After St. John and St. Paul have written inspired words about a certain kind of love, only weak and derivative commentary can follow; but perhaps something can be said, and should be, in an age in which, as we are often told, the very meaning of the word is unclear.
The difficulty begins in a settled confusion between the supernatural gift of charity and the natural duty of citizens to fund and promote those activities through which the hungry are fed and the weak protected. Such duties lie in the province of our obligation to the common good, a duty that Christians and every other member of the civilization share, and one that should be entered into without complaint. These are duties commanded by the virtues of prudence and justice. They are often necessarily impersonal. The twenty-first century is dense with schemes for eliminating disease and poverty. Noble as these efforts are, and recognizing the relief they often bring, they are necessarily a process, not a solution. They are the good intentions and dedicated labors of so many, cast in the teeth of an intractable human nature, so that the good they do is always a necessary moment in an ongoing and interminable battle that must be fought with a good heart by every generation that claims the name civilized or Christian. Our Lord’s observation that the poor will always be with us refers to a fact, and is surely not given as an invitation to ignore the evils of this world simply because they are persistent.
Christianity accepts the persistent nature of this world’s evils and goes on to do good as a result not only of duty but of faith. We believe God and we believe what He commands. We are to feed the hungry, clothe and care for those who need our help. Doing these things may or may not change the world, but perhaps they will change us.
But beyond these duties there is something or Someone who really does change the world because He is able to renew and purify that most stubborn of realities: the heart of every man. The Bible does not promise to make men build Jerusalem in any green and pleasant land. It does promise to make us new creatures by giving us new hearts, in which the form of goodness is planted by the Lord Himself. The Pharisees deeply desired the righteousness that man can shadow forth. Our Lord said with elegant brevity in Matthew Chapter 5 that lust and murder and a desire for revenge must give way to purity of eye and heart, indeed, to love. And in the chapter of the Bible with which we are most likely to be familiar, St. Paul assures us that we might have great spiritual gifts, believe implicitly every word Christ teaches in His Church, give all our goods to feed the poor, and suffer martyrdom on the Roman inquisitor’s pyre; that we might perform all these good and even heroic actions but that without love we are a mere noise in the world, a nothing, utterly without merit in the kingdom of God.
Now of course it is commonplace that the word love has been debased to the point of meaninglessness, and its preferred substitute charity now describes actions such as feeding the poor that St Paul calls morally worthless in themselves. But love is now the only word we have, and all we can do is understand that it is not, in its ordinary use, what St. Paul has in mind. It is not an expression of desire that attaches us to the world, as when we say we love chocolate covered cherries or even good music. It may or may not be what we mean when we say we love a wife or husband. Properly, love is a gift given by God that first enables us to love God by joining us to Him in will and thought, and from that overflowing love affair enables us to love the world and everything in it, even and especially our neighbor. Those neighbors often do not want alms from us; that would be easily fulfilled. They are made happy if we see them as God’s children like us and enter their lives with seriousness to encourage and praise, to share the good we see unstintingly and to listen to the good they see. As St Paul put it, love puts up with a great deal patiently, is happy that others have many good things, even things we do not, seeks humility, has good manners, loves good things, and is made happy by truth.
All these things are matters of a renewed heart. Only Christ can change hearts. So what is His method? He may begin either with words that drive us to the power of the sacraments or with the power of the sacraments that drive us to accept His every word. In any event, changed hearts are not the work of committees, or charitable organizations. They are not even finally the work of teachers, although good things often begin with right thought. They are the gift of God the Holy Spirit.
The bumper sticker that tells those who want peace to seek justice makes an important point, but its advice will not take the world beyond the cries for peace in an unpeaceable world. A better slogan would be: If you want peace, seek God.