challenging. After all, your decision to commit to long term service was likely a very public one. Perhaps you moved away from home or paused plans for further education. Maybe you write a blog or post on social media about the experience. It would be hard to keep this all a secret. Instead the focus of our service must be to keep God at the center.


Loving God, as we begin this Lenten journey, may our fasting, our prayer, and our service, be steps toward communion with You. May these acts fuel our work toward a more just world.
In your name we pray. Amen.

Focus on Social Justice

Historically, the idea of almsgiving was intrinsically tied to power and privilege. It was a way for both the rich to express their wealth, and to keep intact a class system where the poor was dependent on the affluent. As volunteers, it is imperative to examine racial and economic injustices present in our world, our place in it, and to actively work for justice. It is equally important to recognize and put our own privilege at risk. There is inherent privilege in being able to do a year or more of service.

Service Suggestion

During this Lenten season, I challenge you to expand your understanding of service. You may have committed to this experience because of a desire to be of service to a particular population or in a particular way. Likely, those you encounter in this setting are not fellow volunteers. I encourage you to strive to serve those with whom you live, perhaps in an intentional community. This is not easy, especially when conflict arises! Remember, you can’t step over Christ in the kitchen to get to Him in the street.


Currently the director of the Augustinian Volunteers, Joanna Bowen served with the program in 2007-2008 in San Diego, CA. Originally from Hamilton, NJ, Joanna has called Philadelphia home for the last decade. She holds a master’s degree in Counseling and Human Relations and a certificate in Non Profit Management, both from Villanova University.


Looking for more reflections like this one? We invite you to download our Lenten Reflection Guide in its entirety, available by clicking here. You can also find an extensive library of Lenten resources by visiting the Catholic Apostolate Center website – click here.

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