In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul gives us a cautionary tale. Without the thing of which he writes, despite our remarkable accomplishments, despite our seeming altruism, he tells us we are nothing, nothing other than dissonant noise like a clashing cymbal. Without this thing we run the risk of being inconstant, jealous and arrogant, resentful and irritable. St Paul does not write of a quality of character in the first place, nor an attitude, at least at its beginning. The thing of which he writes is, of course, a gift first and foremost. It is charity.
Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that, “Charity is love received and given. It is ‘grace’.” As grace it is a share in the very life of God himself, and we can find its source, its wellspring in the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit: a love so full it does not want to be contained and so pours over into our life through the Son. “Love is revealed and made present by Christ,” writes the great pope, “and is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 5:5) It is very apt that we have this very short reflection on charity in Passiontide since it is in the passion of the Lord that we see it made most clearly manifest. The passion of the Lord is, as Pope Benedict said, “love in its most radical form.”
It is because this love that is charity is so radical that it is experienced by the saints in radical ways. For St Philip, as with the apostles and Our Lady, it was as a Pentecostal fire. That fire and heat remained with him his whole life and inspired both devotion and acts of mercy in him and in those close to him. That flame of charity encouraged aversion to sin, an infectious joy and the ability to win over others to Christ. St Philip would startle those around him by exhorting them to charity in remarkable ways. “May St Anthony’s fire burn you!” he was known to say, meaning may you glow with the divine love with which St Anthony glowed — though it may have been hard to know that at first. Contemplation of heavenly things and the practical works of mercy go hand in hand when enlivened by the gift of charity — they are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary sides of the one gift. The Fathers of the Church looked to the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament as an image of that gift of charity in us. The angels descending and ascending are a sign of the love given us by God that enables us to think of and love him in return. Commenting on just this passage, St Gregory the Great thinks of how this image can be a picture of the soul of each of us: “Within he is borne aloft through contemplation, while without he is completely engaged in helping those who suffer.”
This love which makes us do great things is so intoxicating because it speaks to the deepest part of our heart. For St Thomas Aquinas, our Lord’s words in St John’s Gospel, “No longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends,” (Jn 15:15-17) are the key to understanding the virtue of charity — it is the love that is friendship.
For Aquinas, the place where we find charity working is the part of us that is concerned with loving in the first place, our will. Charity works on it to perfect it. We naturally love some things for the good they do for us and the benefits they bring us that help us survive. And other things we naturally love for what they are in themselves. Charity helps us see God as our final end, our destination, and also helps us see him as our first and best friend because he has loved us first. And if we see these things then we love all other things for love of him because they come from him and return to him again. For Aquinas, the charity that we show is nothing other than our loving response to the friendship offered to us by God. In friendship we love our friend as well as what he loves.
And charity bears fruit. Joy, peace and mercy grow over time in our heart as we experience and show God’s love through acts of kindness, almsgiving, and witnessing to the truth on the outside — these things are, Aquinas tells us, the beginnings of, or a little glimpse of, heaven. In heaven there will no longer be the need for faith — we will have Truth himself — and there will be no need for hope — we will possess God fully. The only thing that will remain is charity, that enjoyment of God in friendship forever, a friendship which has already begun here. But we must learn how to let it grow.
As we move into Holy Week, we are given an example and a witness to the depth of charity: what it costs, but also what it wins. For Pope Benedict, again, in order to understand love and to grow in it we must return to that love found in its most radical form, in Jesus’ suffering and death. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand the starting-point of any consideration of charity. “It is there,” writes Benedict, “that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” We must learn to give ourselves in love since it is the only thing known to us that grows in the measure that it is given away. Holy Week shows us the depths of the love of God and the love of others in Jesus, and he will, by the gift of himself in friendship, show us how to be like him.
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