Love God Through Your Neighbor

Charity is the friendship of man for God.

-St Thomas Aquinas, II-II, Q 23, art 1

Is love an actual virtue? You might tell me that “love is a pas­sion of the concupiscible appetite whereby we experience a natural affinity for the good,” leaving me little choice but to acknowledge your exemplary powers of memory concerning our chapter on the passions.

But here we speak of the love that is the theological vir­tue of charity that God infuses into the soul. Through faith we know God; through hope we desire to be with him and trust in him to help us do so; through charity we come to love God for his own sake and to love others and ourselves through our love in him. Charity resides not in our passions, but in the will, and the will desires, seeks, and loves the good Love in the sense of charity seeks the highest good — the attainment of union with God.

St Thomas begins his lengthy treatise on charity by showing how charity is really a state of friendship between man and God, citing 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful; by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of His Son. Love based on this friendship is charity; wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God.”

The love for what is good for ourselves is a love of concupis­cence such as we might experience for a fine wine or a favorite horse (Thomas’s own examples). In the love of true friendship, we love the friend for his own sake and not merely for the fact that he is useful or provides us with pleasure. We rejoice in our friend’s existence, want to be with him, and wish the best for him and those dear to him. Not only do we wish him well — we take actions for his benefit to express that love. What an amazing honor that the Creator of the universe has extended his deepest friendship to each of us. Indeed, not only does God’s friendship express his joy that we exist; it actually causes us to exist!

What’s love got to do with it?

This article is a chapter from The One Minute Aquinas. Click to order.

It is charity that makes faith and hope come alive. That’s why St Paul calls it the greatest of the three theological virtues (1 Cor 13:13) and tells us that if he had the tongues to speak to angels, prophetic powers, understanding of mysteries, and enough faith to move mountains, but had not love, he would “be nothing” and “gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1–3). St Thomas calls charity the mother of all the virtues, since “every virtue depends on it in a way.” As we shall see, all the moral virtues depend on prudence to determine the right means to put them into action, prudence being the practical wisdom that seeks virtuous means to attain virtuous ends. But how do we determine which ends are virtuous? Truly virtuous ends are those that derive from charity.

When Jesus summed up the law and the commandments by telling us to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, he commanded us to live the life of charity.

Thomas says that the “principal act of charity…is to love.” When we exercise the love of charity, it honors God, benefits our neighbor, and provides us with three main interior effects:

  1. It brings spiritual joy when we participate in God’s divine good This joy will be perfect and eternal in heaven — indeed, the joy of the blessed will be “over-full, since they will obtain more than they were capable of desiring ”125
  2. It brings peace because peace is the calm tranquillity that comes internally when our desires are all directed to one object (the love of God) and between people when our desires are also all directed to the one object of God
  3. Charity results in mercy as well — a heartfelt sympathy for others’ distress that will prompt us to take action to comfort them

How hot is the furnace of your love?

St Thomas compares the love of charity to the heat of a powerful furnace. When our hearts burn with the fires of charity, their far-reaching flames serve to warm strangers and even our enemies. But since those closest to the furnace receive the most heat, true charity should begin at home, and be directed in greatest intensity to the Spirit who dwells within our hearts, and to those who are near to us — our families, friends, school- or workmates, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. Thomas makes clear that we are indeed called to love ourselves, and even our own bodies with the love of charity. So how can we fan the flames of the charity God places within our hearts?

Although charity, as a theological virtue, is infused into our hearts by God, it can increase or decrease through our actions. St Thomas tells us with moving eloquence how each act of charity increases within us the disposition or tendency to more charitable acts, “and this readiness increasing, breaks out into an act of more fervent love, and strives to advance in char­ity, and then this charity increases actually.” Aristotle says that we become builders by building and harpists by playing the harp Thomas tells us we become fervent lovers by loving fervently!

One of my favorite Aquinas quotes: “The love of our neighbor requires that not only should we be our neighbor’s well-wishers, but also his well-doers.” Charity is a dynamic virtue that acts and works and gets good things done — all through our love for God

What loving act will you do for your neighbor when you next set this book aside?

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. Vost’s The One Minute Aquinas which is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

Dr. Kevin Vost

By

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., has taught psychology at Aquinas College in Nashville and at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The author of books including Memorize the Faith!, Memorize the Reasons!, and coming in March, 2014, The One-Minute Aquinas, Dr. Vost drinks great drafts of coffee while meditating mirthfully upon Thomistic tomes, in the company of his wife, two sons, and two dogs, in Springfield, Illiniois.

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  • chaco

    “Meditating mirthfully…in the company of his wife, his 2 sons and 2 dogs…” ; This sounds better than the beer commercial with guys sitting around a campfire and one saying; “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Reflective of the above explaination; “We rejoice in our friends existence, want to be with him and wish the best for him & those dear to him.” I’m happy-very happy- for you. Verily I say; “I have told you this so that my Joy may be in you & your Joy may be full.”(Jn. 15: 11). Thanks so much for bringing theseThomistic tomes to our attention, especially the paragragh explaining the interaction of Faith Hope & Charity. I’m going to, immediately after this comment, copy & plastic coat it for a credit card size reference tool, so as to become proficient in understanding “What Makes Our Motor Run” (I always use car analogies – It’s a “Guy Thing”). Truly ! “…the kingdom of God is within/ among you.” (Lk. 17; 21).

  • chaco

    OH ! I got so wrapped up in being thankful for your happiness; I forgot to mention one of the main points I wanted to include in my comment; Your mirthful meditation reflects a Biblical account I recently encountered; Paul spent 3 years in mirthful meditation after his initial encounter with Jesus – before he interacted with the “Church” (see Gal. 1: 15-18). [ I'm not sure if he had "Great Drafts" of coffee though ]
    I can really relate; having spent much of my life in the solitude of a tractor (semi – farm). [ You can be sure that Great Coffee Drafts are a part of myTractor Time.]EWTN is a true friend indeed. Mother Angelica spent much cloistered time before her evangelistic efforts.

  • http://drvost.com Kevin Vost

    Thank you so much for your comments Chaco, and for the wonderful Scriptural references. The family and dogs are still asleep. It’s literally time now for some coffee, the recliner, and St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Gospel of John. (It doesn’t get any better than this in the wee hours of the morning.)

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