Editor’s note: This is part 22 of a series, “The Kingdom of Grace.” Part 21 can be found here.
“The spiritual life consists principally in charity,” says Saint Thomas Aquinas. The ultimate goal of walking the pathways of metanoia is to receive the transformation of our minds by the light of grace so that we can come to behold God with the eyes of our hearts. After all, the ultimate purpose of life is to know God. Yet, the eyes of the heart grow in the contemplation of God in proportion to the degree the heart becomes a burning furnace of charity.
The grace of God is really a special work of God, distinct from his work of pouring out the blessings of nature, in which God befriends us to himself in a supernatural and personal way (see the previous article on The Friends of God). Once we have been established by grace in a living and personal friendship with God, the call is to walk the pathways of metanoia. The walk begins with believing in the gospel. The walk is sustained by hoping in God through all our difficulties and trials. But the primary activity along the way, day in and day out, is simply to love. It is to love God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When love for the God who first loved us becomes the secret motivation and the energizing force behind all of our activities, then the heart has truly become a burning furnace of love. It is just a question of how brightly the flame shall burn.
Many people fall into the trap of thinking that what will set the heart on fire, or stir up the fire of divine love, is a special subset of morally good acts such as prayer, fasting, sacramental confession, Eucharistic adoration, spiritual direction, or similar religious practices. All such acts are good and holy, of course, but it would be a major mistake to think that growing in grace and charity can happen only through such a special subset of morally good acts. Great dangers lurk in thinking so. One might lose sight of the spiritual value and significance of ordinary life and the natural order of things. One might begin to judge and condemn fellow members of the mystical body of Christ who are not as given to specifically religious or spiritual practices, but are much more occupied with things like banking, engineering, and law. One might even begin to think that holiness is exclusively the domain of priests, religious, monks, and nuns whose state in life dedicates them to a more extensive practice of specifically religious kinds of activities such as celebrating the liturgy.
When we make the mistake of thinking that only the specifically religious or spiritual sorts of acts really serve spiritual growth and transformation, union with God and contemplative prayer, we inevitably end up wondering what the rest of life has to do with the spiritual life. What about doing the laundry? What about mowing the lawn, paying the bills, taking the car in for repairs, dealing with teachers at school, bearing bureaucratic hassles, making business deals, planning investments, resolving problems in family relationships, and all the other more or less mundane tasks of daily life? What do any of these things have to do with the Kingdom of Grace? More than one housewife and mother has become perplexed about her spiritual life once the presence of a beloved husband and children come to make it practically impossible for her to spend hours in adoration, rosary, and spiritual reading anymore. Some even begin to wonder whether they can really grow close to God.
The truth is that any work of charity tends to enkindle the fire of supernatural love that begins to burn in our hearts from the first moment of our baptism. A work of charity is any morally good act carried out for the love of God and neighbor. Works of charity are motivated by the knowledge of how God has first loved us – especially in Christ crucified. Works of charity are born from the desire to return love for Love received. The point of doing any and all such works of love is simply Jesus. The point is to love him, to please him, to slake his thirst for love. When our works of love spring from such motives and desires, each one becomes a way of participating personally in the immeasurable torrent of divine Love pouring forth upon the world. God allows us to have a hand, so to speak, in spreading his Love. Our works of charity become his way of doing so.
The work need not be of a particularly religious or spiritual sort. It need not be prayer, fasting, Eucharistic adoration, confession, or spiritual reading. It can be running out to pick up Chinese food for the family. The work need not be of heroic magnitude. In principle, it is possible to shovel the snow for an elderly woman across the street with as much love in your heart as one of the North American Martyrs. The measure of love is not the magnitude of the outward act, or even the torments it involves, but the depth of love secretly at work in the heart. One way or another, all works of love have their place in the spiritual life. In fact, the Kingdom of Grace demonstrates its greatness – and truly conquers the world – when the flame of love burning in our hearts permeates the whole of life and energizes all of our activities. In this way, the loving hearts of a handful of Christians can secretly leaven whole societies beginning with the little things at hand in the lives of each of us.
God has been gracious enough to befriend us, and the proper response to him as our beloved Friend is to do him whatever little works of love we can given the means available to us at the present moment in our lives. Our neighbor is our opportunity. For what we render to our neighbor we render to God (Mt. 25:31-46). Works of love cleanse the eyes of the heart and begin to illuminate them for higher perceptions of the Most High.
All works of love are capable of doing so. It is important to note the point well. For over the next several articles we are going to discuss in detail many more specifically religious and spiritual kinds of acts such as participating in the sacraments, prayer and lectio divina, the need for silence and vigilance, and the tremendous role of the Virgin in the spiritual life. Without pausing first to note well the primacy of love in the spiritual life, the significance and importance of all works of love in all domains of life, one might all too easily reduce the pathways of metanoia to an excessively narrow subset of more specifically religious and spiritual activities. But the pathways of metanoia are not so specific. All good works, when done in a spirit of love for God and neighbor, serve the growth of grace and the transformation of the world around us. Indeed, all works of love are profitable unto everlasting life.
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.