Friday, October 10, 2008

Increase Our Charity

“And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”[1]

Love is such a worn out word in our day. It is used so casually. I love ice cream. I love my car. I love watching soap operas. I love my … . It is still, nonetheless, a good word despite what the English language has done to strip it naked and send it running through the streets and alleys. Because of what’s happened to it I feel more inclined to use the older word in its place. It’s an appropriate word. Even the early Protestant translators had a preference for the word charity when working from the old manuscripts.

Charity signifies the deepest, dearest affection and benevolence, perfect love, the kind of love that God loves with, the kind of love that only God can place within our hearts. Its depth involves emotion yet begins before and goes beyond finite human emotion. Charity, after all, is an attribute and quality of God who has no beginning or ending. God is love in its purest form and he calls us to a participation in his divine quality of love.[2] It’s a humbling thought that God desires to share this quality of his being with me.

Regarding charity as one of the three theological virtues, the Thomist theologian tells us, “The greater the object of a virtue the greater the virtue. The theological virtues whose immediate object is God surpass all the other virtues in excellence. Charity surpasses faith and hope because it is more closely related to God. For in faith we cling to God without seeing him and in hope we trust we will obtain a vision of God which we do not yet have. But in charity we are already united in love with God.”[3]

In our prayer we pray for an increase of charity. Why? So we can simply love God for his own sake, to love him more deeply for who he is and for the great pains that he has suffered to woo our affections, and so we can live charitably toward our neighbor for the love of God. Without participating in the divine quality of charity we can’t possible fulfill Christ’s new commandment.[4]

The Thomist isn’t telling us that faith and hope are non-essentials. It is by faith in Christ that we are saved through grace.[5] We are encouraged to hope in Christ[6] and that hope is an essential element in being saved.[7] Faith and hope, however, are not complete without charity. Charity, working in and through our lives, invites us to cling to God and trust in him. Charity never fails.[8]

When I look at the list of things that charity is and is not, I’m brought up short. Like Isaiah all I can say is “woe is me, I’m a man undone.” I see how lacking I am in divine love, how pitiful my participation in divine love really is. I see how great my need is to pray continually for infusions of this theological virtue.

[1] 1 Corinthians 13:13, Douay-Rheims Translation
[2] 1 John 4:7-8
[3] My Way of Life, The Summa Simplifed, p. 250
[4] John 13:34
[5] Ephesians 2:8
[6] Romans 5:5
[7] Romans 8:24
[8] 1 Corinthians 13:8