Where there’s charity, there’s humanity

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June of 1971 was a time of revelations for me. I was in Florence, enrolled in UBC's summer school.

"When you travel by train," said one of our teachers, "ride in the lowest-class carriage. That's where you'll meet the real, down-to-earth Italians. They love to eat and they'll share what they have with you."

I remembered his advice when I took my first train journey, from Florence to Venice. In those years Italian trains were slow, stopping at nearly every station, so no matter when you started, you were bound to be on board for one meal or another.

I sat in a compartment filled with an Italian family. We'd just come through the Appenine tunnels and were nearing Bologna when bags were hauled down from the racks. The family was getting ready to dine.

The first item to be produced was a big glass bottle full to the brim with red wine. Then came bread, sausage, chicken and cheese. Everyone got a cloth to spread over their lap, including me. I didn't yet speak Italian, but when the father proffered the wine, I immediately grasped what he intended and took a swig from the bottle, as the others had done. The mother broke off a chunk of bread for me and passed the sausage, chicken and cheese in my direction.

It was on that trip that I finally understood the true significance of the word companion, which derives from the Latin "cum" (with) and "panis" (bread). Originally a companion was someone you broke bread with. It didn't have to be someone you knew, someone to whom you were connected. You simply divided—shared—your food, and that was your bond.

Whatever philosophers and psychologists may say on the subject, I believe that sharing is a human instinct, like the instinct to spontaneously come to the aid of others (remember the rescuers at the scene of the plane crash on Russ Baker Way in October?).

This propensity to share also underlies the concept of charity, a word rooted in the Latin "caritas", meaning love or esteem. By the seventeenth century, charity was interpreted as benevolence to the poor. Around that time, too, the word generosity (which comes from "generosus", the Latin for noble, magnanimous) came to stand for liberality in giving.

Nowadays, charity is a highly organized business, almost an industry. There are thousands of charities in BC alone, requesting us to donate money – sometimes on a daily basis. When we are chased thus relentlessly, the true purpose of charity can be difficult to keep in mind.

Fortunately, there are still charities that help people directly, like food banks (interestingly, a kind of food bank existed already in Ancient Rome) and community meals. Here in Richmond, St. Alban Anglican Church started the local food bank (which is now autonomous) and continues to prepare weekly meals. The Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Farm grows produce specifically for these food distribution projects.

Back in Florence, I used to walk past a convent door inscribed with words from a Latin hymn: "Ubi Caritas Ibi Deus". Rendered in English they mean "where there is love there is God", but I devised my own, un-literal, version: "where there is charity there is humanity."

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This page last updated: December 15, 2011.