What is charity?

Summer is a great time. It feels relaxed and there is a certain freedom. I remember this from even when I was working. We recently celebrated the Fourth of July and we have a lot of feast days of some great saints during this time of year as well. On July 4, 1925, the birthday of our country, another event was happening in Italy in Turin. Thousands of sick, poor, and unknown flocked to the mansion of the young man who had visited them and cared for them, and this gathering was a complete shock to his parents who were at best agnostic in their belief of God. These people had heard of his death and wanted to pay their respects. They came in such droves that the police had to shut down the streets. The young man’s parents had no idea their son had given himself so completely out of love to the poor and the lonely in the area. His very life was filled with the light of his Catholic faith. Even as he lay dying of polio, he wrote a note with his near paralyzed hand instructing his friend not to forget the injections he had promised a poor man he had been helping.     The commandment given by our Lord to love God and neighbor isn’t just a nice saying or an encouragement. It’s an expected way of life, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati lived it exceptionally well. Charity, which God gives to us when we are baptized, is a virtue that allows us to rise above our own limited ability to love. It enables us to love like God loves. It is the “theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC, 1822). A theological virtue is a disposition given to us by God when we are baptized.

Saint Thomas Aquinas gives a good way of looking at this. He says that if we have a friend, we will love our friend’s children with the same heart that we love our friend. There is no distinction. So the same is true of us. All of us are created by God and in our baptism we are adopted by Him as His children. Our whole lives must be animated by this charity. If they are, we will be filled with joy, peace, and mercy. Who does not want that? This is a great liberation, for the moral life will stop simply being avoiding mortal and venial sins, but rather making many acts of love. We grow into the understanding and the sense that we are truly children of God. Then we will no longer stand before God as a slave in fear or as a mercenary looking for payment, but we will be responding to the one who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Now that’s freedom.

The scholar of the law in the Gospel asks Jesus very simply: “And who is my neighbor?” This is where this nice theoretical truth hits the pavement and things get complicated. Who is our neighbor? It’s that person who really gets on our last nerve, perhaps your brother or your sister who hides your favorite game. It’s that person whose obnoxious characteristics just bug you to no end. It’s the cashier who is rude and inconsiderate. It’s your next door neighbor whose dog strays into your lawn and eats your flowers. It’s the coworker who bad mouths you at work or is completely self absorbed. It’s your spouse, your children, your siblings…

These are the people God calls us to love. How do we do this? First, we have to pray. We must pray for the person who is very difficult for us. Often times the people closest to us will bug us the most. Many times these can even be very holy and loving people! If there is a character flaw or something that annoys us, the devil will often magnify those flaws and turn a grain of sand into a mountain. In that case, we must pray. Rather than focusing on these flaws which we perceive, look at the person with the eyes of Faith-look at the virtues that person has. Ask yourself: “What does God see in this person?” Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote about a sister who would rattle her rosary beads in choir. She said:

“What I wanted to do was to turn and stare at her until she stopped her noise, but deep down I knew it was better to endure it patiently—first, for the love of God and, secondly, so as not to upset her. So I made no fuss, though sometimes I was soaked with sweat under the strain and my prayer was nothing but the prayer of suffering.”

So if somebody is doing something wrong in the moral life, we must first pray for that person. We must hate the sin, but love the sinner. If the person is doing something immoral, we should instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner, especially if we have responsibility for that person’s soul. Each person and situation is unique, so if we pray for the person, we will be given the help we need to approach that person. When we do try to speak to others about the faith, we can’t speak with a bitter zeal but we must speak the truth with love.

By praying for the person who bothers us and ask God for light to see that person as he does, we will be more careful about how we judge and speak about other people. If we are able to do this, then we will also try to close our mouths and not be tempted to spread gossip about our neighbor because we would view him or her as a brother or sister who, like us, is imperfect.

To put up with the defects of another person is a great way to grow in holiness. Saint Augustine makes the point that what we hate in the other person is often because we are somehow negligent in that area as well. God will allow us to be humbled because we will realize our own defects and see with what patience and love other people treat us!

Another area is jealousy. I remember one piece of advice the rector at seminary told me: “don’t compare yourself to another seminarian!” How easy it is to compare ourselves to other people! Yet this is pretty strange if we think about it. Saint Paul often speaks of us as the Body of Christ. How absurd it would be for the foot to be jealous of the head or the hand. In a great line, Saint Paul makes jealousy of others look absolutely foolish: “If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be smelling?” (cf 1 Cor. 2:15-21;24-27). Each of us has been created with specific gifts and certain weaknesses. Instead of being jealous, we should rejoice in the gifts that our neighbor exhibits. Imagine a world with a bunch of artists but no accountants. Or a bunch of big ears walking around. Or a world with a bunch of musicians, but no truck drivers or airplane pilots. Or a world without sisters or priests! No, the body needs the pinky toe, the head, the heart…

The good samaritan viewed the poor man with the eyes of mercy. If we pray asking God to help us live charity, He will show us the areas in our lives where we need to improve. Then the tests will come, but God will give us that supernatural strength that comes from our baptism: the theological virtue of charity.

If we pray for others and try to see them with the eyes and the heart of God and thank God for the gifts they do have but we lack, we will make great strides. There is a positive aspect to charity as well. Charity isn’t just about putting up with other people. We have to go out of ourselves to love them. The man who helps the poor man in the Gospel today is a samaritan–the samaritans and this man would have been sworn enemies. Yet he went out of his way to help him. It’s a challenge to us to make efforts to love those who really bug us. Not only to pray for them and to be patient with their quirks, but to make some small effort to love them. A smile, a phone call or a card on a special occasion. Spending time with a person who is lonely and wants somebody to simply be present and share life together for even just a little bit. These are some ideas to do this.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati came from a wealthy family and his parents were not believers. Yet he found great joy in living the Gospel fully. He was described by his friends as an “explosion of joy”. What was his secret? He found strength in the Eucharist. Often he would spend all night in adoration. In the midst of mountain climbing, school work, visiting the sick and the poor, taking part in social rallies, pipe smoking, practical jokes, and other shenanigans found his strength in the Eucharist. That is where he learned to love God and neighbor and where he found strength to do this. If we want to love our neighbor, we must love God and allow Him to help us love. If we spend time with Him in the Eucharist, that will happen and our lives will be transformed. We have a great opportunity here in Cresson especially on Thursdays to come to Eucharistic adoration. If we do, we will be truly free to love as God loves.

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