Food for the Soul
A bi-weekly blog on the virtuous life. Written not by a master, but by a student, but one at least who knows whence sound teaching is found.
God is Love. - 1 John 4:16
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. - Ephesians 5
And I will show you a still more excellent way...Love never ends; as for prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. - 1 Corinthians 13: 8-13.
Now it is charity that unites us to God, who is the last end of the human mind, since he that abides in charity abides in God, and God in him (1 John 4:16). Therefore, the perfection of the Christian life consists chiefly in charity. - St. Thomas Aquinas IIa,IIae, q.184, art.1
As we continue our introductory journey through the virtues, having spoken of faith and hope, we finish by treating the greatest of all virtues, charity. As you probably noticed in the quotations above, love and charity are sometimes used interchangeably. Love is the only one of the two words that can be used as a verb in English; as a result we usually just settle on using the word love exclusively. What a poor language we speak! There is a laughable story sometimes told about a southerner from the Bible belt that opposed teaching or speaking spanish in the United States on the grounds that if "English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us." Whether the story is true or not, it is an apt reminder that for most of us the connection with divine revelation is mediated through a translation from Greek or Hebrew to English. The same can be said of the writings of just about any of the great works that were originally written in a foreign language. There is always something lost in translation.
Love describes a reality. Actually it describes various realities. Notice how all the following sentences use the same word in different senses:
Greek has four major words that correspond to "love": eros, philia, storge, and agape. Briefly, eros refers to erotic love that is the hallmark of sexual attraction. Philia refers to a love of friendship. Storge is the affection for someone that comes from familiarity, and agape is the divine love that is defined by its gratuitous nature; agape is not self-seeking, but wills the good of the beloved for his own sake. For a truly worthwhile reflection on love, I recommend reading Deus Caritas Est, the encyclical letter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The first part is quite profound and beautiful as it speaks about the relationship between eros and agape in the Christian life. C.S. Lewis also wrote a nice little book about all four of the loves aptly titled The Four Loves.
When we speak about the virtue of charity, we speak about divine love, agape. This love is proper to God, whose very essence is charity. God is love, says St. John. He doesn't have it as an add-on to what He really is, but rather He is love. You can see how quickly the doctrine on the Holy Trinity becomes the basis for our proper understanding of God's nature. God is one. The entirety of the Old Testament is a narrative about God's elimination of the pantheon of false gods. But with Christ, we begin to see that God is one in three; his oneness is a unity of three divine Persons. Remember, God is love; where there is a lover, there must be a loved and a bond uniting them.
In order to see the supreme importance of the virtue of charity, it is helpful to go back to the beginning. When God created human beings in His image and likeness, He created us as persons. The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are reflected in the intellectual nature of each individual person; we are able to know, love, and act freely as God does. But we are also an image of God in our ability to form a communion of persons that brings forth a third person through love. In this way, marriage is an image of the Holy Trinity as well. In both ways we are images of God. Yet, we are infinitely distant from God according to our nature. He is God and we are not. This distance between us and God, however, is meant to be bridged by grace. Even Adam and Eve, prior to the fall, required grace to remain in intimate friendship with God. So it is with us too. God has created us for himself, that through the gift of his grace we might be elevated to share in his very nature, and thus His life.
This is where the virtue of charity comes in to play. All three theological virtues are given to us by God so that we can be in personal relationship with God. They deal with God Himself as their object. Charity gives us the capacity to love God and our neighbor as God loves Himself and His creatures, because it is a share in divine love, which has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The superiority of charity over the other virtues is found in the fact that in heaven faith and hope will no longer remain. Faith will give way to seeing God "face to face" in the Beatific Vision. Hope will cease once we reach our final destination. Charity will continue for eternity. So charity is the greatest of all virtues because it is the theological virtue that grows and lasts into eternal life.
There is another reason, however, that charity is so important on this side of heaven. It is because charity moves us to God. Whereas faith, in a certain sense, brings God into us through the acceptance of divine revelation. Charity, which is situated in our will, moves us to hold on to God in himself. I'll let Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP clarify: "'The action of the intellect consists in this, ' says St. Thomas, 'that the idea of the thing understood is in the one who understands; while the act of the will consists in this- that the will is inclined to thing thing itself as existing in itself. And therefore Aristotle says that good and evil, whic are objects of the will, are in things, but truth and error, which are objects of the intellect, are in the mind.' It follows that in this life our knowledge of God is inferrior to the love of God, since, as St. Thomas says, in order to know God we, in a way, draw Him to us, and in order to represent Him to ourselves we impose on Him the bounds of our limited ideas. On the other hand, when we love Him, we raise ourselves toward Him, such as He is in Himself" (Garrigou-Lagrange, 1937). In this way, you can see why charity is the lifeline to heaven; it is inseparable from the state of grace and the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity within us. He that abides in charity abides in God, and God in him.
So how do we foster this virtue in our homes and our children? The first way is to evangelize our children through introducing them to the mystery of God's love for them. There is no charity without faith, and faith is a gift from God that comes through hearing the gospel. We cannot love what we do not know. We tell them about God. We pray with them. We make sure that they are baptized. We take them to church.
Our Lord solemnly declared to His apostles on the eve before he would demonstrate the greatest act of love the world has ever seen that "greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Surely, they would have been cut to the heart by these words. The moment of His last discourse was charged with intimacy and solemnity. And even more surely, the apostles reflected upon those words time and time again on the first Holy Saturday. The silence of that day as it is lived liturgically every year still provides ample time to reflect on the quality of divine love revealed on Good Friday. In a certain way it is after the fact of the passion that it all begins to sink in. Just as the disciples of Jesus in the above painting are meditating on the great passion He just underwent as they lovingly care for His body, so also we need to meditate on and interiorize the works of our redemption. Jesus' passion is what redeeming love looks like in fallen sinful world. The one who loves gives himself away for the beloved. The virtue of charity will never grow within us, unless we take into our hearts the reality of God's love for us... while we were yet sinners.
That divine love shown in the Upper Room, in Gethsemene, on Calvary, and manifest in the body of our Lord is communicated to us through the mysteries of the Resurrection and Pentecost by which he makes us alive in Him and enflames our hearts with the Holy Spirit. I think that this is the most underappreciated of aspects of living the virtue of charity. It isn't first and foremost about what we do. It is about Who we receive and subsequently what we become. Prayer opens us to receive God. There can be nothing greater for us in this life. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is right, "we are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable."