May 2016 Print

The Order of Charity

by a Benedictine Monk

“Ordinavit in me caritatem—He hath established in me the order of charity” (Cant. 2:5). Charity is love, though not all love is charity. There is an order of charity. It is the same order contemplated in the three persons of God, which is understood as the order of love. It is the order of all restoration, of all recovery, the re-ordered vision which is the achievement of the grace of conversion. It is the work of God, to see all things now by the deifying light as described in the opening lines of the Rule of St. Benedict, in which charity, as the first cause of eternal happiness, will lead us forward from virtue to virtue, from strength unto strength. In the order of charity, men will do battle, and God will give the victory.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment…

Charity is first and primordial by nature. It is also necessary, being the very essence of God. It is always the first answer. Charity is the first commandment, and beyond faith and hope, it will outlive our present existence.

There is within charity the reality of totalness. In the Latin, we read, “ex toto corde, tota anima, tota mente, tota virtute.” Charity has something of the absolute, the superlative, and the maximum as its ordinary character. It concerns everything. Since charity is from God, and since God is charity, Deus caritas est, He gives as He is, totally, without half-measures, even in the little doses and foretastes of eternal happiness He gives us to encourage us and to give us strength in order to persevere through purifying trials and hardships.There is nonetheless something infinitely beyond the needed measure in the gift of charity. Yet it is an error to separate too much the gift from the Giver, for God is in everything that He gives, and in charity He gives Himself.

If only you knew the gift of God! The gift is given to us in order to love God as He must be loved, the Holy Ghost moving the will to love, but in such a way that we are principal causes. It is now completely ours, we take full responsibility for this love and thus does it gain for us salutary merit.

The fourth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict is a list of the 72 instruments of good works. It begins in the same way: “The first instrument of good works is to love God, and later, let nothing be preferred to charity.” Charity, though often through human shortcomings is deposed from its place of privilege, will ultimately regain the first place. Our rationalist and science-biased minds do battle to always want reasons, and to justify our actions that fall short of charity. For to love God is greater than to know Him. Before he refers to charity some 16 times, St. Benedict gives the reason for the measure of strictness in discipline, saying it is for the preservation of charity that it has been thus legislated.

Christian Sweetness

Scientia inflat, caritas vero ædificat—Knowledge boasts, but charity builds.” Such was the ideal of Fr. Jean-Baptiste Muard, founder of the Benedictines the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in the design of Pope Pius IX, who saw the restoration of this contemplative order as an essential part of the counter-reformation strategy of his pontificate. The crisis exists because the worship of God has been emptied of its contemplative substance of adoration, which is the liturgical form of charity. Christian sweetness attracts and takes the lead all through a simple disposition of charity. It is the “Caritate perpetua . . . —With a perpetual charity have I loved thee, wherefore have I attracted thee, having mercy on thee” (Jer. 31).

Hardly a weakness, removed from the sentimental or saccharin, Christian mansuetude is rather a strength, the communication of the divine attraction, without which man is disoriented. It is the outstretched divine hand reaching towards struggling man, drawing him away from himself. Charity always begins in its original source which is God, and continues the one thing pleasing to God: man’s use of it in order to properly adore Him, which is the divine element assimilated by the human. Impossible odds shall be overcome, in Christian sweetness, charity and its allies shall overcome, quoniam supervenit mansuetudo—because mansuetude hath overcome us, we have been corrected (Ps. 89).

Amor facit exstasim—Love causes exstasy. To be beside oneself, beyond oneself, to surpass oneself, this is the ex-stasis, the standing outside of one’s human limits under the influence of charity, wherein the one loving is now the object of divine love.

In meditatione mea exardescet ignis—In my meditation a fire has flamed forth” (Ps. 38). Charity is the not only the fire, but also its lighting, a bursting into flames, a meditation more of God than of the mortal. It is a mesmerizing fire of attraction from which the eyes can hardly be turned away. Such is the radiance of contemplative prayer in which God acts more upon the soul than the soul is able to act upon God.

The Recovery of Charity

“I have something against thee, because thou hast left thy first charity” (Apoc. 2:4). “How happeneth it, O Israel, that thou are in thy enemies’ land? Thou art grown old in a strange country. Thou art defiled with the dead. Thou art counted with them that go down into hell” (Baruch 3,10). The first charity is the state of your first charity when you were fervent, which has been lost through extremes, the vacillations of passion and mediocrity, laxity, and lukewarm love.

“Do penance, and do the first works” (Apoc. 2: 5). Many receive penance, but few do it. Embrace the Cross, the station of charity, at the foot of which stand the three types of the disciples of charity: the Pure, the Priestly, the Penitent: Our Lady, St. John, St Mary Magdalene. Navigate by the Cross, oriented to the East, the Resurrection, and contemplate its dimensions, and comprehend what is the breadth, the length, the height and depth, of charity.

Convertimini ad Me in toto corde vestro—Convert unto me with thy whole heart.” Charity is the principle of conversion, and as charity is divine and constant, so must conversion have this constancy of daily progress, the interior, moral movement upward or forward, on the itinerary of charity. Symbolized by the monastic cloister, closed on all sides to the world, open only to heaven, in which monks make procession thrice daily, praying, beseeching…yet they go nowhere in distance or time. Ut quid perditio haec—unto what good is such a waste?” The monks are following the lead of Eternity.

Militant Charity

Caritas vincit omnia. Little is said of the Apostle’s departure from the security of the Cenacle, immediately going out unto the crowds of pilgrims under the first influence of the Holy Ghost. The outpouring of excessiveness, the Fire of Love, they acted under the impulse of charity. Caritas urget nos—charity presses us.

We are not ready, we are too weak, too ignorant…we shall be over-exposed against all prudence. By nature, charity takes the lead. It is always a few steps ahead, so that we will follow. Our Lord commanded his Apostles to trust this spirit of charity, at a time when they thought his bodily departure was premature. Through the spirit of charity they would be taught and instructed in everything. Such is the pattern of charity: life commitments seem too soon, the vows of religion or of matrimony. Charity demands change in our degree of trust, from timorous wishing to living it in concrete reality.

The charity of the Holy Ghost forced the Apostles from the shelter of the upper room outward into a hostile world. Therein they would henceforth mingle with the enemy, living amidst heresy and error and the entrenched hatred of those who rejected the Messias. Yet, in this seeming contradiction of circumstances there would be hundreds of thousands of conversions. Thus was the beginning of the Church militant. This is the first condition of the Church and every move forward through heresy and persecution in historical time has required a repetition of it. Ultimately martyrdom would be the end of their earthly lives, but only the beginning of an eternal mission.

The faith and loyal obedience of soldiers have given us the source of charity. Domine non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo. The words of a Roman officer, a centurion, have become the form for the reception of the Holy Eucharist, which is the privileged channel of charity. Of such a soldier our Lord would cry out, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.” From one who lives by the giving and the taking of orders, “say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

Another centurion, Longinus, who in the darkest hour of history, at the foot of the cross, would proclaim the divinity of our Savior: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This same Roman officer would open to all generations, the fornax ardens caritatis—the burning furnace of charity—with his issued weapon, a lance, in the transpiercing of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Charles Peguy, soldier, poet and playwright, authored The Mystery of the Charity of St. Joan of Arc. In militant charity this saint took up arms in order to restore the reign of charity, that the divine order and the temporal order might be one and the same, as it should and must be, on earth as it is in heaven. Her greatest complaint in the face of the battles to be waged to end the war and restore the throne of the King of Heaven on earth, was the consistent defeated failure of vain charities—fainthearted truces, empty and futile human prudence, pale shadows of the heroic charity that wrought our salvation. Only the wielding of the sword of charity would oust the enemy and restore peace. Ending her life with imprisonment and death by fire, closely imitating that of Our Redeemer, she would live out the words of the Canticle: Because of charity, I have lost everything… yet, I do trust in God, and tonight with his with aid, I will be in Paradise.