Monday, March 12, 2007

The Highest and Most Perfect Love is God's Love -- the Love of Caritas

Previously, we discussed the nature and origin of “love.” It was suggested that love is a feeling, an emotion, an attraction, a desire for the other, a sense of fulfillment. And certainly these things often do accompany love, but they are not love itself. Feelings come and go. Sentiments come and go. Attraction comes and goes. And yet love -- if it truly is love -- remains. Indeed, this is seen when Jesus tells us that we must love not only those close to us, but our neighbors, that is, total strangers we don’t even know, and even our enemies, people we don’t even like.

So, we saw how love in its true sense is more than just an emotion. It is more than something we inwardly experience; it is more than simply selfishly satisfying our wants and desires. And love is not arbitrary; love is not something that just happens or doesn’t happen.

Love in its true sense concerns itself with the other; it selflessly seeks what is good for the other. Love is also something which is given, it is a gift of self. Thus, we see that, far from being a mere sentiment that comes and goes, or may not happen at all, love is an action; it is an act of the will, a conscious decision to selflessly seek the good of the other, whether or not we take pleasure in it, and whether or not he or she deserves it.

Likewise, whether the other person loves us is not something that just happens or does not happen. It is not some arbitrary event, and it is not some sentiment or feeling that is imposed upon the other. For the other to love you or not love you is also a conscious decision on his or her part, and we must disabuse ourselves of the folly of thinking that if only we do this or do that we can make the other person love us or that we can make the other person "happy."

Now, let us consider the love of God -- God is perfect; He is Truth itself. Therefore, the highest and most perfect and truest love is God’s love. And what kind of “love” is that? Deus caritas est. God is caritas; God’s love is love as caritas. God does not love us because we are attractive and pretty, funny and smart, or because we are so likeable. He loves us regardless of these things, and even in the absence of these things. He loves us, God gives Himself to us, even though we do not deserve it.

God’s love is caritas, which means “charity,” and charity is something which is given. God’s love is a gift, as were His gifts of the ability to reason and free will. God gave us free will, including the ability to choose to love Him or not love Him, because love is not love if it is not freely given. God’s love is a conscious decision, an act of His will, to seek the good for us.

To love perfectly and truly, we must love as God loves. The highest and most perfect love we can have for our sweetheart or our friend is caritas; the love that we are commanded to have for our neighbor, the stranger, and our enemy is, likewise, caritas. We must choose to give of ourselves and unconditionally seek what is good for the other. And if we find that this is difficult, if we cannot find the strength within ourselves to do this, then we must choose to ask God for help, we must ask for grace.

(And in having such a loving disposition, we find many more people to love; by giving in this way, we receive more, we find more happiness, than if we had selfishly sought such things for their own sake.)

In modern usage, many people tend to think of charity (caritas) as limited to what has traditionally been called “almsgiving,” which includes the act of giving money, goods, or time to the poor or unfortunate, or in the “corporal works of mercy,” which include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.

But as important at that is -- and it is very important -- true caritas, true charity, is far broader than this limited modern concept. Being charitable means much, much more that giving money or time to an organization that provides assistance to the unfortunate. For example, it also includes what are called the “spiritual works of mercy,” which include counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead. But true charity, true love, does not stop there, it goes even further. In its highest and most perfect state, the one who loves is prepared and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of self and lay down their very life for the sake of the other.

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