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.
Wonderful constant reminder! Perhaps this is what James meant when he said, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). Faith not practiced by the evidence of charity is a dead faith. Thanks for this reflection!
Thanks for your kind words. And yes, I think James said much the same thing. I wish us both a living faith!
God’s great peace,
Thoughtful commentary, Brother.
Thank you, my Sister!
Grace and peace,
Thank you for this inspiration and affirmation. I had just finished reflecting on that scripture in the Daily Office and tied it to
a poem by Dylan Thomas “In my craft or sullen art” Knowledge, creativity, all are reduced to love.
My dear friend,
I’m so glad the piece spoke to you.
“I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.”
Dylan, that marvelous and broken soul, he got it right.
God’s peace, my friend,
It is interesting to me that your take on Maximus the Confessor is that since study and learning come easily to you, that perhaps it is too easy? To me, as we all are part of a body, and all have different gifts, the fact that study and learning are easy for you is just that – a gift. You are also a charitable person, and I have personal knowledge of that, not to mention the time and effort you put into your writings. What a gift to share, and if that isn’t charity (as in kindness) I obviously don’t understand the word. Not that you are perfect in charity, as of course none of us are, but you are practicing it as we are all called to do. Finally, Rabbi Heschel’s comment about admiration of age, made me smile. I must admit that as I read it I thought that I must be middle-aged as I admire both clever and kind people. A peace-filled to to you, Brother James.
My dear Barbara,
As always, you are too kind.
Rabbi Heschel always makes me smile. Like Nouwen and a few others, he’s just a voice I want running around in my head.
God watch over thee and me,
Dear Brother James,
I loved your post script! I did not see the earlier version, but if I had seen it I am quite sure I would’ve thought there was some mistake. We know you too well for that. But what a wonderful opportunity to drive home your point!
Yes, and given that I’ve come to reject the idea of “coincidences”, I took the point. Thanks for your encouragement, as always.
Maximus uses the language of dance, of perichorsis, to explain the relationship between and among God and all beings. I don’t think it would be too far off to think of charity and humility being the opening movement of our dance with God and others, warming us up to love in the fullness of our being. Learning and great knowledge are nice additional movements to know, but the source of the divine dance comes only from ever deepening relationships with one another and with the Creator of the Dance.
Thank you for reminding us of the grace that comes with humility.
Yes, perichorsis (which can also be translated as co-inhabitance) is a wonderful image, particularly in the application to the Triune God. It’s a wonderful and touching image, perhaps even enough to get through to our hearts of stone.
God watch over your going out and your coming home,
Love the postscript! Making mistakes adds to the beauty of the final work. We should not fear them! Great post as always brother.
My dear Constantina,
If mistakes add to beauty, I think I’m probably a supermodel. Thank you for your kindness and your friendship.
Pax et bonum,
Humility, that low, sweet root
From which all heavenly virtues shoot.
I think our brother Thomas was exactly right. Your insight is dead on….
I so enjoy your posts, btw!
Many thanks, Charity!
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