Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1822).
I have a clear memory of myself as a little girl, pondering God and his ways. How could it be that He was everywhere? Or that He always was? And how could He possibly expect me to love everybody, even people I did not even know, or people I did not like?
Later I learned the difference between theological and human virtues, and as I grew (and especially after I became a mother) my heart expanded and filled with the love of neighbor the Catechism speaks of.
When most of us read “charity” our minds turn specifically to charitable giving, perhaps the writing of checks, or dropping off old clothes at a donation site, or even tax write-offs. This month we commemorate the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua. Although best known as the saint we pray to when we need to find a lost item, Saint Anthony is also the patron of the poor. This patronage arises from the story of a woman who gave the poor the weight of her drowned child in grain after Saint Anthony interceded on her behalf to restore the child to life. When we follow her example and give to those in need, our actions should be animated by the virtue of charity, for “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love” (Catechism 1827).
Ten years ago, I experienced both kinds of charity when a tragedy befell our family. My husband and I and our youngest children were out of town attending a funeral when the phone call came, telling us that our house was on fire. We arrived home two days later to find a smoky, sodden ruin. We lost almost everything we owned.
Instantly homeless and bereft, we were also almost instantly lifted up by the prayers, love, and generosity of the various communities of which we were a part. Hundreds of people, most of whom we did not know personally, came to our aid. Friends welcomed our older children into their homes, my son’s football team provided us with evening meals for months, and clothes for the kids poured in from folks far and near. On the day we moved into a new home three weeks after the fire, it took a 24-foot truck to collect all the donations that fully furnished our house.
This was more than perfunctory charity: it was the love of neighbor that Jesus calls us to. Because of this love, what might have been purely tragic was transformed into something that was also beautiful.
Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest (Catechism 1829).