Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Faith, Hope and Charity:
The Theological Virtues

by Stephanie Swee

Every Christian knows the names of the three most important virtues that he needs for eternal happiness: Faith, Hope and Charity. In man’s journey toward his ultimate destiny it is important to begin with the fundamentals. These God gives us as infused virtues at our Baptism and they are nourished by the Sacraments, as well as each individual’s own efforts to advance through the object of this study, the spiritual life.
Although they go together, the theological virtues are distinct, as, for example, when man finally attains the glory of heaven. Then only the love of God will exist and the need for faith and hope will cease.[1] Likewise, “Faith can subsist without hope and charity (as in one who commits a mortal sin of despair without losing his faith.)”[2]

The first of the theological virtues, faith, is essential to the Christian life, as it allows the intellect to focus on the object of the soul’s fulfillment, God Himself. Belief is the beginning of seeking and faith allows man to understand that the Beatific Vision in heaven is that for which he was created.  We also know that faith must not only be a passive belief, but an active seeking. “By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God.’ For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will.[3]

Faith requires a continuous effort to search for and submit to what God asks of us as His creatures. Revelation, both the Scriptures and Tradition, are the sources for us to know God better and to follow his commandments more closely. Over and over the Church prays in the Divine Office concerning the learning and the love of the Lord’s precepts. “Happy the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commands.” (Psalm 111)

Even in the natural order, says St. Thomas Aquinas, faith has a triple justification. “Three things lead us to believe in Christ … first, natural reason … secondly, the testimony of the Law and prophets … thirdly, the preaching of the Apostles.[4] However, without the aid of grace, the Seraphic Doctor continues, we could not attain the fullness of the virtues. “when thus led, we have reached belief; then we can say that we believe, not for any of the preceding motives, but solely because of the very truth of God …to which we adhere firmly under the influence of an infused light _”[5]

Because this virtue is so basic to our final end, the deliberate rejection of it is called “a sin against the Holy Spirit,” and cuts man off from God in a definitive way. Even if we fall into serious sin, as long as we do not choose to reject belief in God totally, we still have the virtues of faith and hope, although receiving the sacrament of Penance is required to restore supernatural charity to our souls.
Faith leads naturally to hope, for what we see and believe is our ultimate destiny – rejoicing in God’s presence for all eternity – the will then longs for. Hope engenders a kind of joy, which is the name C. S. Lewis gives to the yearning we have for something outside our mortal experience. “What Lewis helped me to discover was that at rock-bottom all desires are for heaven. ‘There have been times,’ says Lewis, ‘when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often, I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.’”[6]

But again Revelation gives us more reinforcement than just our natural longings, important as they are. The Psalmist constantly refers to hope in the midst of tribulations. “My soul pines for your salvation; I hope in your word,” (Psalm 118) And God’s infused grace is the fountain of hope. “This doctrine of grace leads us also to an entirely supernatural hope composed of confidence in the divine mercy and abandonment to it.”[7].

Because hope engages the will, it helps us to overcome all kinds of temptations against keeping the commandments and also against discouragement. “Let us … put on the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (Cor. 12:12)[8] . Many times in the Old Testament, characters such as Abraham are seen to hope against great odds. When his wife, Sara, was of advanced age and Abraham had no heirs and no prospect of any, it took heroic acts of faith and hope to continue to believe and hope in God’s promise that He would make him the “Father of many nations.”
Another example of hope was that of Moses, one of many of the chosen people whom Christ recapitulated in His life. “Moses, in striking contrast to all the turmoil and agitation around him, moved with quiet firmness and reliance solely upon the Lord.” [9] His kind of trust is the operation of hope, which in its highest form cannot be shaken by the vicissitudes of life or by the temptations of the Evil One.

Man can find in himself the basis for faith and hope in a higher Being, because he is often aware of his own powerlessness in the face of the challenges of his earthly life, which engenders a belief that a supreme intelligence is governing things. And man is also aware from an early age that he has a desire for something that no earthly pleasure or pursuit can satisfy, which leads to hope in higher Power.

But charity, the greatest of the Theological Virtues, is pure gift. The love of God and neighbor is not as natural to man as are the other two virtues and crowns them in a way made possible only by God’s grace. “The practice of all virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Col. 3:14) It is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them  … it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice. Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love.”[10] It is also the highest virtue because it deals with the attainment of all man’s longing – to be united with the object of his love in the perfection of the Beatific Vision.

Charity is always from and through and in Christ, the Messiah who brought mankind the New Dispensation. “Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own to the end, He makes manifest the Father’s love, which He receives.”[11] For the first time, the Jews heard that the greatest of all commandments was to love God and to love their neighbor as they loved themselves.
While humans are on earth, however, it is necessary to keep growing in the depth of the theological virtues and this requires the infused moral virtues. “The theological virtues are demanded by the very nature of grace … the moral virtues are demanded by the theological virtues because to be ordained to the end (faith, hope and love in and of God) requires a proper disposition to the means.” [12]  We do this by exercising the moral virtues – prudence, which corresponds to faith; temperance and fortitude, which bolster hope, and justice, which is the proper exercise of charity. We also receive strengthening in the three key virtues by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the counsels of the Beatitudes.

So, while sanctifying grace gives us all three of these virtues and actual grace and infused moral virtues give us the ability to persevere in keeping them operative, we need finally to focus our minds on the words of St. Paul with regard to their importance.

“So faith, hope and love, these three, abide, but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13) The three theological virtues are the fountainhead from which the Christian draws as he seeks to grow in the love of God as perfectly as he can in this life and in complete fulfillment in heaven, where only Love remains.

[1] Aumann, Jordan, O.P., Spiritual Theology,(London: Sheed and Ward, 1980), p. 85.
[2] Aumann, p. 85.
[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 446.
[4] Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., Christian Perfection and Contemplation. (Rockford, Ill.:Tan Books and Publishers, 2003), p. 67.
[5] Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 67.
[6] Martindale, Wayne, Beyond the Shadowlands. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 16.
[7] Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 105.
[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 448.
[9]  Quay, Paul, S. J., The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God. (New York: Peter Lang, no date given), p. 257.
[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 449.
[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 449.
[12] Aumann, p. 86.

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