On Quinquagesima Sunday, we read from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in which he enumerates what true Christian charity is. I’m certain many of us have heard this passage numerous times at weddings and at church, but how many of us really understand what it means and how it can be applied to ourselves? For St. Paul was not writing about the pagan idea of love, but about Christian charity and how that same charity finds its expression in the life of a Catholic.
For many of us, love is one of those words that is very much overused. We know love as a feeling that gives us “the warm and fuzzies.” It is this love that is depicted on St. Valentine’s Day cards by the hundreds as well as in popular movies and books. Yet true love is much deeper than the Hallmark version of it. It is something all consuming and beautiful. Yet it is not just something, but Someone.
In one of his epistles, St. John writes, “God is love. He who abides in God aides in love and God abides in him.” God is love then charity is one of his finest attributes. This Israelites were not commanded to serve God with all of their mind, strength, and soul, but to love Him. We can serve God without truly loving or even knowing who He is and what it is that He desires of us. Loving Him is completely different.
If we love God, then this love implies that we are to sacrifice everything we have for Him. When Our Lord told the rich young man to sell everything he had and follow Him, He did not command Him to do so out of fear or obligation but out of love. As God, He already knew what the young man had in his heart and that he wanted to serve him. Yet this rich young man’s faith and love were found wanting because he was very much attached to the goods of this world. If only he would give them up, he could more fully devote himself to God.
Many saints have shown that by sacrificing our material good, we will be free to love God more because we are not attached to them. The monks residing in ancient Egypt owned absolutely nothing except the clothes on their backs. St. Paul of Thebes, for example, lived in the desert in a state of complete nakedness. Much closer to our own time, St. Francis mandated in his rule that Franciscans practice evangelical poverty as mendicant preachers. Indeed, it was this particular aspect that caused people to deride them in the streets and to look away because they saw these men as nothing more than beggars. Yet St. Francis and his followers were happy because they did not own anything and nothing owned them.
Sacrificing material goods, however, is only one part of the equation. If we are to live in true charity, we must also learn to mortify ourselves. Without doing some kind of penance in this life for our sins and those of others, it would be very difficult for us to reach the Heavenly Kingdom. Our Lord once said that the kingdom of heaven is taken by violence and that the violent bear it away. By saying this, Our Lord did not mean that we should be violent towards one another, but that we should be violent towards ourselves.
Many great saints wore hairshirts, scouraged themselves, and starved themselves in order to mortify what St. Francis called Brother Ass. It is related of St. John Vianney that a bloody hand print could still be found at the spot where he routinely submitted to the discipline. For us, the discipline that we take up will depend on a number of different factors. Indeed, one should not take up any form of us penance without consulting a spiritual director for one could damage one.
Penance is one manner of sacrifice, but there are also numerous other things that can lead us to the practice of charity. For example, we should always spend some portion of our day in spiritual reading. There are many excellent Catholic books that are being published today. There are also numerous classics by famous names such as Fr. Alban Goodier and Fr. Francis Owen Dudley that are also being reprinted. If you don’t know what book to read or where to start, you can go and search the TAN Books website via a link on this blog. Books from TAN always come highly recommended and there should be a little something for everyone.
The purpose of spiritual reading should be to lift up our minds and hearts to God. We should read with open minds and look for things that we can imitate. Some pious souls keep journals that they fill with quotations from the Doctors of the Church and the spiritual reading that they do. This is an excellent practice.
Yet the supreme things that can lead us to love God more are the Sacraments and prayer. Whether we know it or not, the Sacraments contain in themselves numerous graces that are there for those who ask for them. When receive the Holy Eucharist in our bodies, we are receiving Our Lord and we would be remiss if we didn’t ask Him to increase the love that we have for one another and for Him. In assisting at Mass, we should meditate on His Sacred Passion and Death and think about all of the things that He suffered for love of us.
In our prayer lives, we should have great devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus and His mother. If there was anyone on this earth who loved Our Lord best it was Our Lady. Mary can show us how to love God and so can our patrons. If we pray to them and sincerely ask for the grace of Christian charity, Our Lord will not refuse us. He will give it to us in the measure that is necessary for our state in life and our own unique vocation. We should not be afraid to pray for this gift for ourselves and others. For it is one of the supreme gifts of the Holy Ghost.
In writing about charity, I would be remiss if I did not mention that we should love our neighbor. In our daily lives, we are given opportunities to show charity towards others. Whether it is with that student who drives me up the wall or the crazy lady who marches in a cat costume around town, it is always our duty to show these souls love by our patience, kindness, gentleness, and meekness. Of course, learning to do this is not easy. But it is something that we must do if we want to become Christ-like. For if we do not show charity to others during our life here, how will God show us charity in the life to come?
Since Lent is almost upon us, let us think and meditate on the ways that we can improve our charity. Let us ask the Holy Ghost to guide us and show us what we ought to do to acquire this great virtue. Finally, let us strive to practice some form of mortification this Lent for love of God.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!