The greatest is love
My dear Friends,
Saint Paul’s hymn to charity reminds us today that, over and beyond the ephemeral goods of this fleeting life, there are values that remain, there is Someone that remains. And the way we gain access to this Someone and to the higher life to which we are called are the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues, which are infused by God, take us into an entirely new realm, one in which we take part in the very life of God. Through faith, we believe everything He has revealed about Himself, as it is contained in Holy Scripture and in Tradition and taught authoritatively by the Holy Catholic Church. Through hope, we have absolute confidence in the help of God who wants to forgive us our sins when we repent of them, and give us eternal life. Charity or love (agape, that is to say, the selfless love of oblation that seeks not itself but the beloved), is the greatest of the three. St Paul gives us the fundamental reason for this when he says at the end of today’s epistle that faith and hope will no longer exist in Heaven, for their object will have been attained: we will not need to believe God on faith for we will see Him as He is; we will not need hope in His grace, for we will have obtained the very object of that hope; but love will ever remain, it will never pass, it is actually the very heart and core of eternal life, for God created us for this very purpose of sharing with us His eternal love. God is love, St John tells us in his first epistle, and St Paul tells us today that this love, this one love – for really there can be only one true love – is endowed with a number of characteristics which stem from the very nature of true love. So what is that nature? To love is to seek the good of the person loved. To love is to put others first – God before all others – and self last.
In the first three verses of today’s epistle, the apostle, thanks to a triple repetition, hammers home the fact that it does not matter how marvellous might be the things we do in this life; if we do not have supernatural charity, it avails nothing: He writes: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. To speak all the languages of the world, to solve all its problems – political, social, religious even –, to even use up all one’s energy and ressources to make the world a better place: all this is of no avail if the love of God does not reign in our hearts.
The characteristics of charity enumerated by the apostle begin with : Love is patient, and conclude with: love endureth all things, almost as if to place the virtue within the realm of one’s capacity to suffer with others. What is patience, indeed, if it is not the ability to suffer? One will never repeat too often nor meditate without fruit the fact that patience and passion have the same Latin root. Pati means to suffer and it has give both the word passion (as in passion or sufferings of Christ) and patience. It is through patience that we learn to suffer; it is through patience that we do suffer. And how vital is this virtue in daily life!
If I may share here a personal of my first years in monastic life back in France in the mid-1980’s. The prior at the time, Dom Augustin Joly, deceased in 2006, had one word that was invariably on his lips when you came to him with a problem: patience. He had suffered enormously in his own life, from the loss of parents at a very early age, to being taken prisoner during the Second World War (from which he escaped almost miraculously), to losing his wife after the birth of their 6th child, and then, after raising his children and discerning a monastic vocation, the incessant labours of founding a monastery…). He knew what love was, and he knew the vital role of patience in love. Patience, it was a word that we all learned very quickly and understood without effort. If there is a virtue that is vital to life in common, it is indeed patience. But St Paul tells us today that it is precisely the greatest of the virtues, love, which inspires patience. And this is why it is significant that he concludes the series of four verses on the characteristics of charity with: Love endureth all things. Yes, when you love, you are prepared to bear all burdens for the one you love; nothing is too heavy, too burdensome.
One of the most beautiful commentaries on this verse has to be ch 5 of the third book of the Imitation of Christ, on the wonderful effects of divine love, from which I borrow these lines: “Love is an excellent thing, a great good indeed, which alone taketh light all that is burdensome and equally bears all that is unequal. For it carries a burden without being burdened and makes all that which is bitter sweet and savoury. The love of Jesus is noble and generous; it spurs us on to do great things and excites us to desire always that which is most perfect… Nothing is sweeter than love; nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing more generous, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or on earth; for love proceedeth from God and cannot rest but in God above all things created. The lover flies, runs and rejoices, he is free and not held. He gives all for all and has all in all, because he rests in one sovereign good above all, from whom all good flows and proceeds. … Love often knows no measure, but is inflamed above all measure. Love feels no burden, values no labours, would willingly do more than it can; complains not of impossibility, because it conceives that it may and can do all things. It is able therefore to do anything and it performs and effects many things where he that loves not faints and lies down. Love watches, and sleeping, slumbers not. When weary is not tired; when straitened is not constrained; when frighted is not disturbed, but like a lively flame and a torch all on fire it mounts upwards and securely passes through all opposition… Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, and delightful; strong, patient, faithful, prudent, long-suffering, courageous, and never seeking itself. For where a man seeks himself there he falls from love. Love is circumspect, humble, and upright, not soft, not light, not intent upon vain things; is sober, chaste, stable, quiet, and keeps a guard over all the senses”.
And so, as we prepare ourselves to enter the holy season of Lent, let us ask for an increase of divine love in our hearts. My dear friends, if we are in the state of grace and not conscious of any serious sin, we have divine love in our hearts. But we must ask that it be increased in us, for it is truly love which will give value to all the penances and mortifications of the holy season of Lent which will begin this Wednesday with the imposition of the ashes on our foreheads, reminding us of the frailty of this earthly life and its meaninglessness if it is not spent in loving God and, out of love for Him, loving neighbour.
Give increase to our love, O Lord, that we may learn to taste with the mouth of the heart how sweet it is to love and to swim and to be dissolved in love. Let us be possessed by love, rising above ourselves. Let us sing the canticle of love and follow our beloved Jesus, in company with our Mother of Sorrows, through Calvary to the glory of the Resurrection and eternal life.