I often think that it would be so much easier to be holy if I lived on a desert island surrounded only by tropical blooms and the odd crab. There’d be no rude sales assistants to test my patience, no gossip to test my love and certainly no criticism to test my faith. I could pray my rosary, I could be at one with God in the silence of solitude and all would be rosy in the garden – well….on the island. Except that in actual fact, I’d find just as many challenges there as I would in my busy urban parish. Faith is something we hold to be an internal virtue and whilst that is often challenged by external circumstances, the strength of our faith comes from how steadfast we can be in times of trial. That is, we may still go to Mass when we have a broken leg but do we really want to be there? Are we just going through the motions so that we appear holy or are we really finding joy in the Lord in our hearts?
If you’re a regular church goer then I can say with 99.9% certainty that there’s somebody in your congregation you don’t like. You may not even know them that well but they just have a way of setting your teeth on edge. Maybe it’s the woman with the awful singing voice who tries to make up in volume what she lacks in tune. It could be the tall man who insists on sitting in front of you even if the rest of the pew in front is empty. Or maybe it’s more serious than that. Maybe it’s someone who consistently challenges you on your views or beliefs, a die hard traditionalist or a wishy washy liberal who sees their way as the only way. On the outside, you still smile at them and shake their hands but inside they just drive you crazy. To a casual observer, you might do everything to make it appear that you like the individual in question (and I know you’ve already got a picture of them in your mind) but if they could hear your thoughts, would they still get the same impression? If you do have someone at church you don’t much care for – thank God for them! You might not feel it now, but they’re actually a walking spiritual opportunity. They are an embodiment of your call to charity.
I know what you’re going to say. You chip in to the collection each week, you give to WorldVision or CAFOD regularly, you’re a charitable person. But that isn’t what we mean by the virtue of charity. According to the Catechism:
1822 Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.
1823 Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own “to the end,” he makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive. Whence Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” And again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Charity is also one of the three theological virtues which the Catechism defines as “the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it it’s special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Part Three, S. 1, Ch. 1, Article 7, II. 1813). The words that stand out here are “pledge” and “action”. When I become a Christian, when I accept the call to holiness, when I welcome Christ into my heart I am making a pledge. I pledge that I’ll live faithfully to His teaching so that I can be closer to Him but a pledge alone isn’t enough. I have to do something about it. I have to try not to sin which takes me away from Jesus, I have to try to be compassionate, I have to try to be forgiving, I have to try to be loving – in other words, I have to walk the walk rather than just talking the talk. I have to meet intentions with actions.
Charity is love in action. When we give money to a good cause, we do so out of love for our neighbour. We want to improve their lives and make them happier. And that’s wonderful. But how much charity do we show the tall guy at church or the woman who can’t sing? If you’re sitting at Mass thinking “I wish she’d just shut up”, you’re not being charitable. If you’ve taken against someone because of a statement they made or a promise they broke, you’re not being charitable. And sometimes it takes remarkable effort and self-control to try to be kind to those who maybe aren’t kind to you but that’s what Jesus asks us to do. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask that we be forgiven our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I don’t know if taking up a pew with a gym bag is particularly a trespass against me personally but I shouldn’t be irritated by that even if I disapprove. I shouldn’t spend the rest of the Mass quietly bubbling away with resentment. In my uncharitable thoughts, I’m moving away from Jesus – quite literally in this case. My resentment of someone else at Mass breaks my concentration and I don’t reflect on the joy of being in the real presence of Jesus.
The Apostles sometimes struggled with charity. St Paul had a bit of a temper and there are several places in scripture where the Apostles show they aren’t quite as welcoming as they could be. But they always see the error of their ways and they come to holiness by showing charity – because they knew that love is the basis of all Christian belief. So how do we practically show charity when we find ourselves challenged by someone we’re called to love? Sometimes it’s as simple as not gossiping about someone or trying to let go of the little things that someone does which irritate us. We focus on their strengths and their kindnesses and we try to show them the same. But sometimes it’s so much harder. When someone offends or upsets us, however unintentionally, it can be hard to put aside our hurt and to try to see them as friends or neighbours. But this is what Jesus is calling us to. We have to try as best we can to see them through His eyes. We have to love them as He does.
If you know someone is struggling to pay their bills but you don’t consider them a friend, take them some food. If someone says something that hurts you very deeply, don’t respond with anger but rather keep them in your prayers and ask the Lord to be with them. If someone is the victim of gossip, don’t pass it on and tell others that it’s unkind to spread rumour. These are the actions we’re called to make if we’ve pledged our lives to Christ. This is true charity. And in this way, we’re being truly holy because even though it may not always go appreciated, even if we never get a thankyou or a kind word, we know in our hearts that we’re living according to God’s word. The road to holiness is a bumpy one but just think of our final destination. If it’s a choice between spending all eternity in abject misery and grief in the fires of hell or putting up with the lady with the bad singing voice sitting next to you on your cloud? I know where I’d rather be!