This is a guest post from deviant monk. I recommend both his blog and podcast. Would you like to guest blog at Thoughts of Resurrection?
If he were still alive, St. Augustine would almost certainly listen to the podcast
God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (I John 4:16)
Charity is a word we use with very specific connotations. To speak of offering charity is usually to give some money or resources to somebody who is poor, less fortunate, hard pressed.
It is also fairly easy to abstract. We can involve ourselves in charity through organizations that are committed to such a thing, without really having to engage in the act of charity; the dirty work, so to speak, of offering it personally.
Charity comes from the Latin ‘caritas.’ ‘Caritas‘, however, doesn’t mean ‘charity’ as we think of charity, but actually means ‘love.’ The first three words of I John 4:16 are Deus caritas est– God is love.
Love, of course, is defined by many different people in many different ways- we speak of loving our children in one breath and in the next about loving our favorite kind of chocolate. It can be provoked by passion, prodded by biology, produced by sensation.
But Christian love- caritas– differs from many of the ways in which we think of love. Not necessarily by means of exclusion, but certainly by means of origination. To believe that God is love is to acknowledge a source of love, and to acknowledge that source of love is to recognize that, apart from it, there is no fullness of love, there is no fullness of caritas.
Pope Benedict says in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction…Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Since God has first loved us, love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
To love begins with the understanding that we have first been loved by God. But let’s not begin with abstraction- let’s begin personally. I have been loved by God. I am loved by God. The profundity of this is easy to miss, unless you stop and contemplate the complete gratuity of God’s love. In this gift of self to humanity, God has made us- made me- in His image. It doesn’t take long to connect the dots- if I am loved by God, and made in the image of the God who is love and who gives love, then the purpose of my image-ness is to love. And not only to love God, but to love the image of God wherever I find it.
It is in this realization that the abstraction we so easily apply to charity begins to be broken away. I can no longer be content to ‘give’ to charity; the act of charity becomes an image of God’s gift of love to us. Those to whom I give in caritas cannot be nameless faces- to truly realize my own image-ness is to truly realize theirs as well. Pope Benedict says:
Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern.
Christian love pulls together two things that are often pulled apart- love for God and love for my neighbor. In my church we often use the language of holding together the evangelical gospel and the social gospel. However, in love that comes from God, it is impossible to have one without the other. You can’t simply love God without acting in love towards others; likewise, you cannot truly love others without having encountered the God who first loved you. James mockingly challenges our dualism when he says
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
In a similar manner, Pope Benedict says
If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.
The kind of love, the kind of charity that God wants from us begins with encountering God, for Christian love can only come from God. Within this transformative union our charity burns with the fire of the love that God gave to us, and the love that God gave to us is is stoked by the love we give to others. In this life of love, we find a metaphor for the Trinity, as Augustine said:
If you see charity, you see the Trinity.
So may we love with the caritas that comes from God.
May we give ourselves to others in love, to find that we open ourselves to receive more love from God.
May we encounter the God of love, and allow the love he gives to us to blossom in our hearts and in our hands.