Recently, I decided to take a hiatus from social media. Shortly before Christmas, two people who either had been or are very important in my life chose to cut me off because of a difference of opinion expressed on social media.
It’s inevitable that all of us will (or already have) experienced betrayal, estrangements, and serious misunderstandings in our relationships with others. At times, we’re tempted to retreat into ourselves instead of allowing God to heal the broken and wounded parts of our hearts. I’ve been praying to the Blessed Mother lately to help me grow in meekness — that beatitude that leaves our hearts tender, compassionate, and receptive to grace.
As we celebrate the month of love, I thought it fitting to be reminded of what true charity is and how to grow in authentic Christian love, which is to will the good of the other and love others for God’s sake.
1. Speak Slowly, Thoughtfully, and Kindly
St. Thomas Aquinas gave the Church an honest list of possible vices against charity, and many of them deal with division and discord.
For example, envy is a vice contrary to charity, which differs from jealousy in that we feel sorrow at the good qualities someone else has to the point of wanting the goodness of others to be destroyed. (Jealousy is when we actually want to possess what someone else has.) Both envy and jealousy are very prevalent in relationships, especially when one person presumes the other is “holier” or “better” than the other. When superiority or inferiority emerge in how we relate to others, we can be sure it is against the virtue of charity.
How, then, can we quell such division — or others, such as fighting, contention, and discord? In my experience, being slow to speak has always worked in my favor. The times when I have bitten my tongue have tempered my hot emotions to a point where I am able to listen honestly and discern with clarity what should and should not be said in response.
Remember that kindness can go a long way. When I am hurt by something someone said or did, I ask the Holy Spirit to inspire me with thanking the person for some good they did or by acknowledging some redeeming quality about them.
2. Be Patient With the Shortcomings of Others
Two quotations come to mind about patience in our relationships. The first is from St. Ambrose: “Patient endurance is the perfection of charity.” The second is from St. John Bosco: “Patience smooths away lots of difficulties.”
How does patience coincide with the theological virtue of charity? It seems be twofold: one, it is rooted in the humble admission that we ourselves are imperfect creatures, and two, patience grants us time to pray and be selective in how we respond to others.
Patient endurance involves both “long-suffering” and perseverance. In a collaborative album of stories and songs that my friend and singer-songwriter Anna Nuzzo and I created last year, I recount a story about how my younger brother and I were estranged for decades. As youngsters, we were best friends. But once his psychological diagnoses became paramount in his life, and once addiction drew him into isolation, we no longer had a flourishing relationship. It had been deeply shattered.
It took a lot of time for God to work on my heart. At first, I wanted God to change my brother. I kept looking at how hateful he had been toward me in the past and all the ways he slighted me and my family. But I hated living that way and began to ask God to open my heart in understanding him. Slowly, I saw his brokenness as something not so different from my own. This humbled me greatly and softened my heart (meekness again) toward him. Then I realized I was being more patient with his shortcomings, accepting him as he was, and where he was in life.
Finally, after almost 25 years, we reconciled. It took perseverance in prayer, but God worked a miracle. I believe this can happen in most of our relationships if we allow God to heal our own wounds before expecting Him to change others.
3. Allow God’s Grace to Work in His Time
A wonderful book I return to every Advent, called Meditations for Advent, by Fr. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, offers quotable gems for me to ponder each year. This time it was “charity must not be fleeting…Whoever bears grace should not go running about, but should allow time for grace to achieve its work” (p. 94).
When we struggle in our human relationships, our natural inclination is to immediately patch the problem or run away from it altogether. Neither of these is what God asks of us. Rather, He wants us to surrender the arguments to Him so that grace will penetrate the wounds and allow for true healing.
One of the most consoling spiritual comments I’ve ever heard was that God can — and does — use everything in our lives, including our sins, faults, and shortcomings, to make better what was lost or broken. If we allow Him to move in our hearts and the hearts of others, we will discover the miracle of grace unfolding at long last.