This love of which St. Paul speaks in the above title is not just any kind of love. It is love that comes from God, and is not something that originates from within ourselves. If every love involves an attachment to the object loved, this love of charity involves attachment to God, to His will; and it is impeded by any excessive attachment to creatures or to our own will. Consequently we must be careful of identifying in our mind this supernatural love of charity with human love. Human love can be supernaturalized, and is meant to be; but in itself it is not the love St. Paul refers to. In fact, because of the inclinations of fallen human nature, these two loves usually tend in opposite directions, one seeking its own, and one seeking not its own. “If you love those who love you, what merit have you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Lk. 6:32).
This infused virtue of charity, then, acts through human nature, sanctifies it and purifies human love; but it is not to be identified with human love, for it is divine love shared by man. Human love is good and noble (love of spouses, love of parents for children, etc.) for it has been planted in human nature by God; yet there is an infinite distance between any love that has its source in human nature, and the divine love that is “poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). Human love needs the strengthening and enlightening help of the infused virtues of faith and charity to counteract the selfish tendencies of fallen nature and the attractions of the world.
The new Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church defines charity as the “theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourself for the love of God” (#1822). It is a sharing in that divine love with which God loves Himself and loves us, and which is communicated to us along with divine grace, enabling us to love Him and our neighbor with same love with which He loves.
Infused charity, then, is a participation in that divine love which is the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between the Father and the Son, through which we are united with the divine Trinity and with our neighbor. This Divine Spirit is the Gift of the Father and the Son, enabling us to love as He loves, making us one as He is one.
St. Thomas considers the virtue of charity under the aspect of friendship with God, and with all the children of God (II II, 23,1). “You are my friends,” Jesus told His disciples, “if you do the things I command you . . . I have called you friends, because all the things I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:14,15). To distinguish true friendship, which charity is, from false notions of it, we will examine the necessary conditions of true friendship, and therefore, of true love of God.
Every friendship depends on sharing something by two persons who are friends. But what can we share with God? We can love God only because “He loved us first” (1 Jn. 4:10); and in loving us, He shared with us His divine life, giving us the capacity of loving Him in return. Charity, then, is our response to God’s love, our love given back in return for His love. St. Augustine, commenting on this text of St. John says, “How could we have loved Him if He had not first loved us? By loving Him we become His friends; but He loved us when we were His enemies, in order to make us His friends” (In Ep. Joann. 9.9). Sharing with us His own divine life, He gave us the capacity of loving Him with the same divine love with which He loves us. In this way He created a common ground between us, so that we have something to share, namely, the gift of ourself - in return for the gift of Himself. For with the gift of divine grace the three divine Persons come to dwell personally in the soul. That gift of ourself we can refuse, or give partially, or give totally. This last is the goal we strive for in the Christian life, the perfection of which - for most people - will be attained only in heaven. Loving God, then, is the surrender of our will to His, a love that is patterned on that of His divine Son, saying “yes” to the sacrifices He asks, and the crosses He allows.
Unselfish love, which is seeking the true good of the one loved. Yet, because of original sin, we have come into this world with a tendency to selfishness. Hence charity does not come naturally. It is a gift from God, and facility in the exercise of that virtue comes only with the conquest of our selfish inclinations. Much of what the world calls love is selfish love, or self-seeking; for example, seeking someone’s companionship and affection because of the pleasure he or she receives from that relationship, which may even be sinful. Such a one is not concerned about the true good of the one loved. One who loves with the supernatural love of charity is concerned primarily about respecting and safeguarding the divine life of grace of the beloved, or about seeking to be instrumental in bringing about the presence of that divine life in the soul where it is wanting, or its increase where the practice of one’s faith is half-hearted. Along with this, and subordinate to it, such a one is concerned about the true good and happiness of the friend on the natural level.
This love is not mere well-wishing, but an efficacious love that is more concerned about giving than receiving, a giving that is expressed in willingness to sacrifice for the good of the friend.
Mutual love: The unselfish love described above must be mutual in any true friendship, each one being concerned about the true good of the other, each one willing to sacrifice self for the other. That is to say, each one identifies himself with the other, so that the friend’s good is his good, the friend’s happiness his happiness, the friend’s sorrow his sorrow. In a word, the true friend becomes another self. Applying this to supernatural charity, our love for God depends in no small measure on our compassion with all that Christ suffered on our behalf, if it is to give rise in us to a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of our neighbor - His children. Those sacrifices bring joy in the awareness that they please the Heart of our divine Savior. The more we return God’s love in that way, the more He increases our capacity to love, so that our thoughts become more akin to His, and our will more identified with His.
Communication: Friendship demands a common ground or a common good where there can be an exchange, a common sharing with each other. As regards friendship with God, we come into this world with a common ground on the natural level, for He created us to His own likeness and image, with a spiritual soul capable of knowing and loving, but only within the limits of our puny human intellect. As wonderful as are the achievements of the human mind in the field of modern technology, by his natural powers alone man is blind and deaf as regards the more important supernatural order of God’s creation. Too, we come into this world not as a friend of God, but in a sense as an enemy, for the rebellion of our first parents caused us to come into this world sharing the consequences of their sin. On the supernatural level, however, the level that is essential for any communication between man and God, we come into this world with no common ground. Yet, by His passion and death Christ paid the price for Adam’s sin and the sins of all his descendants, meriting for them the divine life that was lost, restoring for them that common ground essential for communication with God. That grace is infused into the soul at baptism, freeing those who receive it from the dominion of Satan, and restoring them to God’s friendship.
Every true friendship extends beyond one’s friend to all his close associates, who are loved not for their own sake, but for the sake of the friend. For this reason charity, which is friendship with God, must embrace all the children of God, that is, the whole human race. It was for them all that Christ offered His redeeming sacrifice. Not that our charity can embrace all of them individually, but no one can be expressly excluded without impeding the love of charity from directing his action.
Christ singled out this characteristic of charity as a special identifying mark of His followers. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). There is but one virtue of charity which embraces love of God, of self, and of neighbor. Therefore, one is deceived if he thinks he loves God much, while much is lacking in his love toward his neighbor. God is loved in Himself and for Himself, and all others are loved for His sake, because they are His friends or are called to be His friends.
Since God’s commandment is that we must love our neighbor as ourself, we might ask how are we to love ourself? True love, as we saw, seeks the true good for the one loved. That means that true love of self must be concerned first of all about our greatest good, the supernatural life of the soul; and subordinate to that, about our true good in the natural order. And the virtue of charity will incline one to have the same order of concern about his neighbor.
One should ask himself: Is my love of self in line with my friendship with God? Is it self-seeking in ways that are not pleasing to Him? It might seem contradictory, but true love of self is self-sacrificing, as it must be if one is to reach out to the needs of others as God would have us do, if we are to love God as He loves us. In other words, if our love of self is mainly self-seeking, we will have little concern for the needs of others; if it is self-sacrificing, we will have much concern for the needs of others. (We have dealt with self-love more in detail in Vol. 49, n.l)
From what we have said, it is clear that the term “neighbor” is not just the person living next door, but every human being - including the souls in purgatory, and even sinners and enemies. Only the souls in hell are excluded from our charity, for they have deliberately and definitively rejected friendship with God, and there is nothing we can do to help them. But other than that, to love sinners is not to approve their sinful conduct, but love them as children of God who have lost their way, doing what we can (especially by prayer) to effect their return. Love of enemies is not a matter of feelings. It does not lose sight of the fact that they are children of God, and brings one to pray for them as Our Lord recommended. Whether or not one’s prayer brings about a noticeable change in the enemy or the offending one, it has a healing effect in the heart of the one praying, doing much to remove ugly feelings and uncharitable judgments towards the offender.
Charity vitalizes and unites all the other virtues, directing them towards God. For example, aided by the virtue of meekness, charity will stifle any thought or inclination to revenge, and will try, as St. Paul recommends, to overcome evil with good.
We have seen that the Holy Spirit is God’s Gift to us, bringing us a share in God’s own love. But divine love not only makes one good, but inclines one to do good. Yet, how can we do good to God? We cannot enrich Him, nor add to His happiness or glory. In return for the untold good He shares with us, He asks us to do good to our neighbor - His children - our brothers and sisters in Christ. And He assures us that He accepts all that we do for them as done for Him.
In the truest sense, then, self-sacrificing love of neighbor is not merely a sign of our love of God, it is love of God. It is God living His divine life in and through us (Gal. 2:20). It is our love for Him expressed in the way He wishes it expressed. “Beloved, if God has so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His life is perfected in us” (l Jn. 4:11). That is, His love is perfected in us provided we love one another. St. John tells us that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). And we read in Isaiah the prophet that God “is a hidden God” (45:15). God, then, is hidden love. That hidden love was made manifest in a most wonderful way through the incarnation and redeeming death of His only-begotten Son, Who, through the Holy Spirit delivered Himself up for us. Yet, He intends that His hidden love be further manifested through the members of Christ’s Body, by loving their brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is mainly in this way that we are to give witness of God’s love before the world. The Father and Son sent their own Spirit to dwell in the soul, to transform it into the likeness of Christ. But since we are meant to have a part in our spiritual growth as well as God, that transformation into the likeness of Christ goes forward provided we love one another.
Thus we see the living cycle or circuit of Divine Love, which comes to us from the Father by the Son in virtue of the action of the Holy Spirit. It is meant to pass from us through our neighbor - our brothers and sisters in Christ - and return to the Father. This circuit of divine love is realized provided we love one another as we ought, not letting our selfishness place obstacles in the way.
If we would seek to discover the concrete forms this love of neighbor might take, they are almost limitless for, as we said, charity vitalizes and unifies all the other virtues directing them towards God. No one expressed this better than St. Paul:
All Legion of Mary members are in a special way devoted to the Rosary of Our Lady, for the daily recitation of the Rosary is one of the requirements of membership. The Handbook of the Legion also directs that its weekly meeting always begin with the Rosary. As the Handbook declares, "what breathing is to the human body, the Rosary is to the Legion meeting."
The same Handbook urges all members of the Legion (Active and Auxiliary) to be enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary: "The Rosary . . . playing such an important part in the life of the Legionary, each one is urged to register in the Rosary Confraternity. . . . The benefits attached to membership are immense."
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