THE FULLNESS OF LOVE
The hearth and the heart: A full heart, a heart at home
Yet that appeal of home is an intangible thing. Looking back, we can see that home does not necessarily call up vistas of plenty, comfort, wealth or culture. Home reaches more deeply into the soul than any of these things. It is the fulfillment of a hope; we might say that it is an ideal, which is at the same time a memory, a goal and a promise. It keeps before our eyes the wondrous vision of a human heart fulfilled. We look back to it with complete satisfaction; we ourselves naturally strive to establish a home in the world; we hope to see the promise perfectly fulfilled some time, even if that time is not until eternity.
The pilgrim and his homeland (via et patria)
Two pictures of home stand out in every Catholic’s memory: the home of the Holy Family at Nazareth, devoid of material comfort; and the individual’s own childhood home. Both fit perfectly our picture of home. Analyzing both, we come close to the roots of that tug of home on the heart. Call it peace, happiness, or an understanding mercy that made our little sorrows the sorrows of the family; or an open-handed hospitality that made home a source from which kindness went out. So that it seemed quite natural for us to bring our little friends home when they were tired, hungry or hurt. No doubt, in some way, all men have known, vaguely, that all these characteristics of home were the creations of the unceasing activity of unselfish love. What is in danger of being forgotten today is the exact nature of an act of love.
In our judgment of others, we make no mistake about this. We do not think the nasty, thoughtless boy who takes advantage of his mother at every turn, yet runs home sure of being petted and fawned upon, is the least bit better for the love he is receiving. Nor do we think the gangster-son of worthy parents is any less despicable for the trust and love given him by his parents; rather he is a great deal worse. We are quite sure that the mother who insists upon absorbing the whole life of her child, in the name of maternal love, is no mother at all.
The expansiveness of love: Surrender, not conquest
ln all these judgments, we are insisting that the act of love is much more a matter of loving shall of being loved. Love does not so much make us a blotter, to sop up infinite caresses, as it does make a dynamo of us to produce untiring action. It is not a matter of getting, but of giving. It does not sit back, with a resigned sigh and suffer love; rather it steps out actively to prove love. For love is an operative habit, being a virtue; it exists to do, to work. Love is not so much a conquest as it is a surrender; a surrender that sets us free from the debasing slavery of selfishness. If we look in puzzlement at a woman drudging away at housework in a hovel, and wonder what she gets out of life, we are being hopelessly superficial. For we overlook the fact that she gets the principal thing love has to give: the opportunity to serve, to surrender, to prove love by sacrifice.
To fly from love, unless it is showering favors upon us, is to desert love and embrace selfishness. We preen ourselves before an audience, graciously allowing others to recognize our superior goodness; but we demand that they applaud by loving us. This is not love that we are seeking, but flatteries that echo our own stupid overestimation of ourselves. There is nothing of love’s astonished humility in this. The so-called love that consists in a constant demand for attention is accurately classified if we remember that, to a dishonest mind, the fact of being loved is a source of unalloyed exultation; for, to such a mind, it is proof that success has been achieved in fooling someone, badly.
Surrender to God: Immediate contact of love
Not infrequently a chance breeze blows back the curtains from the windows of our soul, a passerby is given an unexpected glimpse of the depths of that soul, and friendship begins. Perhaps the immediate occasion is no more than a smile, a kind word, an understanding glance. In somewhat the same way, the favors of God or the high hopes He offers us, push back for an instant the veils that hide His face; we get an unexpected view of the depths of the richness of God. But the benevolence of a man, a woman, or even of God, is not friendship. Friendship is a mutual thing; there can be none between us and God until we have surrendered to Him, made ourselves one with our divine Friend. With that beginning of divine friendship, wonders pour into our lives, and among the very first is an immediate contact with God; love lengthens our arms to reach to God Himself.
This immediate contact with the beloved is not peculiar to divine friendship. It is true of all love, for it is always true that the will begins where knowledge ends. Knowledge is the guide, going ahead to hack out the footholds upon which love can climb higher and higher. But knowledge is a self-contained thing; it brings things into ourselves, stripping them of their material garments at the door of our soul. Then love goes plunging out to the thing loved, as it is in itself — whether it wear soiled overalls or royal robes. So charity, love of God, plunges out, not to God as He is known from the things of this world, not even as He might be ideally pictured by the greatest of human minds, but to God as He is in Himself.
The measure of love for God
On its human level, love finds, later of course and ruefully, that not infrequently it has plunged too enthusiastically. For if the measure of lovableness is the goodness of the beloved, obviously we can love beyond measure. Human beings do have their limits of goodness. nut there is no such risk in divine friendship. There is no danger of going too far, if only because it is impossible for us to go far enough. There is no excess in this friendship, for our Friend is the rule and measure of all things, He is the reason for the desirability, the lovableness of every other thing. In fact, the more we love God, the better we love Him. Our external manifestations of our love for God may have to take dictation from prudence; but the love in our heart not only does not need, it cannot stand, careful, cautious calculation.
Surrender to friends and enemies
St. John was not putting it too strongly when he insisted that the man who said he loved God, yet did not love his neighbor, was a liar. For this surrender to God simply has not been made if we have not also surrendered to our neighbor, both to our friends and to our enemies. To the pagan world, love of enemies has always seemed a strange, even a weak thing. perhaps because the pagan did not understand well that the greatest conquest man has to make is not of his enemies, but of himself. Love of enemies is not a weak, but a strong thing; indeed, from the human point of view it is a hard thing. Yet on the basis of divine friendship, it is an inevitable corollary of the solid basis of love of neighbor. If God is our Friend, then in the name of that friendship, we love all that belongs to God; in other words, everything that is.
An opposite extreme view of this love of enemies made men a little suspicious of love of friends; it was so easy, so natural that one reaching for the divine heights might be expected to sniff in disdain at something that was really much too easy. Actually, it is more meritorious to love a friend than it is to love an enemy, all else being equal; for an enemy, if he is truly such, is a sinner. On the contrary, the true friend is virtuous; he is then, by his virtue, closer to God, and by his love for us our friend is closer to us. In other words, our friends have two solid claims to our love; our enemies’ case rests only on the fact that they are potential friends of God.
Yet love of enemies is a splendid, Christian thing. Its particular excellence comes from the fact that it is a striking sign of our love for God. Here there can be no doubt that we are loving men because of God; certainly their weakness, injustice, viciousness does not furnish the attraction. Here is one love for men that is above all suspicion; it is a test of the vitality of our love for God, proving to us and to Him that we are ready to do even difficult things in the name of that love. But the fact that these things are difficult does not make them better, for it is not difficulty but goodness that determines the worth of a thing.
In its smallest degree, this divine friendship is strong and generous; it pushes the heavy door of our heart open as wide as the heart of God. This wide open door is not natural to us; it is ever ready to swing shut. Perhaps it is closed softly, imperceptibly by indifference; or it may be slammed hard and bolted by hate. In either case we are imprisoned within the confines of our own heart.
The withering effect of hate: Hatred of God
It seems a tragic, and at the same time, a petty action for a man to lock himself up in his own heart, much more tragic and petty than a man’s locking himself in his own house and pouting against the rest of the world. It seems almost impossible that a man should slam the door of his heart against the most desirable, lovable Being there is.
Indeed, this would be impossible if we could see God face to face; then we could not hate Him. But in this life we see Him only darkly through faith, or dimly in his effects in the world.
At the same time, we look about us and see clearly the sorrow that enters into our life, the labor that must go into our understanding, the punishment that must follow on our sins. And so we can hate God, much as a woman learns to hate her husband, not because of any evil in the man himself, but because of the disorderly way he throws his clothes about the room. We can hate God for sprinkling our lives with the seasoning of sorrow, for giving us the kind of mind that can uncover so few nuggets of truth and with such terrific difficulty, for judging our sins and punishing them. In these cases, we hate God for His effects in our lives, not for Himself; yet we should know, knowing God as we do, that even these bitter tasting effects are solid proof of His profoundly thoughtful love for us.
Hatred of neighbor
If we do succeed in hating God, our neighbor has little chance for our love. That the heavy odor of hate should pervade every corner of a godless world should be no surprise, for in such a world the one foundation that will most surely include all men in love has been denied. The hater of God has made his own life a godless world and so thrown open the sluice gates of hate.
Understand, now, that we are not expected to love a man for his stupidity, his theft of our car, his insults to our family or his contempt for our personal appearance. St. Augustine put the demands of love beautifully when he said: “If you hate well, then you love; whereas if you love badly, you hate.” We should hate in our neighbor the things that are not God’s, but rather against God; then we are really loving him, wishing the destruction of evil afflicting him and the approach to the Supreme Good. If we love him for the sins he makes possible to us, or for his own sins, then we are not loving him but hating him. In either case we are committing the gravest sin possible against our neighbor. But hate is a helpless thing. We could do much more damage to our neighbor by breaking his nose or ruining his business; our hate hurts no one but the person in whose defense it arises — ourselves.
The climax of evil
Hatred of God is the climax of evil. All other mortal sins have some little saving element of humanity about them; a thief, for instance, turns away from God because of the particularly attractive loot, as a boy condemns himself to a spanking because he wants to play baseball beyond the dinner hour. But hate is diabolical. In common with all mortal sins, it turns away from God; but not for any other reason, not betrayed by some less worthy love. It directly spurns the divine goodness itself.
The humiliating thing about hate, whether of God or men, is that it always arises from self-pity. Its immediate source is sorrow for oneself, for it arises from envy. Maybe it is the good of our neighbor, or again it may be the good of God Himself, that weighs us down with sorrow. In both cases the hate that bubbles up is the helpless gesture of protest of a small ineffective, miserly soul; so great is the terror of losing its own closely guarded goods, that the very appearance of good in others is taken as a personal loss. The hater has so slight a hold on his own excellence that he cannot risk the presence of the slightest rival; he is, in fact, a man who has been busy lying to himself. By his very envy and hate he admits that he has realized his own nothingness and is terrified that the rest of the world will discover his own empty secret.
Love in the heart of man. Joy: An unappreciated possession
The circulation of pictures of dyspeptic looking saints was one of the master strokes of satanic propaganda. Certainly this contributed no little to the modern notion that saints are a sour, grumpy lot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The saints are always great lovers; and love floods our hearts with the sunshine of joy, particularly when that love is for a divine friend. Look at it objectively for a moment. This unselfish love has identified our will with the will of our Friend, His happiness is ours — even as it is between human friends. From the first moment of this divine friendship, our Friend is always and intimately with us: as Lord and Creator to His creatures as the object of our knowledge and love, and by that extremely intimate presence by grace which enables us to live his very life. Then there is that triumphant joy in our Friends possession of the great good we wish Him; though He does not so much possess it, as He is it. Nothing can threaten His happiness, nothing can dim the joy of our friendship.
This is the pervading influence behind all Christian life: where there is charity, there is joy. And where there is joy, life can be lived intensely, merrily whether the instruments of its living be scrubbing brushes, palaces, failures or triumphs. Charity, you will remember, is the common heritage of every Christian in the state of grace, of everyone who is a friend of God. It is not only the saints who live merrily; but the humblest of men with the least degree of charity. We do not wait for the joy of this divine friendship to hit us with the same unmistakable emphasis as an attack of cramps; nor must that joy be put off until we have reached the heights of sanctity. It is not a matter of feeling, nor is it a matter of mystic heights; our joy is really full with the gift of divine grace.
If we put our minds to it, we can be gloomy even though we are in the state of grace. After all, a man might starve to death because he forgot the ten dollar bill he put in his watch-pocket months ago; we can frown on the world and ourselves, if we forget the joy that is ours. We can, if we like, allow the joy of charity to be overshadowed by disgust, sorrow at our spiritual negligence, or the misfortunes that enter our life. But if we do, if we forget our joy or allow it to be overshadowed, we are cheating ourselves; the joy is within us if we care to make the most of it. If we insist upon remaining unconscious of the goodness of God within us, of course we deprive ourselves of the radical joy that gives all Christian life its flavor. Consciousness is the minimum requirement for the enjoyment of any good; we can play dead if we like, but then we must not complain that we cannot enjoy the lilies heaped about the coffin.
The sorrow of charity
This does not mean that Christian life has the utterly carefree hilarity of an American Legion convention. This joy is deep bubbling up through every strata of life, but still it leaves room enough on the surface of life for a tart layer of sorrow. We can, for example, have real sorrow for the sins of others, or indeed for anything which works against the presence of God in ourselves or in others. Herein is found one side of the zeal and compassion of the saints for sinners; the other side being the realization of the tremendous boon the sinner deprives himself of by his sin. We can have deep sorrow for our own past sins, but chiefly as they represent a hindrance to our union with God here and now. We can be decidedly sorry at having taken the wrong train, catching pneumonia or scratching the fender of our new car. But none of these things should ever plug up the well-springs of joy that are in the depths of our souls.
This joy, coming from the bottom of our hearts, is full and deep; but in this life it can always be fuller, for we can always come closer to God. In heaven that joy is so full that, rather than being enclosed in our hearts, it wraps us about as a bright garment. It is odd that in spite of this solid truth, we have so seldom pictured God as infinitely joyous; that we should even have taken seriously the Puritan’s gloomy, grumbling tyrant. The heavenly fountains of joy overflow our being, for they are commensurate to the infinite goodness of God; only God can drain the deep, cool cup of joy.
The world has always laughed indulgently at lovers’ quarrels, realizing that the fuel of their fire is usually trifles that will soon burn themselves out. But unfortunately such quarrels are not always patched up; it is not always necessary to plant a bomb in order to break up a home. A snore is only a trifling thing, but to the victim of insomnia the rhythmic ebb and flow of conjugal snores may completely drown love. In fact, we could make this more general and say that, frequently, human love is broken up precisely because of trifles. When that love concentrates on irritations, defect, sorrow in the life of love, then love is not only cheating itself of the joy that belongs to it, it is preparing the way for the destruction of that love.
The same is true of divine Friendship. When we concentrate on the sorrows, misery and misfortunes of life we are doing much more than cheating ourselves of love’s joy; we are preparing for a flight from that divine friendship, for a horror of divine things, for the time when the flesh shall completely prevail over the spirit. Then in place of friendship’s eager joy and its rush to the loved one, there will come that sorrowful boredom and irritation that prepare the way for hate.
Enemies of joy: Spiritual sloth
The human heart simply must have joy. If the joy is not forthcoming from our divine friendship, we shall cast about for more agreeable companionship and that means in a realm other than that of the spirit. Our unconsciousness of the good that is ours in this divine friendship practically assures us of a decreasing knowledge of the divine good. The overshadowing of this joy of divine friendship then begins to make possible a positive contempt for the goods of God by a concentration on the evils that affect us. More briefly, we are learning more and more about the attractions of the flesh, and less and less about the joys of the spirit.
The condition towards which we are thus drifting is called spiritual sloth. This capital sin of sloth is not mere laziness. It is not the irritation felt at getting up for Mass on a bitterly cold morning; it is not the reluctance to fasting in Lent, or the embarrassment involved in confessing our sins; nor yet is it the vague sigh that heaves its way to the surface at the mention of the general difficulties of Christian life. It is much more fundamental than that.
It might be called a kind of bored tediousness, a torpor of the mind that moves us to neglect the things of the spirit and to wallow in the warm ooze of the flesh. St. Thomas described it as, “a sorrow which weighs down the spirit of a man, impeding him from operation.” It is a strange, perverted sorrow, dank with evil; for it finds the very goodness of God a sorrowful, evil thing and it holds man back from the one thing important in his life — that action that will lead him to life’s goal. Even when this sloth is occasioned by a real evil, a sorrow springing from one’s own sin but going to the exaggerated lengths of paralyzing a man, its effects are just as disastrous as the sorrow and tediousness in the face of divine good.
In itself, sloth may be either venial or mortal, according to the degree of distaste within us for spiritual goods. But in its possibilities it is utterly tragic. It is a capital sin, with the capital sins usual family of unlovely daughters. Sloth is at the same time an escape and a pursuit; an escape from God and a pursuit of the world. On the side of its flight from God, Thomas lists its daughters as, “desperation, pusillanimity, a stupor of the mind in the face of the precepts of God, and, finally, an indignation against and a detestation of spiritual things”. This last is easily recognized as a gesture of face-saving closely akin to a tramp’s attitude towards work. On the side of sloth’s pursuit of sensual pleasures, St. Thomas, under the general title of, “a wandering mind”, groups such daughters of sloth as: importunity of mind — the faculty of thinking of the wrong thing at any time — , curiosity, verbosity, a restlessness of body indicative of the restlessness of mind, and finally instability. The insight of a saint recognized feverish restlessness as a symptom of laziness.
In other words, we are not seeing spiritual laziness at all if we see it in terms of a rheumatic old negro letting the southern sun seep slowly into his bones. It is an escape; a desperate, panicky flight. There is in it the senseless taste of a man flying from what he knows cannot be escaped; and, at the same time, the weakling’s attempt to drown his fright in gulps of sensual pleasure. In a word, sloth is the abandonment of the joy of God for the joy of the world.
Envy: Foundations of envy
There is another capital sin opposed to the joy of charity, namely, envy; and this too drives a man in panic to the embrace of unworthy goods. It too is a flight from sorrow, a perverted sorrow that has for its object, not the good of God, but the good of neighbor. The sorrow we may feel on learning that an enemy has been made chief of police, at our lack of virtue, or at the good fortune of an unworthy man all have some basis in reason. Envy is none of these, for it is totally unreasonable. It is the vice of the man who is broken-hearted because some one exceeds him in good; this neighbor’s excellence strikes his soul with the shattering force of a deep personal injury.
Roll-call of the envious
It is difficult to face envy honestly, for it is the sin of the defeated. It enters intimately into the mock horror at the doings of the “youth of our time”, the hard luck story and the whinings of those who are never promoted because some one has a “grudge” against them. In other words it is a sin common among the old, the plodders and the unfortunate; among those, that is, who have been conquered by age, misfortune or lack of talent. Successful rivalry emphasizes their defeat, renews its bitterness; and they are unforgiving. Petty-minded men are easily envious, for to them all things look big; no matter what excellence a neighbor may have, in the eyes of the petty, he surpasses them by tremendous lengths. The ambitious, athirst for honor, look on the excellence of another as a direct attack on the praise they could normally expect; they too are easily envious.
An interesting angle of this sin of envy, of interest especially in view of the modern discussions of democracy, is given in Thomas’ laconic statement: “No one but a fool is envious of someone or something that surpasses him infinitely.” Only those just above us, within reach of our clawing hands, excite our envy. In a social organization, then, which puts all men on the same level, there must inevitably be rich material for envy; on the other hand, this gives a psychological explanation of the stability — desirable or otherwise — of civilizations which definitely excluded ambition from the greater part of society.
The unlovely daughters of envy are among the most thoroughly despised sins that gnaw at the foundations of human life. They work up to the crescendo of evil which is the destruction of the mansion of a man’s life: from the sly start of a furtive whisper, through detraction, then to joy in the misfortune of another and sorrow at his good fortune, and finally to the climax of evil which is hate.
The envious man finds life intolerable. We were not made to live with sorrow; and envy is sorrow. We were made to live with joy. Christ accurately stated the whole purpose of His life when He said that He had come, “that our joy might be filled.” His directions for fulfilling that joy, even though they insisted on the carrying of a cross, involved no contradiction; men and women are constantly discovering, as He meant them to, that under the cross there is some little taste of the beatific joy that was deep beneath Calvary’s sufferings. The combination of the divine and human filled the world with paradoxes; Our Lord seemed to prefer to emphasize, rather than explain them. Being puzzled, men might seek to discover their meaning by living them. Christ, seeing the bewilderment in the Apostles, must have had something of the same divine playfulness in His eyes when he sent them into a hostile Roman world, all the odds against them, with the parting words: “My peace I give you.”
Peace: The peace of Christ and of the world
Certainly the peace Christ gave the Apostles was not the peace sought by a weakling, a peace at any price. With this peace went persecution, mockery and ultimately death. These men were not to be coddled by a surface peace, as they were not to be sustained by a surface joy. In no sense did this peace make pacificists of them; they knew well there were many things worth the price of a fight, even of a fight to the death. But no fight could destroy the peace that had been given them. The peace of Christ is as deep as the. soul of a man. On that point alone, it is startlingly different from the peace of the world; for only God can reach into the soul of a man and bury peace there so deeply that it will be inviolable to any other force but the will of man himself.
Peace and action
The life of a man who is peaceful with the peace of Christ, does not present the appearance of a stagnant pond’s slimy calm; it is much more apt to be a riotous, storm-tossed ocean, with calm, inscrutable depths. By the very nature of peace, such a life will be intensely active; for peace means the completely unified effort of appetites towards a common goal. It is energy streamlined to the utmost. From it follows peace, or rather concord, with other men and with God, again by a union of appetites towards the common end of all. We love our neighbors, not as rivals, but as we love ourselves; and we love both ourselves and neighbors because of God. We do not resent the attempt of other men to reach the same divine end; it can be shared without loss to ourselves. But we do hurl all the crushing power of unified effort against those who would hinder either our neighbors or ourselves from obtaining that goal. This very opposition is directed, not against our enemies, but against their hatred for themselves.
In other words, Christ furnished us with the one solid bond of union in giving us charity; His peace follows upon the identification of a man with his neighbors and with his God. The world has no such basis for peace. Its offer must always be a surface thing; it can only encourage a man to snatch at things and to try, desperately, to protect what other men most surely will attempt to take from him. To put it quite baldly: the peace of the world is really a peace that amounts to oblivion; it consists in attempting to forget what we do not have, and to be satisfied with that which can never satisfy the human heart.
Perhaps a moron enjoys having his teeth knocked out; but surely it is not a pleasure to which one can become addicted. Yet Chesterton once wrote of the Irish that, “all their wars are merry”; and the name “fighting Irish” is never used as a term of abuse. These things may be taken literally in the sense that there is something to fight for; something that is so well worth while that it can be fought for merrily, with a keen realization that nothing that may be lost in the fight can be compared with the thing that might be gained. But undoubtedly the person whose mouth waters over the prospect of a fight, just for the sake of the fight, is mentally deficient. As a matter of fact, no one loves a fight for its own sake. Even the bully is fighting for peace. For the purpose of every battle is to obtain something that, at the moment, is lacking, something that is considered necessary for the satisfaction of appetite, for perfection. The victim of an inferiority complex lording it over his fellows, the naturally quarrelsome man, the nation with a chip on its shoulder, are all confessing their own deficiencies. By the very fact of the quarrel they admit a serious defect, that something is yet necessary for their full well-being.
The common goal of men
On the contrary, the man of peace, far from being a frightened weakling, is a possessor of perfection. He has what he needs for his happiness; he is at peace because nothing, no one, can take that happiness from him. It is in this full sense of the word that Christ is the King of Peace. And this was no less true of Christ nailed to a cross, than it was true of Him in the sanctuary of Nazareth. It is true of his followers whether they stand before applauding crowds and grateful kings or whether they stand alone in an arena. They are possessed of the peace of Christ; a peace that will reach its full perfection, its full activity, its widest scope only when they are with Christ in heaven.
The man whom Christ has taught that love is giving, not getting; who has identified his will with the will of His friend, has deep joy, deep peace. He is one with God and one with men.
Mercy. The nature of mercy
The smile he gives the world is not the ghastly, soulless facial gesture of an indifferent stranger, signalling the mere absence of hostility. It is easy for him to rejoice with men; it is easy for him to be at peace with men; it is easy for him to suffer with men and, if possible, to do something about their suffering. For he is one with men. The efficacy of this union is nowhere more clear than in the virtue of mercy. It is only by seeing the misfortune of another as somehow our own, that we can be compassionate, can be driven to do something about this misfortune. In other words, for mercy as for charity, there must be some common ground upon which we and our neighbors meet.
Roll call of the merciful
A brother can, without difficulty, be compassionate to a sister; they are one in blood. An American in China finds it easy to have mercy on the misfortune of a fellow American. The old and the wise find mercy easy, for these misfortunes either have already come upon them or, in their wisdom, they see how quickly the same misfortune might visit them. The weak and the sick normally are quickly sympathetic by reason of their fellowship of misery. The same truth stands out more clearly when viewed from a negative point of view. The choleric, quarrelsome man is readily merciless. So, too, are those who are sure of their immunity from misfortune: those sure of power, of health, of happiness; the very proud. Indeed, even the man who is sure nothing worse can happen to him and the man stripped of all love are quite apt to be contemptuous of the misery of others. For all these people think only of themselves, breaking off the bond that would unite them to other men.
God is merciful to us, not because He is a fellow countryman, a blood relative, nor because He trembles at the threat of similar evils; but because He is our friend. In strict truth, our evils, our misfortunes are God’s; we are one with Him, not by a physical bond, but by the bond of love.
The excellence of mercy
Mercy is an immediate effect of charity. But it must not be understood to flow from charity in the same way as joy and peace. These are acts; mercy is a virtue in its own right. It has its own work to get done; and that work is the moderation of the passion of mercy according to the rule of reason. Understanding this well, we have no difficulty in distinguishing mercy from sentimentality. It is possible to be angry at a judge because the murderer he has condenmed has such gentle eyes. Our sympathy for the “poor, misunderstood boy” who has turned a machine-gun on the police may fill our eyes with tears. But all this is not the work of the virtue of mercy. Mercy, in this sense of passion, can be found in cats; as a virtue, mercy must proceed along rational lines to the goal of reason.
We might expect mercy to wear a doleful face because it is based on our ability to suffer with another. Actually it is a joyous, satisfying virtue. Even its counterfeits are likeable things. The criminal who murders people at night and operates soup-kitchens for the poor during the day, is actually enjoying the role of daytime dispenser of mercy. He is, in a sense, playing god. For it is only insofar as we are superior to others that we can be of help to them, supplying for their defects. Mercy is a God-like virtue; indeed it is a virtue proper to God, one of the chief means of manifesting the divine omnipotence. But in men, much as they may like to play the part of omnipotence, mercy is not the greatest of virtues; after all, men are not God.
A man does not reach his perfection in supplying the needs of others, but in subjecting himself to God. Only the Being Who has no superior manifests His perfection by supplying the needs of others. Yet among the moral virtues dealing with neighbor, mercy holds top rank, precisely because its act is the act of a superior. Justice must stand at attention when mercy passes by; after all, justice only gives another what is his due. Fortitude and temperance are orderlies of mercy; their work is to control a man’s own passions, not to supply for the defects of others. It is true that God will have mercy and not sacrifice; but not in the sense that sacrifice is unnecessary, nor because God and men must take second place to mercy. But rather in the sense that after justice has been satisfied, then mercy puts forth its superior, God-like act. In itself, mercy is not at all the greatest of the moral virtues.
When St. Gregory said “love is not idle”, he was saying that a peaceful home life cannot but make itself felt in the community, that a full heart cannot but overflow into the lives and hearts of others. Consequently, when the love of divine friendship fills a man’s heart, he cannot sit basking in the sun of his own satisfaction, his hands idle, his mind wandering aimlessly up and down the formal garden of his own delights. If he does, then he is enthralled not by love, but by hypocrisy. This thing is not filling his heart; it is emptying it.
Stingy selfishness is an admission of an empty heart. Beneficence, generous love, is a statement of a heart full to overflowing. It was divine genius that so planned the lives of men as to make of human life a wharf humming with the activity of constant imports and exports; a noisy exchange which all men must frequent. There is no man, however great, who is not in some way inferior to other men; and there is no man so lowly that he cannot help another, and so be superior to another. The spiritual isolationist makes a tragic mistake. For God has drawn us close to all other men by making us dependent on all others; i.e., by making us, in some sense, inferior to every other man and, at the same time, making us superior, in some sense, to every other man.
Love in the world: mercy at work
Understand, the beauty of this truth is not the theoretical beauty of an impractical plan seen in the engineer’s office. If we step out of the office into the confusing roar of the construction job where men are building their lives, we see mercy at work — the divine plan being slowly transformed into the tangible, enduring beauty of heavenly mansions. If we take the “works of mercy” of our catechism days as denoting whole classes of acts, rather than particular deeds, we are given a sharp, quick insight into the deficiencies every man may suffer.
Among the needy — almsgiving
On the physical side there are, for example, such things as deficiencies in food, drink, clothing, housing; there will be more particular difficulties, of course, such as come from an intrinsic cause like sickness, or an extrinsic cause like captivity. Even after the living of life is over and done with, there is the neglect and dishonor of an unburied corpse. On the spiritual side, a man may be a spiritual beggar, desperately in need of the divine help we can get for him through prayer. He may be a spiritual infant whose defects of intellect we can supply by doctrine or counsel. He may be suffering from spiritual malnutrition with defects of appetite we can readily supply: such, for example, as sorrow awaiting our consolation. Perhaps he has lost his direction by sin and we can give him correction, or pardon when the sin was against us, or even toleration and patience. No man escapes all these defects; no man is incapable of supplying even one of these defects in his neighbor.
The works of mercy
Objectively and absolutely speaking, a spiritual work of mercy is far superior to a corporal one. But to a wretch shivering in Chicago’s merciless winter wind, a treatise on the Trinity is a much lesser gift than the price of a drink, let us suppose, of coffee. Whatever the drink we supply, it will be a decidedly material thing; yet because it springs from charity, it has spiritual effects that wear well through all eternity — grace, glory, perhaps even the prayer of the needy one for his benefactor.
The effects of almsgiving
It is true, of course, that almsgiving — spiritual or corporal — can proceed from the virtue of penance, or merely from a deep, human fellowship with the unfortunate. But it is equally true that charity cannot exist without almsgiving. At least there are times when these works of mercy are solemn precepts, when to ignore them would be to lose charity by violating the commands of God. Surely when we have more than enough for our state of life we cannot be satisfied with talking about love of neighbor while a man in desperate straits starves to death.
Beyond such a situation, the giving of alms is a matter of counsel: something praiseworthy, pertaining to the perfection of charity. Obviously a man with just enough food to keep him from starvation is not obliged to give that food to another, even though the two are running a close race to starvation. Nor, normally speaking, are we to be surprised that a millionaire owns two suits of clothes. A man is not obliged to sacrifice what is necessary for his state in life to supply the ordinary needs of others. A case of extreme necessity is of course different; the sanctity of private property does not include the starvation of men nor the wreck of a commonwealth.
As a matter of fact, some states in life forbid almsgiving. We are unreasonable if we demand almsgiving from a thief; his obligation is not one of generosity but of restitution. A servant may be smilingly open-handed with the goods of his master in the name of mercy: but not with any justification. Our almsgiving must proceed from our own abundance, not from the abundance of others. It is well to remember that in our generous sharing of that abundance, the abundance is to be reckoned from our side; in other words, the purpose of almsgiving is not to establish a beggar in luxury, but to sustain the life or supply the needs of another. It is much better to give our alms to many poor than to establish one poor man in luxury: indeed, rather than doing him a favor, we may be corrupting our neighbor by the very luxury we so suddenly bestow on him.
Among the erring — fraternal correction
An equally obvious gesture of a full heart is the correction of those who are making mistakes; though its distastefulness to our twentieth century palates makes its welcome into our own diet dubious and reluctant. In our materialistic reversal of the scale of values, we are profoundly impressed by physical misery, eager to help; but spiritual necessity leaves us cold. Of course we have excuses. We explain, what hardly needs explanation, that we are not saints; we have troubles enough with our own soul; moreover the personal life of another is none of our business. Behind all this, too, there is a healthy contempt for the busybody who is forever reforming others.
But the life of another is very much our business. By charity all men are one with us; their misfortunes are ours, their mistakes our own. Sanctity is not a prerequisite for correction of others; all that is necessary is sane judgment, for sin is, after all, a mistake in judgment. Indeed of all the people in the world who lack charity few have a clearer title to that defect than the busybody. The whole purpose of fraternal correction is not to aggravate, humiliate or impress a neighbor, but to help him. If what we have to say will not be helpful, then we cannot excuse our words on the grounds of fraternal correction. A superior, by reason of his office, may be obliged to make a correction and insist on it even when it represents real difficulties for the one corrected; but that is not true of those who have no such office.
The extent of our rationalization in this matter becomes apparent if we probe a little into the reasons for our hesitation. Is it love of this neighbor that pulls the reins so sharply on our galloping tongue? Is it because we know our words will do no good, will perhaps do damage, while kindly tolerance will be more effective than actual correction? Or are we holding back from fear: fear of the reception that will be given our correction, fear of what people will think, fear of appearing holier than another? If fear dictates our silence, we have only the slim comfort of the coward to support us in our silence. It is true that a bank robber is not in an ideal position to chide a pick-pocket on his evil ways; but even here it may happen that the correction offered by a sinner will carry greater weight. He speaks from the experience of misery brought into his life by that particular sin.
Conclusion: Divine wisdom and Nazareth:
While God is, the home endures;
While home endures, God cannot be forgotten
With God and the home, the world of strangers is secure
It was a stroke of divine wisdom that established that family circle at Nazareth, with Himself as the center, and insisted on the long quiet life of the Son of God in the midst of that family circle. That one picture of Nazareth brought sharply to men’s eyes the promise that as long as God is, as long as the inner life of divinity continues, men will not be deprived of that image of eternal divine life which is the home of man. For God will see to it that men’s hearts are filled with the only thing that can fill them — unselfish love. On the other hand, that act of divine wisdom is a promise that as long as the home life of men endures, as long as men are given some taste of love, peace, joy, mercy and generous beneficence, they will continue to thirst for that which awaits them at the end of life; that as long as men have some taste of that joy which God has prepared for them, God Himself cannot be forgotten. It is a guarantee that with God and the home thoroughly established in the lives of men, the world of strangers is secure. For love is not idle, love cannot stay at home; the full heart of man cannot contain itself, but must overflow into the lives of others.
The modern crisis: Shall the heart of man be full or empty: love or hate?
Centers of modern attack: God and the home
That one act of divine wisdom in Bethlehem, with its sequel in Nazareth, brings us to the core of modern difficulties. The question before men today is really: will the heart of man be full or empty? Will it harbor love or hate? It is not surprising that modern heresies attack God and the homes of men; these are the guarantees of the fullness of man’s heart. Even where God is apparently left intact, the home is the object of serious, bitter and often subtle attack. But if love and joy and peace and mercy and beneficence are not to be found within the home life of man, if there is not to be about his home something of the permanency of heaven, then we can expect the hearts of men to be empty.
Some results of modern doctrines
In the concrete, this means that instead of expanding, overflowing hearts, we shall have shrivelled hearts, hearts engaged only on the dreary errands of selfishness and hate. Instead of the rich joy of life, we shall have the sorrow of envy and sloth. In place of the open hand of beneficent love, there will be the closed fist of selfishness; instead of love’s eager mercy, the crushing hammer of cruelty. For spiritual correction of others will be substituted their spiritual seduction for selfish ends. Perhaps we could put all this in just one sentence by saying: instead of union, we shall have division, separation; instead of men being at one with one another and with God, each man will be for himself. Unfortunately no man is sufficient for himself; and he who thinks he is, has no one helping him, not even himself.
The paradox of the human heart
These are not theoretical conclusions, nor are they prophecies. Rather they are the facts of today, facts that are inevitable consequences of a doctrine of hate supplanting a doctrine of love. Our world should have known better than to adopt this doctrine of hate. Centuries of experience should have taught us that the human heart cannot be filled by grabbing at particular things and stuffing them into that heart. Rather experience should have taught us that the only way a human heart can possibly be filled is by emptying itself. Sacrifice is the only language love can speak, and love is the only means of filling the human heart.
It is all of a pattern, that the God Who came to bring us the fullest joy should have died on a cross and warned us to follow in His footsteps; that the God Who came to bring us peace — Who was Himself the Prince of Peace — should put us into a world of constant warfare; that the God Who has come to fill the human heart should demand, as the first condition of that fullness, that the human heart be constantly emptying itself.