“Love is patient . . . it bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13).
Appropriate in the extreme that we should read this epistle today—today when, this time next week, the holy fast of Lent will have begun. Because the end of all discipline, the end of all repentance and self-denial, must always be charity: because charity is the highest end of the spiritual life. We so easily forget.
That’s to get ahead of ourselves, however.
We are not surprised, in fact, that we heard this epistle today. Because it was last week when we heard of St Paul speaking of “a man I know in Christ” who was caught up to the third heaven, into Paradise, where “he heard secret words which it is not granted man to utter.” Of course, the tradition often understands this man to be St Paul himself. And if that is true, are we surprised to hear him speak as he does about the deepest matters of the spiritual life? Last week it was 2 Corinthians 11 and 12; this week 1 Corinthians 13. But are we to think that the sacred liturgy has set these two texts side-by-side purely by accident?
Rather, having been caught up to God himself, then he speaks the words we heard today. One saintly Benedictine abbot of the 20th century puts it thus: today St Paul “attempts to lift a corner of the veil which hides Eternal Love from the eyes of mortals.”1
I submit that our Lenten discipline has the same goal.
Indeed, we require the lifting of our sins which act as so many veils to the divine charity. This same abbot correctly reminds us, “God is the primary and immediate object of the precept of charity, as he is the final end toward which the creature tends.” Sin is an obstruction, a missing of the mark. Lent, on the other hand, forces us to clear the ground away if we are neglectful at other times; it forces us to take aim again with greater care and concentration if we have fallen away.
But St Paul does not dwell on sin here. Nor should we. Rather, St Paul is clear about the illuminative character of charity. Love is something we do; it is also something that reveals, illuminates, demonstrates.—“But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away with . . . . I shall know as I am known.”
Nevertheless, the sort of knowledge of which St Paul speaks is not something that can be conveyed in a textbook or a sermon. Here, we are in the territory of St Augustine. In our times, it is clear that there are many enemies of our faith—I mean both the Catholic faith and the individual faith of the Church’s children. As such, we often emphasize the need to strengthen our faith. And so we must.
Today’s liturgy is suggesting to us an additional course, however. Given the eloquence of St Paul today regarding charity, we must negotiate the question. I would conclude by proposing one way to go about this.
St Francis de Sales imparted a spirit of gentleness to the spiritual life which we do well to heed. I am, I suppose, being intentionally counterintuitive by suggesting gentleness on the outset of our season of spiritual combat. But so is St Paul. Gentleness with self and gentleness with others is a sort of Salesian motto and modus operandi, and it is more Catholic and powerful than might be immediately apparent.
Before we do anything this Lent, we must be sure to tell Christ that we love Him. And as we do this, we must not immediately doubt ourselves or wonder whether we are sincere. We are all of us sinners; we sin despite our good desires. But it is here that the danger of a certain Lutheran pessimism may take hold—namely, a tendency to believe that we are incapable of truly loving God and of pleasing Him. And if we allow ourselves to adopt this pessimism with regard to ourselves, we have failed before we have even begun.
On the contrary, St Paul is clear, with all his apostolic authority, that charity is both possible and necessary for us who are receivers of grace; we do well to take his word. This requires us to exercise a certain gentleness with our own selves and to afford that same gentleness to those around us. Make no mistake by thinking this is a weakness. “Love is patient . . . it bears all things.” Interesting that St Paul begins with patience in his long description of charity. That, too, is nothing haphazard.
A devout Lent is a patient Lent. Gentleness with self and others is the food and beginning of charity. And I say food designedly, as we approach this altar to be fed on Christ’s patient sacrifice. I would invite you, for your thanksgiving, to read the epistle and then immediately follow it by reading the Communion antiphon:2 in that connection, you should discern, in some sense, the entire logic of the Catholic Faith.
1 Ildephonse Schuster, The Sacramentary, vol 2, p 37.
2 Psalm 77, 29-30: “They did eat, and were filled exceedingly, and the Lord gave them their desire: they were not defrauded of that which they craved.”