In our community, many mornings, as the brothers are rushing off for school, a couple of brothers will generously wash our breakfast dishes. Recently, one of these dish-washing brothers looked at the sink full of dishes and shuddered, “Today I am not in the mood to do charity.” I understand him completely since I am never in the mood to wash everyone’s breakfast dishes any day. And I too, often think that charity is a mood or an emotion.
As a parish priest I frequently prepared couples for marriage. I often asked them, “Do you see any difficulties in the future?” Frequently, the young couple would be startled look at me as though I had asked them if they had made provisions for a divorce. They would blink their eyes and say, “No, we are in love!”
Of course they were in love but difficulties come and love is what helps us to deal with them – but we can’t always count on love as an emotion.
Jesus tells us to love God with our whole heart, our whole soul and with our whole mind and our neighbors as ourselves. Certainly we have our moments when we feel love for God. We may be moved by a hymn or a reading from Scripture but those good feelings may have evaporated before we step out of church.
St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes that what passes for “love” might also be a benign or kindly attitude towards others, wishing them well, at a distance. According to Thomas, God doesn’t love us in this way nor should we love God or our neighbors in this way.
How does God love us? God not only wishes us well but God makes overtures to communicate with us. Thomas believes God’s love for us and our love for God should be described as “friendship” because “friendship” implies not only “mutual love” but also “communication” (2a2ae. 23, 1). He recalls St. Paul’s words, “… by Him you were called to fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9).
Speaking of friendship with regard to God might seem surprising. Just as the word “love” is ambiguous, people perceive God in different ways. Many may find the idea of “friendship” with God impossible. Yet, as we consider the New Testament, we repeatedly see God reaching out to us through His Son.
When Thomas says that God desires to communicate to us, he doesn’t mean only verbal messages. According to Thomas, God communicates His beatitude, His “happiness,” to us. God wants to give us His “happiness.” No wonder Jesus said that He had come to bring “good news.”
When Thomas describes the mutual love between God and ourselves, he uses the Latin word, caritas, “charity,” as distinct from the Latin word amor, which is an emotional feeling. Thomas says: “The love which is based on this communication is charity… charity is the friendship of man for God” (2a2ae. 23, 1).
We usually use “charity” to describe care for the needy, such as those referred to in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus 22:20-26: the aliens, the widows, the orphans, the poor. However, even newer translations of St. Thomas retain the word, “charity” to distinguish the virtue by which we love God and our neighbor from love as an emotion.
Thomas believes that our communications with God are “through our minds.” In this way, “… we have fellowship between us and God” (2a2ae. 23, 1, ad 1). Thomas may mean the ways that we think of God and speak to Him.
How do we love our neighbors, when we know that some days, we are not in the mood for any one? St. Thomas emphasizes that “love” for our neighbors isn’t primarily about ourselves. In fact, when we love others because of how we are affected by them, we are loving the feeling not the person. Thomas says that this is the love we might have for wine or horses but not for other humans – what they do for us (2a2ae. 23, 1).
For Thomas, to love another person is “to wish good to that person.” When we love another person, we try to love those whom the person loves. In our time, spouses make efforts to love their relatives by marriage. Our “love” for others is not based on feelings but on the intention to love
For God’s sake, we even love our enemies, “whom we love out of charity in relation to God to whom the friendship of charity is chiefly related” (2a2ae. 23, 1, ad 2).
Spontaneously, we might be drawn to good people and avoid those who are not good but Thomas explains that we should even love those who are not virtuous, “whom out of charity, we love for God’s sake” (2a2ae. 23, 1, ad 3).
Thomas adds that, in this way, our love for our neighbors “is not founded principally on the virtue of a person, but on the goodness of God” (2a2ae. 23, 3, ad 1). Loving our neighbors for God’s sake extends the boundaries of our love beyond our warm feelings.
Thomas reminds us that the essence of God is charity, just as it is goodness and wisdom. Our goodness and our wisdom are a sharing in God’s goodness and wisdom. So too, Thomas teaches, “the charity by which we love our neighbor is a participation in the Divine charity” (2a2ae. 23, 2, ad 1). Loving our neighbors, we are participating in God’s love for them.
But we need help! Sometimes, we develop virtues by repeating good actions. Sometimes, God “infuses” or gives us virtues by which we act in good ways.
We call the virtues of faith, hope and charity, “theological” because they relate to God (Theos in Greek). These virtues are prime examples of such virtues, given to or infused in us by God. Thomas explains that loving God especially needs the infusion of charity:
God is supremely lovable in Himself, in as much as He is the object of happiness. But He is not supremely lovable to us in this way, on account of the inclination of our appetite towards visible goods. Hence it is evident that for us to love God above all things in this way, it is necessary that charity be infused in our hearts (2a2ae. 2, ad 2).
Thomas insists that God gives us virtue, through the Holy Spirit to dispose us to act well. Even though the virtue is given by the Spirit, the actions continue to be our own.
How can the Holy Spirit inspire them and they are still our actions? We are free not to respond, even to the movements of the Holy Spirit. If we did not retain our freedom to choose then our actions, however good they might be, would not be virtuous. For Thomas, a virtuous action must be a free action. We can choose to love or not love (2a2ae. 23, 2). Otherwise, the Holy Spirit would be moving us the way that a puppet or marionette is moved.
The Spirit moves us by attracting us to exercise the virtue of charity. We may choose whether or not we will to act virtuously. The virtue inclines us to act according to the Spirit’s guidance – but we still can say no.
The God-given virtue of charity disposes or inclines our wills to love God and our neighbor: the virtue of charity “causes the will to act with ease and pleasure.”
We find the virtue of charity especially attractive. As Thomas says, no other virtue acts with such “a strong inclination… and with so great pleasure” (2a2ae. 23, 2). Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to act in a loving way.
At times, we are conscious that we haven’t been loving very much. We might become discouraged but with God’s help we can grow in love. Thomas explains that every effort we make to act in a charitable way leads to a greater charity:
Charity does not actually increase through every act of charity but every act of charity disposes us to an increase in charity, in so far as one act of charity makes a person more ready to act again according to charity, and this readiness increasing, a person breaks out into an act of more fervent love, and strives to advance in charity, and then his charity increases actually (2a2ae. 24, 6).
Through our prayers, God gives us greater charity: “God increases charity when He makes charity have a greater hold on the soul, and the likeness of the Holy Spirit to be more perfectly participated by the soul” (2a2ae. 24, 5 ad 3).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae name the part of the Summa. The second part of the Summa is itself divided in two parts. Thomas’ discussion on love is found in the second part of the second part. Most of the discussion on love is found in questions 23 and 24, with a variety of “articles.” When Thomas responds to an objection that he has raised in the beginning of the article, his response is described as “ad” (to) the number of the objection.