“At the end of our life, we shall all be judged by charity.” – St. John of the Cross
All of us seek to live a cohesive life, where our different roles and tasks are united rather than a jungle of chaos. Regardless of our specific life circumstances, charity is key to unlocking that integrated life. The great St. Thomas Aquinas is one of the major sources of insight into the virtues, including charity, so let’s use him as a guide for better understanding why charity is important for us.
Charity Directs Activity
Worth pointing out first is that caritas, the Latin word St. Thomas Aquinas uses, can be translated as charity or as love, and neither translation adequately encompasses the fullness of what we’re seeking to understand.
Charity is in the Will
Caritas resides in the will, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, because its object or end is not something that we sense but something that we apprehend through the intellect. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the object of love is the good, and the most proper object of love is the highest good: God’s goodness. Now the will is at the root of all our activity. So charity is able to direct all of our love, integrate all our activity, towards God, the highest good of all.
The Soup of Charity
Putting one deep love into our life unites the other aspects of our life. Consider, for example, a large pot of soup. Without the pot to hold the different ingredients, there is no unity and no soup! As soon as the pot is present to hold all the various ingredients, integration becomes possible: All kinds of things can be dumped into that pot and will become one. Charity— our love for God and God’s love for us— is like that pot, containing and directing all our activity in an integrated way.
Charity doesn’t remove us from the commitments and decisions in our life, but unites those obligations.
St. Bendict Joseph Labres wrote:
A Christian ought in a manner to have three hearts in one: one for God, another for his neighbor, and the third for himself. It is necessary that the first heart be for God: pure and sincere, that it directs all its actions toward Him…The second heart must be for our neighbor: generous, fearing no labor, no suffering in his service… The third heart, which is for himself, should be firm in its resolutions, abhorring all sin, mortified even to a life of sacrifices, giving its body to austerity and penance.
This beautiful reflection expresses the diversity of activities and responsibilities we experience— to God, ourselves, and others— yet how they are all united by the heart, by charity. In a sense, it is this third heart that we must begin with in integrating our life; we must be confident in Christ’s love for us and our identity as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, and this will flow into the rest of our life.
Charity, Like Friendship
A helpful way to think about charity is as a kind of friendship. St. Thomas Aquinas quite clearly says, “It is written (John 15:15): ‘I will not now call you servants… but My friends.’” Now this was said to them by reason of nothing else than charity. Therefore charity is friendship.”
Friendship is marked by at least three main things: a shared life, a wishing of the best for each other, and, typically, some kind of equality. Charity means a sharing in the spiritual life of God; it necessitates us desiring God’s goodness for His own sake, and God desiring what is truly best for us; it is possible because God lifts up our nature and allows us to communicate with Him through grace, despite our creature-status.
Why Charity is Important: Charity’s Unity of Purpose
So, charity is a kind of friendship that unites all of our activity, giving it a common end: God’s goodness. It orders all that we do, everything in our life, so that it is aiming toward God. Charity makes all our actions— even the hard ones like resisting a temptation to sin— directed toward God.
In fact, all truly great acts are ones of charity! St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Charity is present if one is occupied about great things; but if one is not so occupied, charity is not present. We see a lover do great and difficult things because of the one loved, and that is why the Lord says, Whoever loves me will keep My word.
Everything, even adversity or pain, is accepted by the person of true charity, because he or she is so oriented toward God’s goodness.
This is why charity really leads to happiness, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches. “All other things are insufficient without charity” and it is in fact different degrees of charity that differentiate the degrees of blessedness amongst the saints. Some people are gifted with talents like being naturally intelligent, or funny, or charismatic…. But none of these are a sufficient standard for human action. Rather, the single law is love: St. Thomas Aquinas says, “The law of divine love is the standard for all human actions.”
Friendship with Others Too
It’s worth highlighting how love of God extends to others because they are friends of God, too! Charity allows us to begin to wish the best— God’s goodness—for everyone, because they are called to God to be his friends, too. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI writes:
One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John’s words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.
Philosopher John Cuddeback writes on the same thought beautifully:
I hold by faith that a human person could theoretically be happy in heaven were there no one else but that person and God. This is a profound truth. Yet in the concrete, has not God woven my life so deeply with the lives of others that in some sense it cannot be unwoven without tearing the fabric?
Living caritas means living a life that integrates friendship with God and friendship with others.
Diversity in Charity
The more we give ourselves to our one, true end— friendship with God that overflows to loving our neighbor—the more we are able to do many things within its one scope.
Thinking of the saints reveals this great diversity that can be found within the unity of charity. Bishop Robert Barron reflects on this, writing:
There is Thomas Aquinas, the towering intellectual, and the Curé d’Ars who barely made it through the seminary. There is Vincent de Paul, a saint in the city, and there is Antony who found sanctity in the harshness and loneliness of the desert. There is Bernard kneeling on the hard stones of Clairvaux in penance for his sins, and there is Hildegard of Bingen singing and throwing flowers, madly in love with God.
We could add to this list recent saints and those on the pathway to sainthood: think of the diversity between Fr. Solanus Casey, John Paul II, and Elizabeth of the Trinity! Elizabeth of the Trinity was a Carmelite mystic who died at the age of twenty-six. Fr. Solanus Casey was characterized by a simple faith and humble service as “the Doorkeeper.” John Paul II was an international influencer, artist, theologian, and Pope. Friendship with God in charity bears fruit in amazingly unique ways in each person’s life; yet, it is united in its object or end, which integrates the person’s various actions.
Charity like Mary
While all the saints lived the virtue of charity, we can look especially to Mary as we seek to better understand love. In her book Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide to Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church, Carrie Gress talks about how Mary uniquely and beautifully models charity for us. Gress quotes Pope Francis. “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness,” the Pope says. “In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves.”
A Gift from God
Ultimately, charity is a gift of God’s grace and we need to ask for it. We also need to cultivate habits of virtue in our life. Especially through personal prayer, the sacraments, and reading the lives of the saints, we can be inspired to imitate others’ witness of charity, but the virtue won’t really take root in our own life without developing a habit, and holistically orienting our life toward the other virtues as well. But at the end of the day, charity, more than the other virtues, is what will integrate our life into a cohesive whole.
All we do, even in the business sphere or kitchen, can be aimed at God’s goodness through charity. An organized, integrated life starts with charity, and that’s what God calls us to.
For further reading:
- Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI
- Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI