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What is a theological virtue?

By 23 October, 2020January 3rd, 2023No Comments
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by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries

New York/Paris, October 25, 2020. | XXX Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Book of Exodus 22: 20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1: 5c-10; Saint Matthew 22: 34-40.

In his famous hymn of charity (1Cor 13:4 – 8) St. Paul tells what love is – patient, kind, enduring– as well as what it is not – jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, quick-tempered.

No doubt, he understood and lived what Christ tells us today in his response to the Pharisee lawyer who tried to take advantage of the beating given by Jesus to the Sadducees to gain personal prestige and benefit his group.

As the Holy Spirit continues to open up new paths and give us opportunities to live charity, it is important that we continually reflect on what this means, in the spirit of today’s Readings.

1. True charity always demands to give something of our life, something intimate, beyond objects, money, words, works, lessons or activities, which are often necessary instruments for this virtue. You can lack charity even in “doing charity”! If we ourselves are not content with a superficial and inconstant love, so is God.

The doctor looked down at the little girl in the hospital bed. He knew that her only hope was to receive blood from someone who had recovered from the same disease. Quickly the doctor found the anxious family, and knelt beside a small boy. “Johnny,” he said, “your sister needs your kind of blood to make her well. Would you be willing to give your blood so that she can live?” Johnny’s eyes grew big. The doctor watched them well with fear, but the little boy hesitated only long enough to swallow the lump in his throat. “Sure, Doctor, I will do it,” he replied.

After the needed amount of blood was taken from Johnny’s small arm, he remained quiet for a few minutes as he had been instructed. Then he stood up, and asked softly: Well, Doctor, when do I die? Only then did the doctor realize the extent of the child’s sacrifice. Johnny had offered his life to save his sister, Jesus declared that there is no greater love.

This trait of charity, the authentic detachment, is especially evident when we are sure that our act of love will not give us any satisfaction. For example, we know that the person we help will not be grateful, and will even be demanding or annoying. Also, we are prepared not to witness any “conversion” prompted by our presumed generosity. Of course, we have to be prepared to see how the person we do well does NOT want to join our group, institution, church or community in any way. And then, we must pray to know how to continue to love them. Even if it is from a distance. In addition, we are ready to react with meekness if our action proves inadequate in the eyes of some authority, or causes envy in others.

2. Let us not forget the mystical dimension of charity: God responds immediately to every act of love.

Let us not forget that the Holy Spirit gently but continually pushes all human beings to love our neighbor. Yet we may be able to find heroic acts of love on people who never heard of Jesus as in the case when at the Japanese nuclear plant in Fukushima, destroyed after the terrible tsunami of 2011, some retired technicians, knowing they were going to meet a certain death, asked the younger technicians to abandon the nuclear plant to try to cool it off. Those retired technicians may have not officially been Christians; many may have even never known anything about Jesus. Yet, they accepted a certain death simply to save the lives of their younger colleagues still rearing young children.

God is love and love is what He inspires in us. To do this, He makes use of our instincts, our mistakes, our natural compassion, the example of many people, the forgiveness we receive every day and, above all, the unique testimony of His Son.

The divine response to an act of love for our neighbor is different from what we human beings understand as a reward or to the satisfaction of duty performed. God responds by asking us even more. This may seem shocking, but Jesus already expressed it clearly: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5: 43-44).

Moreover, who could deny that Jesus was asked for more and more demanding acts of love as he passed through this world?

As a child, he struggled, but he was in the exceptional company of Mary and Joseph. In his adult life, despite the difficult times, he at least witnessed the conversion and dedication of many people, especially his first disciples. But later, in the Passion, he was entirely abandoned and before his human eyes there was no sign of success.

So, the true disciple lives in a true dialogue, not of words, but of successive and continuous gestures of love, which have as a response the gift of piety, which makes us capable of loving in an ever new and inexplicable way. And those around us realize this:

A nun was assigned to serve in a hospital. One particular day, she was trying to bathe a combative and abusive patient. She was observed by someone who remarked in a stage whisper: I wouldn’t do that for all the gold in the world. The nun, hearing the comment, looked at the person, and said: Neither would I.

In this way, God is making us more and more like Him, more like the way He has dreamed of us. St. John Paul II expressed it this way:

Christian charity draws from this source of love, which is Jesus, the Son of God offered for us. The ability to love as God loves is offered to every Christian as a fruit of the paschal mystery of his Death and Resurrection. The Church has expressed this sublime reality by teaching that charity is a theological virtue, which means a virtue that refers directly to God and enables human creatures to enter the circuit of Trinitarian love. Indeed, God the Father loves us as he loves Christ, seeing his image in us (Redemptoris Missio).

The Holy Spirit, first of all, delicately transforms our intelligence and our will (Recollection and Quietude), and makes us contemplate that when we reach out to help those who are weak and in need, it is rooted in the fact that we ourselves were once in their place and have been set free by God, whether from material poverty, uselessness of life, or spiritual poverty: You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt (First Reading). Only when we are conscious that we were are sinners and helpless, can we then from the love of God in us reach out to others.

Even in the abusive people, we are able to see God. Seeing God in everyone we encounter is easier said than done. It is not a matter of imagination, but of remaining united to Christ, to his look.

An illustration of this two-fold love, namely, for Christ and for our neighbor, is seen in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was once asked: “From where do you find the strength to take care of all the difficult cases that you encounter each day? The dying helpless people in the streets of Calcutta? The lepers? The abandoned babies? The homeless and the hungry? The holy Foundress answered with her simple yet profound wisdom: “I begin each day by going to Mass and receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, hidden under the simple form of bread. Then I go out into the streets and find the same Jesus hidden in the dying destitute people, in the lepers, in the abandoned babies, and in the homeless and the hungry. It is the same Jesus. So too for us, works of mercy must be the fruit of our prayer, in particular, of our prayer before the Eucharist.

The Holy Eucharist, which is “the source and summit of the Christian life” as the Second Vatican Council described it, moves us from sacramental union with Christ in his Eucharistic Body to union with Christ in his Mystical Body, in the least of his brothers and sisters. Let us not think that our creativity or our energy and experience are enough. Evangelical love must necessarily be continually inspired by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it will be full of ups and downs, of discrimination, of conditioning.

Yes, God responds to our acts of love by asking us even more.

Perhaps this can be explained from Theology or Anthropology. For my part, I can only say that it was something that happened to me. When I was 16 years old and a friend asked me for help for a group of children who did outdoor activities, they gave me their confidence, shared their difficulties with me and little by little I felt obliged to help them in their conflicts, their studies, their emotional life… until I recognized that they needed to see in me someone who was a model to follow. It was not enough to give them a good time on the weekend. At the same time, I realized that they had no one else on their side willing to do it. That’s what led me to ask Christ how I could change to make a difference in their lives, to help them more and more deeply…actually, I am in the same situation today.

3. What does it mean to love with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind?

In our current language, we can understand that our love for God must necessarily bring into play all our desires (will), intentions and motivations (unitive faculty) and thoughts (mind).

We fill our mind with that which inspires love for God instead of that which diminishes it. What we do with our mind greatly affects our capacity to love. If we fill our mind with the right things, our capacity to love Jesus increases; if we fill our mind with useless or negative ideas our capacity to love Jesus diminishes. Our mind is a vast universe within us that will never, ever be turned off. We cannot shut down the images in our mind, but we can redirect them. We can replace dark thoughts with new ones.

We are to engage our emotions in our love for God. We have a significant role in determining how our emotions develop over time. We can cultivate greater affections for God by setting our heart to grow in this. We can “set” our love or affections on anything that we choose. Our emotions eventually follow whatever we set ourselves to pursue. As we change our mind, the Spirit changes our heart (emotions). Set your heart to love God and your emotions or affections will follow in time. Because he has set his love [heart] upon Me, therefore I will deliver him… (Ps. 91:14). We keep our heart by refusing to allow our emotions to be inappropriately connected to reputation, wrong relationships, sinful addictions, bitterness, offenses, etc.

The motivation to love goes beyond of being identified with our neighbors in their suffering, but because of the Christ in them. Seeing the image of Christ in them, we will love them as we love God. We see others as not just having material needs but emotional and spiritual hunger as well. We see the need to attend to the person as a whole; as one who needs our love and compassion. Unless we see them as an extension of the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, we will not have the same reverence for them.

We are equally yoked to Jesus not by the size of our love but by the “all” of our love. Though our “all” is small, the point is that it is our “all.” And how do we begin to love? Without a doubt, with forgiveness. Jesus did so, demonstrating that he desired to draw near to sinners. He did not wait for them to come, but he went to them.

Loving God with our all heart, soul and mind therefore means to submit our entire life to Him. Love is more than an emotional response but it means to trust Him completely and live according to the way He has taught us.