Friday, November 1, 2013

Caritas Actually

It is perhaps unfortunate that we begin our first post — a post about love, no less — on a sour note, but it is necessary because it is illustrative of how not to be charitable. Our story takes place several years ago. I was attending the enthronement of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. As one of the local clergy, my father was expected to attend. It can be rather lonely as a traditional Anglo-Catholic in a liberal diocese (to say nothing of the entire denomination as a whole), so I tagged along, for moral support.

He and I sat separately, he with the clergy and I with the general public. Joining me in my pew was an older lady, who did not attend my parish. She and I got along well enough, making general small talk. I was sure she and I had very different views of just about anything theological, but why make our time in such close proximity unpleasant? Just be polite and enjoy the conversation. It's the Christian Thing to Do™. I could not help but be amused (in much the same way as when one watches a puppy attempt to climb the stairs, only to tumble repeatedly) when she looked through the programme and saw the picture of our new Bishop and made a little positive noise I can only imagine implied she found him attractive.

D'awww. Like a floppy-eared Sisyphus.
Anyhoo, I attended and dormed at Adelphi University at the time, which is literally walking distance from the cathedral. Every weekend, I went home because (a) Adelphi is not a party school, and the weekends were dreadfully boring and (b) I wanted to attend my church on Sundays and spend time with my parents, who were just a half hour away. On the one weekend I was unable to go home, I told my pewmate, I walked the extra distance to the Greek Orthodox cathedral down the road, appropriately named Cathedral Avenue. I said how I enjoyed the Divine Liturgy and followed along as best I could, despite sticking out like a sore thumb as the only male not wearing a suit and an oil spill's worth of hair gel. Then, I had the temerity to note that I did not receive Communion.

My new acquaintance suddenly went from cheery to grim: "They didn't forbid you from taking Communion, did they?" "No," I replied. "I was just following the rules and—" "You know, sometimes, I go to the Catholic church, to spy on them. And then, I take Communion, because nobody gets between me and my Lord."

It was really an astonishing exchange. I had known and obeyed the Communion policy of the Catholic Church for some time (only a Roman Catholic Christian in a state of grace can receive, with exceptions for Eastern Orthodox Christians and few others, who are compelled to follow their respective Churches' teachings; the Orthodox only give to fellow Orthodox; and traditional Anglicans give to members of all three groups). I had also known and witnessed many Anglicans/Episcopalians and Catholics who had received Communion at each other's churches. Usually, such intercommunion occurred out of ignorance of official policy. This was the first time I had known it to occur out of malice.

A more detailed theology of the Eucharist is appropriate for another post, but in short, it is a gift. It is a gift we cannot fully understand, because it is a miracle. Miracles are not understood; they are feared. That is why the Catholic Church is so strict about who can and cannot receive the Body and Blood of Christ. To receive Him unworthily is literally self-damnation. The restriction in place is out of love, not malice, and yet this woman was accusing the Church of malice against her personally. She took a gift and turned it into a weapon.

We have many times in our lives seen other people act "uncharitably" towards one another. We have all undoubtedly been guilty of lack of charity ourselves. Charity, in its simplest terms, is unconditional love, either for God or for one's neighbour. Regardless of whether one likes his neighbour, one is called to love him, just as he loves himself.

But this love must always follow, not be equal to, the love one has for God. Indeed, Christ says that anyone who does not hate his own family and himself before coming to Him is not one of His disciples. Taken without context, such a commandment is harsh, even contradictory to the second of the two commandments of Christ. Jesus never double-speaks, however, and put simply, God comes first, even when it hurts.

Your spouse of fifty years, the child you raised to adulthood, the friend you kept close since grade school — all of them are inferior to the commitment one has to Christ. Few are confronted with so stark and painful a choice, but even fewer have the fortitude to choose wisely.

The Greeks (the long-dead ones who actually lived in Greece, not the Orthodox Christians I visited many Sundays ago) had many words for "love". The preciseness with which "charity" defines love, not of possession or sex (eros), not of friendship (philia), but of selfless love (agape in Greek, caritas in Latin) allows one some comprehension of the nature of God's love for us, us for Him and us towards our fellow Man.

It was that love, that charity, that agape which, nearly two millennia ago, was tested on Calvary. It was that love which saw Man at his worst, which saw the innocent made the guilty and the guilty made the innocent. It was that love which overcame death, for those who didn't deserve it.

And so, we return to that cathedral pew. After the ceremony had ended, the lady and I said our good-byes, but not before she said of the pomp and circumstance of the day, "Even better than the Vatican!" Anything to get in another shot at Rome, I suppose. I didn't protest; it wasn't worth adding my anger to her pride.

I reflected on what the lady had said about the Eucharist and then upon my own habits. How often was I not worthy of taking Communion but did so anyway? Probably just as often as she, except I wasn't so honest about it (however unintentionally). None of us is truly free of pride, the root of all sin. Sin barricades us off from love. Indeed, love never fails, but we so often do. So, if God truly is love, is charity, then our failure to love is our failure to open ourselves to Him, because we are too preoccupied with ourselves. He is open; we are closed. He is our friend; we are our own worst enemy. And what kind of a good neighbour doesn't leave the door open for his friends?

Because Roxbury.
Further Reading:

Deus Caritas Est (2005), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's first encyclical, was largely the inspiration for this post. You can read the Holy Father's introduction and encyclical in full at the links provided.

The Four Loves (1960), by C.S. Lewis, is a wonderful exposition on the nature of Christian love. His frank, anthropological approach to such a nuanced philosophical issue makes for a fascinating read.

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