Twentieth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
Once upon a time there lived people who pretended that nothing had existence outside the mind, that objects were merely fictions of the brain; thus, when they gave a name to those objects, it was like sticking a label in the air where they seemed to be. The world is not without folks who have similar ideas concerning charity, to whom it is a name without substance. Scarcely a Christian but will pretend that he has the virtue of charity, and of course one must take his word for it, and leave his actions and conduct out of all consideration. With him, to love God is to say you do, whether you really do or not. This is charity of the "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal" assortment.
To be honest about it, charity or love of God is nothing more or less, practically, than freedom from, and avoidance of, mortal sin. The state of grace is the first, fundamental, and essential condition to the existence of charity. Charity and mortal sin are two things irreducibly opposed, uncompromisingly antagonistic, eternally inimical. There is no true charity where there is sin; there is no sin where there is true charity. That is why charity is called the fulfillment of the law.
On the other hand, it sometimes happens that humble folks of the world, striving against temptation and sin to serve the Master, imagine they can hardly succeed. True, they rarely offend and to no great extent of malice, but they envy the lot of others more advantageously situated, they think, nearer by talent and state to perfection, basking in the sunshine of God's love. Talent, position, much exterior activity, much supposed goodness, are, in their eyes, titles to the kingdom, and infallible signs of charity. And then they foolishly deplore their own state as far removed from that perfection, because forsooth their minds are uncultured, their faith simple, and their time taken up with the drudgery of life.
They forget that not this gift or that work or anything else is necessary. One thing alone is necessary, and that is practical love of God. Nothing counts without it. And the sage over his books, the wonder-worker at his task, the apostle in his wanderings and labors, the very martyr on the rack is no more sure of having charity than the most humble man, woman or child in the lowest walks of life who loves God too much to offend Him. It is not necessary to have the tongues of men and angels, or faith that will move mountains, or the fortitude of martyrs; charity expressed in our lives and deeds rates higher than these.
A thing is good in the eyes of its maker if it accomplishes that for which it was made. A watch that does not tell time, a knife that does not cut, and a soul that does not love God are three utterly useless things. And why? Because they are no good for what they were made. The watch exists solely to tell the hour, the blade to cut and the soul to love and serve its Maker. Failing in this, there is no more reason for their being. Their utility ceasing, they themselves cease to exist to a certain extent, for a thing is really no longer what it was when it fails to execute that for which it came into being.
Charity, in a word, amounts to this: that we love God, but to the extent of not offending Him. Anything that falls short of such affection is something other than charity, no matter how many tags and labels it may wear. If I beheld a brute strike down an aged parent, I would not for a moment think that affection was behind that blow; and I could not conceive how there could be a spark of filial love in that son's heart until he had atoned for his crime. But love is not one thing when directed towards God, and another where man is concerned.
The great hypocrisy of life consists in this: that people make an outward showing of loving God, because they know full well that it is their first duty; yet, for all that, they do not a whit mend their ways, and to sin costs them nothing. They varnish it over with an appearance of honesty and decency, and fair-minded men take them for what they appear to be, and should be, and they pass for such. These watches are pretty to look upon, beautiful, magnificent, but they are stopped, the interior is out of order, the main-spring is broken, the hands that run across the face lie. These blades are bright and handsome, but they are dull, blunt, full of nicks, good enough for coarse and vulgar work, but useless for the fine, delicate work for which they were made.
The master mechanic and artist of our souls, who wants trustworthy timepieces and keen blades, will not be deceived by these gaudy trinkets, and will reject them. Others may esteem you for this or that quality, admire this or that qualification you possess, be taken with their superficial gloss and accidental usefulness. The quality required by Him who made you is that your soul be filled with charity, and proven by absence of sin.