“So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Looking at the non-homily, non-link posts I’ve done, I think I’ve talked about what spiritual life isn’t as much if not more than I’ve talked about what it is. Now, I’d like to get to basics, and doe me this passage from First Corinthians is the base: St. Thomas Aquinas described these elements as Theological Virtues, and I don’t think he was far off there. So once again, I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread and offer some thoughts on the basics, mindful others have done so better than I.
What is Faith? There are five definitions at Dictionary.com, and none of them cover it completely. Faith is confidence in a person or thing, and Faith is belief in something beyond proof. To me, words like “confidence” or “belief” fall short individually, as does “trust”, for me it’s a combination of these three and bit more I have a hard time putting into words. It’s not irrational as being incompatible with Reason, but it’s beyond Reason; it’s not logical but it’s not illogical or crazy or arbitrary. The one adjective I would reject for the word Faith is “Blind”. We may feel like we’re blind after contemplating who and what God is, overwhelmed by the infinite nature of the Universe, but I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that a good and loving God would want us to be blind, to fail to use the intellect or senses He’s given. It’s not like our search for God and understanding God is going to push past Him to something else, or somewhere we shouldn’t go.
Paragraph 150 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say: “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature”
There’s a lot of misconceptions about what Faith in God does or what Faith ought to be. Faith may give us comfort, Faith may help us feel good or even fantastic, Faith may give us a moral compass and all these things are very, very good. But if that’s all Faith is, then it will fall very short of what it can do for us, and what we should do for it. Is it Faith if it can be described thoroughly? One characteristic for me is that Faith is beyond words, beyond feelings, breaking into song and action. After all, people have died rather than give up their Faith, and perhaps that a good criteria for having true Faith: would you refuse to continue living without it?
Faith is also something that should make us better people, should shine through our skin like an inner glow, should make us such people of inner Peace and outward Love that others wonder how we got the way we are. It’s not a ‘60s Flower Child pipe dream or a Liberal agenda, it’s something more universal and less definable. Faith is something that should be at the core of our being, that moves everything we say and do. If it isn’t, then it will not attract, will not convert, will not persuade, for we will be just other bully preachers in an age of bully preachers.
Faith is something to be shared, more than that, it is something that should be contagious, more contagious than any deadly virus. After all, what good is it to keep such a wonderful thing to ourselves? This is something that can bring the human race together on the best terms possible.
Hope is most essential in our daily lives. It keeps is going through tough times, helps us understand that the bad news we hear and read every day isn’t the last word for our world, that we can leave the wounds of yesterday behind and move forward into a new future of promise, promise in Christ.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastic meditation on the nature of Hope, among other things. For Tolkien, giving up Hope is the illogical, because giving up Hope means we know with certainty what the End will be, and that End is bad. Why that doesn’t make sense is that we never know with any certainty what will happen next, we never know with certainty all is lost. Even if you’re dragging yourself through the wastes of Mordor, wondering where you next sip of water is coming from and wondering whether your muscles are going to hold up, Hope keeps you going, even if that Hope isn’t about your personal survival. You have to give yourself the chance, no matter how small it might be, or give up on logic as well as Hope.
Nourishing the frail plant that is Hope is one of our greatest tasks. Dreams that fail to materialize, initiatives that don’t catch fire, apparent lack of help to do necessary projects can sap our spirits and lose our connection with Hope, even the Great Hope we all share in Christ. Discouragement can lead to despair, lack of vision, inertia, and feelings that nothing we do will matter, and even make us feel that coming together at all is a waste of time. We must avoid all these things.
Cultivating Hope is something we all have to work on, me included, something we cannot afford to neglect this no matter what. Hope will see us through everything. Everything we can do to keep connection with each other, in prayer for one another, in getting a few things accomplished together, in sharing meals, whatever, is quality time and helps us build our Faith and Hope as well. As we seek to reach out to strangers in our midst and the community around us, we need to reach out to each another as well, because Christ doesn’t call us individually to follow Him, he calls us to follow Him together. Hope is a plant that grows best when closely planted together, grows best when there are people to share it with close by. If we are together, then Hope will never fail.
Love is what keeps the universe together, and I feel like I don’t understand it. Love is an unconditional commitment to another, an unconditional desire for another, an unconditional service to another. In Chapter 13 of First Corinthians, Paul has some rather wise thoughts about the subject that really haven’t been improved on, although I’m not sure we get it when it’s read. Love leads us to Charity, which is the main way we’re in right relationship with God and each other. Easy for him to say, doing it is another story.
Last week was St. Augustine’s feast day, and he had a couple of observations about Love that I found very profound. The first is about God’s love for us as individuals: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” God has done everything for us: given us a wonderful world to live in and wonderful people to share it with, God hasn’t held anything back from us. That works, that makes sense, we don’t compete with each other for God’s love, there is an infinite amount for everyone. That’s definitely not part of our human experience as being part of families, churches, businesses and social organizations, we have limits to how much we can love. Being certain about this Love can’t be underestimated: it is a bedrock for us to build on, a starting point we need to stay in touch with, especially when we feel unneeded and unloved. The second quote from Augustine leads us to Charity: the alternate translation of the last verse of 1 Cor 13:13:
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.
Love is nothing if not acted on. Love is not in words, but in actions that come from the center of our hearts. The name of this virtue is Charity.
One of the main traps of Love, of Charity, is to think about what good lovers we are, how generous we are. I could go to a soup kitchen and put in a shift serving food and wiping down tables, and it would be a good thing, but if I think about how these people are benefiting from my service to them, I’m not really caring for them but only myself and my self image as a good person. I could give away everything I’m not using in my closet, and I’m not really doing great Charity: I’m giving away things I could put in the garbage. It reinforces my superiority rather than their benefit. The Muslim pillar of Zakat, the 2.5% donation of all income (gross income) to local charity, is something the individual is not supposed to take credit for. It’s the least we can do, and Love isn’t about doing the least. If we are truly motivated by Love and Charity, then the minimum shouldn’t be contemplated, much less brought up, and even self-recognition shouldn’t cross our minds. We have to keep from being impressed by how good we are, we need Humility, we need being down to earth with ourselves, to keep perspective on our hearts.
The great example of Love and Charity is Christ. The ideal is total self sacrifice for the sake of the world. We will never reach that ideal, but we’re called to strive toward that goal. True Charity isn’t about giving leftovers, but what we would use for ourselves if given the chance. Love and Charity doesn’t come from our feeling of superiority, of what we give to someone less fortunate, but what we offer from our poverty, knowing that what we give can never be enough. And whatever Love we may have overflowing from us is the Love of God in Christ.
I know I haven’t covered it all; I don’t think anyone can on these virtues. These are my starting points, and should be the basic elements of our journey with Christ, both individually and collectively. Life in Christ is about holding onto these things, sharing these things, working out these things.