The Virtue of Charity
by Rev. Albert F. Ernst, O.S.F.S.
People sometimes have mistaken notions about holiness or sanctity. Some think that sanctity consists in long prayers, others think that sanctity consists in fasting and beating the body. Still others think that sanctity consists in having visions of our Blessed Mother or in possessing the power to work miracles as some of the saints did. Finally, some think that sanctity consists in abandoning the world entirely and joining a convent or monastery. Because of these mistaken notions about the real core of sanctity, a fair number of people spend their lives chasing an illusion, while a larger number of realistic Catholic men and women simply throw up their hands and say, “Sanctity is not for me, I just want to be a good Catholic.”
It may be encouraging for us to realize that the early Christian, just like ourselves, could sometimes get mixed up on the questions of what makes a man really holy or, in other words, how to become a saint. As a matter of fact, the Epistle of St. Paul tells his Corinthian converts plainly and emphatically what sanctity consists of, and in so doing he shows us that sanctity is available to all. He tells us plainly that the heart of all genuine sanctity is charity. What makes a man achieve sanctity is neither prayers, nor fasting, nor miracle working, nor a religious uniform – good and helpful though all these things may be; what makes a person a saint is the possession and exercise of the virtue of charity.
Just what is this charity of which St. Paul speaks so enthusiastically, and how can we get an increase of this magnificent virtue?
Theologians define charity this way, “Charity is a divinely infused power which inclines us to love God for His own sake more than anything else in the universe, and to love all the things which God loves and in the way in which He loves them.”
This definition includes many points. We may well begin with the point that charity is “Love” since that is the point most stressed in the definition. Charity is a real love, even though it is different from all other types of love. We all know what love is in a general way. It is the attraction which draws a man towards someone or something that appears to him to be good or delightful. Even though the word “Love” is used most of the time in novels and movies to designate romantic or boy-meets-girl love, we all know that there are other kinds of love; the love of parents for children, the love of children for parents, the love a man has for his country, and so on. We know, too, that there are unworthy loves, such as a drunkard who feels a special attraction to whiskey is said to, “Love the bottle.” This same human power of loving, as you can see, gets different names when it is attracted to different classes of people or things.
Now, charity, or Christian love, has a special person towards whom it is attracted; that person is God. This fact that charity reaches out towards God as a person of special attraction, is one way in which charity differs from romantic, parental, patriotic or other kinds of love.
But there is another and much more important way in which charity differs from all other types of love. Charity is a supernatural love. That is, we do not come by it naturally, nor can we exercise it simply by our unaided human powers. Charity is a love that God Himself plants in our hearts at Baptism. That is what theologians mean when they say that charity is a divinely infused virtue. If a man loves food or sleep, he loves it instinctively. He is naturally aware of the attractiveness of a steak when he is hungry, or he is naturally aware of the delightfulness of sleep when he is weary. If a fellow loves a young lady, all he has to do is be with her and see her enough and talk to her enough to feel attracted by her beauty and charm. If a parent loves a child, he does so instinctively. In all these attractions, love comes naturally. But, the love of God does not come naturally. We cannot taste God, nor see Him with our eyes. He is invisible. Now, while it is true that by studying the universe around us and by thinking about a good above all other things, our knowledge would still not be such as to make us love Him. Natural knowledge of God would make us admire God, but it would not make us really love Him. (St. Francis deSales, “Love of God” Book X, Ch. 10)
The reason we say that natural knowledge of God’s beauty would make us admire Him but not love Him is this; love seeks to be united, to be joined, to what it loves. A child does not merely stand off and admire the goodness of an ice cream cone – he wants to be joined to it. A man or a woman does not merely admire the beauty or charm of the other person; each seeks to be joined to that person in the beautiful and lasting union of marriage. So, too, if we are really to love God, we must be joined to Him in some way. But we cannot be joined to Him in a physical way because He is beyond the reach of our senses, He is too far above us. Left to ourselves, we could never do anything to cross the vast abyss which separates the sphere in which we live and the sphere in which God lives. But, God could and did cross that abyss. The Blessed Trinity is mysterious, but in a most real way has come to live within our souls. By so doing, God has done something to our souls and all its powers. He beautified the very essence of the soul, making it an image of Himself. God has also bestowed special gifts on our intelligence which will enable them to contact God dwelling within us. These special gifts are faith, hope and charity. It is this last named gift of charity that enables us to be joined to God in a union of intimate friendship.
At the beginning of this sermon we said that holiness or sanctity consists in charity. We know that there are degrees in holiness – some people are holier than others. The reason they are holier is that they possess more of this virtue of charity. If we wish to grow in holiness we must grow in charity. God gave us this gift at Baptism. He wills to give us more of it. He has designed ways for us to receive more. We can receive an increase of charity by begging God in prayer to give us more; by receiving Holy Communion and the sacrament of Penance more frequently. Finally, we can get more charity by every good act of love we perform for the sake of God. Charity is like the traditional snowball which keeps growing bigger the more we roll it along.
If we wish, then, to be holy, we are not required to enter a convent or monastery, though God does call some of us there. The same thing which makes a man a saint in a Trappist monastery, can make a man a saint in an office. The same thing that makes a Carmelite nun a saint can make a stenographer a saint. The same thing that can make Francis Xavier, a saint in a foreign land, can make a mother or father a saint in his home, while doing the daily chores of raising a family. The same thing is the love of God, or charity.