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Charity Is A Habit
All the passages below are taken from Fulton L. Sheen’s book “You,” republished in 1998 by the Society of St Paul.
Hate can be eradicated only by creating a new focus, and that is possible only by charity. By charity we do not mean kindness, philanthropy, generosity, or bigheartedness, but a supernatural gift of God by which we are enabled to love Him above all things for His own sake alone, and in that love, to love all that He loves.
The first quality of charity to be noted is that it resides in the will, not in the emotions or passions or senses. In other words, charity does not mean to like, but to love. Liking is in the feelings or emotions; loving is in the will. A little boy cannot help disliking spinach, as perhaps you cannot help disliking sauerkraut, and I cannot help disliking chicken. The same is true of your reactions to certain people. You cannot help feeling an emotional reaction against the egotistical, the sophisticated, and the loud, or those who run for first seats, or those who snore in their sleep.
But though you cannot like everyone because you have no control over your physiological reactions, you can love everyone in the divine sense, for love, being in the will, can be commanded. As Our Lord said: “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Outwardly, your neighbour may be very unlikable; but inwardly he is one in whom the image of God can be recreated by the kiss of charity. You can like only those who like you, but you can love those who dislike you. You can go through life liking those who like you without the love of God. Humanism is sufficient for those of our set, or for those who like to go slumming from ivory towers, but it is not enough to make us love those who apparently are not worth loving. To will to be kind when the emotion is unkind, requires a stronger dynamic than “love of humanity”. To love them, we must recall that we who are not worth loving are loved by Love. “For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what great thing are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).
A second feature of charity is that it is a habit, not a single act. There is a tremendous amount of sentimental romanticism associated with much human kindness. Remember the great glow you got from giving your overcoat to the beggar on the street, for assisting a blind man up the stairs, for escorting an old woman through traffic, or for contributing a ten dollar bill to relieve an indigent widow. The warmth of self-approval surged through your body, and though you never said it aloud, you did inwardly say: “Gee! I’m Okay!” These good deeds are not to be reproved but commended. But what we wish to emphasize is that nothing has done so much harm to healthy friendliness as the belief that we ought to do one good act a day. Why one good act? What about all the other acts? Charity is a habit, not an isolated act. A husband and wife are out driving. They see a young blonde along the road-side changing a tire. The husband gets out to help her. Would he have done it if the blonde were fifty? He changes the tire, dirties his clothes, cuts his finger, but is all politeness, overflowing sweetness, exuding charm. When he gets back into his own car, his heart aglow with the good deed, his wife says: “I wish you would talk that nice to me. Yesterday when I asked you to bring in the milk you said: ‘Are you crippled?’”
See the difference between one act and a habit? Charity is a habit, not a gush or a sentiment; it is a virtue, not an ephemeral thing of moods and impulses; it is a quality of the soul, rather than an individual good deed.
How do you judge a good piano player? By an occasional right note or by the habit or virtue of striking all the right notes? An habitually evil man every now and then may do a good deed. Gangsters endowed soup kitchens and the movies glorified them. But in Christian eyes, this did not prove they were good. Occasionally, an habitually good man may fall, but evil is the exception in his life, while it is the rule in the life of the gangster. Whether we know it or not, the actions of our daily life are fixing our character for good or for evil. The things you do, the thoughts you think, the words you say, are turning you either into a saint or a devil, to be placed at either the right or the left side of the Divine Judge. If love of God and neighbour becomes a habit of your soul, you are developing heaven within you. But if hatred and evil become the habit of your soul, then you are developing hell within you. Heaven is a place where charity is eternalized. In heaven there will be no faith, for then we will see God; in heaven there will be no hope, for then we will possess God; but in heaven there will be charity, for “love endures forever.”
Finally, love is universal. Translating charity’s commandment into the concrete, it means that you must love your enemy as you love yourself. Does that mean that you must love Hitler as you love yourself, or the thief who stole your tires, or the woman who said you had so many wrinkles that you had to screw on your hat? It means just that. But how can you love that kind of an enemy as you love yourself?
Well, how do you love yourself? Do you like the way you look? If you did, you would not try to improve it out of a box. Did you ever wish to be anyone else? Why do you lie about your age and say you just turned thirty when you mean you re-turned thirty? Do you like yourself when you develop a sense of rumour, or when you spread gossip and run down your neighbour’s reputation, or when you are irritable and moody?
You do not like yourself in these moments. But at the same time, you do love yourself, and you know you do! When you come into a room you invariably pick out the softest chair; you buy yourself good clothes, treat yourself to nice presents; when anyone says you are intelligent or beautiful, you always feel that such a person is of very sound judgement. But when anyone says you are “catty” or selfish, you say they don’t understand your good nature, or maybe they are “Fascists”.
Thus you love yourself, and yet you do not love yourself. What you love about yourself is the person that God made; what you hate about yourself is that God-made person whom you spoiled. You like the sinner, but you hate the sin. That is why, when you do wrong, you ask to be given another chance, or you promise to do better, or you find excuses, or you say, “I was not my true self.” But you never deny there is hope.
That is just the way Our Lord intended that you should love your enemies: love them as you love yourself, hating their sin, loving them as sinners; disliking that which blurs the divine image, loving the divine image beneath the blur; never arrogating to yourself a greater right to God’s love than they, since deep in your own heart you know that no one could be less deserving of His love than you. And when you see them receiving the just due of their crimes, you do not gloat over them, but say: “There but for the grace of God go I.” In this spirit, we are to understand the words of Our Lord: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who insult you. To the one who strikes you on one cheek, offer your other cheek as well. And from the one who takes your cloak, don’t hold back your tunic” (Luke 6:27-29). It is Christian to hate the evil of anti-Christians, but not without praying for these enemies that they might be saved---for God loved us when as yet we were sinners.
If, then, you bear a hatred toward anyone, overcome it by doing that person a favour. You can begin to like classical music only by listening to it, and you can make friends out of your enemies only by practising charity. The reason you love someone else is because that person supplies your lack or fills up your void. You find in the other something you do not have: beauty, wealth, virtue, kindliness, etc.
But God does not love you because you supply His lack. He finds you lovable not because, of and by yourself, you are lovable, but because He puts some of His love in you. As a mother loves her child because her nature is in the child, as the artist loves the canvas because his idea and his coloured pattern is in it, so God loves you because His Power or His Nature or His Love is in some way in you.
If, then, God’s love for you makes you lovable, why not put some of your love in other people and make them lovable. Where you do not find love, put it there. Love therefore all things, and all persons in God.
So long as there are poor, I am poor:
So long as there are prisons, I am a prisoner:
So long as there are sick, I am weak:
So long as there is ignorance, I must learn:
So long as there is hate, I must love. (68-73)
ADDRESS DELIVERED ON FEBRUARY 4, 1945
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