If you have received from God the gift of knowledge, however limited, beware of neglecting charity and temperance. They are virtues which radically purify the soul from passions and so open the way of knowledge continually.
The way of spiritual knowledge passes through inner freedom and humility. Without them we shall never see the Lord.
“Knowledge puffs up whereas charity builds up.” [1 Cor. 8:1.] Therefore, unite knowledge with charity and by being cleansed from pride you will build yourself up and all those who are your neighbors.
Charity takes its power to build up from the fact that it is never envious nor unkind. It is natural for knowledge to bring with it, at the beginning anyway, some measure of presumption and envy. But charity overcomes these defects: presumption because “it is not puffed up” and envy because “it is patient and kind.” [1 Cor. 13:4]
Anyone who has knowledge, therefore, ought also to have charity, because charity can save his spirit from injury.
–Maximus the Confessor (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain)
The Dominican Order expects its brothers and sisters to spend an hour a day in prayer and an hour a day in study of Holy Scripture and theology. Frankly, I love that part of the rubric of my Order, because learning and study come easy to me. Maximus the Confessor reminds me that maybe it comes a bit too easy.
Maximus was a monk who lived from around 580 to 662. Most scholars believe that he was born in Constantinople; we know he was tried there for heresy. Maximus suffered both exile and torture for the faith. After his death, the Church declared his innocence of the charge of heresy. Both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches recognize him as a saint and a Father of the Church. He famously said, “Theology without practice is the theology of demons.”
Looking to the reading today, Maximus reminds us that our study and our learning must be rooted in the ancient Christian practice of charity. Charity carried a slightly different meaning then; it meant more than simply giving money to the poor. Charity meant loving kindness without limits. This notion was related to the Hebrew concept of chesed or the Greek word agape.
Thomas Aquinas said that all the virtues pointed toward charity, the highest of the virtues, and charity (or love) makes all the other virtues possible. Charity is a grace, and we practice charity because we were first loved by God. Charity relates closely to humility because both enable us to lay aside our own desires and concerns for a while. As a friend of mine observed, the Christian virtue of humility doesn’t mean we think less of ourselves; it means we think of ourselves less.
Maximus reminds us that all our study, all our theology, will leave us parched and withered unless we drink from the well of charity. Our knowledge is always deeply incomplete and inadequate. Rabbi Heschel once said, “The tree of knowledge grows upon the soil of mystery.” Part of that mystery lies in God’s limitless capacity to love, and our capacity to reflect His love through the practice of charity. Thus, as Heschel observed, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
I wish you a good and holy Lent,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
N.B. Earlier this week, through a computer glitch or some sort of (as yet unknown) operator error, this post was erroneously published as a draft with many, many typos. I was mortified. The irony of that event, in a post about humility is not lost on me, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies.