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?
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.