A sermon on Charity by St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” — Matt. xxii. 37.
To serve God perfectly, it is not sufficient only to believe in Him. Of course, we must believe all the truths which the Church teaches us, and without faith all our works are without merit in the sight of God. Faith is absolutely necessary for us that we may be saved. At the same time this precious faith, which reveals to us beforehand the beauties of heaven, will one day leave us, and be transformed into knowledge, because in the next life there will be no more mysteries.
Hope, which is a gift of heaven, is necessary for us to have upright and pure motives, to please God in all our actions, to gain heaven and avoid hell. But Charity urges us on to love God because He is infinitely good, infinitely amiable, and deserves to be loved.
But, you will ask, how can we perceive whether we have this beautiful virtue so agreeable to God, which urges us to love God, not from fear of the punishments of hell, or the hope of heaven, but solely on account of His infinite perfections? It is Charity which will form our whole happiness, for the bliss of the blessed consists in love. Let us, therefore, see, my dear friends, whether we have this beautiful virtue, which is capable of rendering us so happy, and if we should be so unfortunate as not to possess it, let us seek to acquire it with all our strength.
If I should ask, what is Charity? the answer is, it is a virtue that comes to us from heaven, by which we love God with our whole heart, and our neighbor as ourselves, for the love of God. But now you will ask, what does it mean to love God above all things and more than ourselves. I tell you that it means to prefer Him to all created things. It means to rather lose fortune, good name, parents, friends, children, husband, or wife, and even our own life, than to lose God by committing a mortal sin. St. Augustine tells us, that to love God perfectly means to love Him without measure, even if there were no heaven to hope for, or hell to fear. It means to love Him with the whole capacity of our heart. If you ask for the reason, it is, because God is infinitely amiable, and worthy of being loved. When we really love him, then neither sufferings, nor persecutions, nor contempt, nor life, nor death are capable of taking this love away from us, which we owe to God.
We must feel ourselves, dear brethren, that if we do not love God we shall be unhappy, very unhappy. If man was created to love God, he can only find his happiness in God alone. If you wish to be firmly convinced of this, look at the people, and ask those who live without loving God. Observe those persons who neglect prayer and the Sacraments. See in what a state of trouble and loss they are. They curse themselves, sometimes kill themselves, or die of worry. An avaricious man is never satisfied, whether he have much or little. Is the drunkard happy? The proud man is never at rest; he is always afraid of losing his wealth or position. The revengeful man, thirsting for revenge, cannot sleep by night or day. Look at the shameful unchaste man, who seeks his happiness in the sins of the flesh. He goes so far that he not only loses his good name, but his fortune, health, and soul, without finding anything to satisfy him. And why cannot we be happy in these things which appear to satisfy us? It is because, as we were only created for God, He alone is capable of satisfying us, of making us truly happy. Blind as we are, we cling to life, to the world with its goods and pleasures. Yes, we may as well say that we cling to everything which is calculated to make us unhappy. The Saints were wiser than we are. They despised all things, to seek God only. How insignificant is everything upon this earth to those who really love God! How many great ones of the world, how many princes even, and kings and emperors were there not, who forsook all things that they might be more at liberty to serve God in the desert or in the cloister! How many others, to give proof of their love of God, have mounted the scaffold? O my dear friends, how happy are they who have the privilege of detaching themselves from the things of this world, that they may remain united to God alone ! Alas, how many are there not among you, who are twenty, thirty, or more years of age, and have not yet asked God for that Charity which the catechism tells us is a gift of heaven? We ought not, then, be astonished that we are so worldly, and so little spiritual. This way of conducting ourselves can only lead us to a miserable goal, to an eternal separation from God! Is it possible, my friends, that we are not striving for our real blessedness, which is God alone?
If I, then, were to ask, What is it to love our neighbor? the answer would be, the love of God causes us to love Him more than our wealth, our health, our good name, and even our life, and the love which we should have for our neighbor should enable us to love him as ourselves, so that all the good that we should wish for ourselves, we should wish for him. We must have this charity without which there is no heaven to hope for, and no friendship with God. Now, what do we understand by the word, our neighbor? Nothing is easier of comprehension. Every one of our brother men, even those who have wronged us, who have injured our good name, and calumniated us, or who have even sought to take our life. We ought to love them as we love ourselves, and wish them all the good that we wish ourselves. It is not only forbidden for us to wish them ill, but we must also render them service if they require it of us, and we are able to do so. We ought to rejoice when our enemies are successful in business, and we should feel sorry when they meet with reverses or losses, and we must take their part when others speak bad of them. We should tell others the good we know of them, and not avoid their society. Behold, my dear friends, this is how God wills that we should love our neighbor. If we do not believe this, then we must admit that we neither love our neighbor nor do we love God. We are bad Christians, and we shall be lost!
Now, you will ask me, how may we know whether we have this beautiful and precious virtue, without which our religion is only a pretension? A person, dear brethren, who has brotherly love, in the first place, is not proud; he does not care to rule others. You will never hear him censure other people’s behaviour, and he does not care to speak of what he does. A person who has brotherly love does not inquire into the motive of other persons’ actions. He never thinks that he behaves better than they do. He does not exalt himself above his neighbor. On the contrary, he thinks that everyone else is better than he. He is not cast down when people have a poor opinion of him. He is even contented, because he thinks that he deserves to be still more disesteemed.
A person who is charitable, avoids as much as possible hurting the feelings of others, because Charity is a mantle used to conceal our brother’s faults. Those who have charity accept with patience and resignation to the will of God everything that happens to them, sickness and adversity, because they believe that all these things remind them that they are sinners, and that their life here below is not the eternal one.
Those, also, have charity who are not avaricious, and think not of accumulating the goods of this world. They work because it is the will of God, but they do not rely only upon their labour, and are without eagerness to accumulate treasures. They put their trust in Providence, which never abandons those who love it. As charity reigns in their heart, all the things of earth are as nothing to them. They observe that all those who run after this world’s goods are the most unhappy. They employ their means, as far as they possibly can, in good works, to atone for their sins, and to gain heaven. They are kind toward everybody. All the good that they do is done in God’s name. They assist the poor, whether they be friend or foe. The charitable man does as St. Francis de Sales did, who, when he gave an alms, rather bestowed it upon those who had in some way injured him, than upon those who had done him good. The reason why he did this was because such conduct is more agreeable to God. If you are charitable, you must never inquire whether those to whom you give have done wrong, or whether they have seriously offended any one, or whether they are good or not. They ask you in God’s name, then give it to them thus. This is all you have to do that your alms may be deserving of reward.
It is unnecessary to point out to you that a person who has love for his neighbor is free from the shameful vice of impurity, because a person who is so fortunate as to have this precious virtue in the soul is so united to God, and performs all his actions according to the divine will, that the evil spirit of impurity cannot find room in his heart. The fire of divine charity so inflames his heart, his soul, and all his senses that he is invulnerable against the assaults of the evil one. Yes, dear friends, we may say that Christian charity purifies our senses.
Charity is not envious. It is not sad when others have spiritual or temporal advantages. You will never see persons who have charity angry because another is more fortunate than they are, or because another is more praised, or more thought of. Far from this being the case, they thank God for it.
He who has charity is not subject to anger, for St. Paul tells us that charity is patient, blind, and meek toward everyone. How often do we not get angry at trifles? We complain, we get excited, we speak haughtily, and for several days we remain in this condition. But you will say, I am accustomed to speak thus, and then my anger is soon over. You ought rather to say that you have not charity, which is patient and meek, and that you do not behave yourself as beseems a good Christian. Tell me, if you had charity, would you not bear patiently, and even cheerfully, a word that was said against you, an insult, or some trifling wrong? But he attacked my good name. Ah, my friend, what good opinion do you want people to have of you – you, who ought to know your faults better than they?
Charity is the noblest and most active of all the virtues. It moves men to disesteem everything which is base and contemptible, and of short duration, that they may be united to God and those goods which will never pass away. Charity may be compared to gold, the most precious of all metals, which adorns and beautifies everything that is richest upon earth. Charity is the ornament and adornment of all other virtues. The least little action accompanied with meekness and humility and charity of heart, is of more value and far surpasses anything that we can imagine.
Yes, dear friends, charity supports and animates faith. Without charity, faith is dead. Hope, the same as faith, cannot exist without charity.
Let us recognize, then, the value of this virtue, and the necessity of possessing it that we may be saved. Let us, at least, determine to pray to God for it every day, for without it we cannot work out our salvation. We can say that when charity enters our heart it brings all the other virtues with it. Charity purifies and sanctifies all our actions. Charity perfects the soul. Charity renders all our actions worthy of heaven. St. Augustine tells us that charity contains all the other virtues, and that charity is found in all the other virtues. Charity, he tells us, leads all our actions to their final aim, and gives them admission to God. St. Paul tells us it surpasses the gifts of heaven. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, he exclaims: “If I had the tongues of angels, but had not charity, I should resemble a cymbal which vibrates and only produces one sound. If I had the gift of prophecy, and such great faith that I could remove a mountain from one place to another, but had not charity, I should be nothing. If I gave all my fortune to the poor, and my body to be tortured, it would all avail me nothing if I had not charity in my heart, and did not love my neighbor as myself.” You see here, dear brethren, the necessity for us of praying to God with our whole heart for this incomparable virtue, for without it all the other virtues are of no avail.
Let us take Jesus Christ as our model. Let us consider what He did for all men, even for His executioners. Behold how He prayed for mercy and forgiveness for them. He loves them. He offers up the merits and the sufferings of His death for them. He promises them pardon. If we have not this charity, then, we have nothing. We are only mock Christians. We must love everybody, even our greatest enemies, or we shall be lost. As this beautiful virtue, my dear friends, comes from heaven, we must, then, direct our prayers to heaven to obtain it, and we are certain of being heard. If we possess charity, then God will be pleased at everything that we do, and we shall thereby be sure of Paradise. This is the happiness which I wish you all. Amen.