"To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge...."
In today's Epistle, Saint Paul raises and answers a question that is fundamental to the practice of religion: Is it more important to know about God, or is it more important to love God? Obviously the answer has to be somewhere in between, a trade-off between one and the other; because it is not possible to love anything you don't know. Yet the question remains important, because in answering it we determine how our spiritual life will be lived.
On the one hand, we could let charity or love of God completely dominate our outlook. That would give us a spiritual life something like that of the TV evangelists. We would try to work ourselves up into an emotional stage that blocked out of our minds everything except a deeply felt commitment to Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Nothing much wrong with that, except that it is impossible to keep that sort of an emotional “high” going for more than a few minutes at a time.
But the deeply intellectual approach is not much more satisfying either. The scholastic theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas is wonderful for coming to know and understand some of the things of God, but is rather clinical. Instead of knowing God as a loving Father, it makes us think of Him as the “First Cause,” or “Prime Mover,” or some other similarly useful but sterile concept. One might be able to keep up such studies for a lifetime, but still not know God in the personal sense.
The answer, of course, is that our spiritual life needs both faith and charity—knowledge and love. And according to what Saint Paul tells us, that is exactly what God gives to us. You may remember me saying that it is God who gives us the supernatural virtues; that we don't develop them all by ourselves. It is God who infuses the virtues of Faith and Charity into our souls. We are, according to Paul, “strengthened by the Holy Ghost … that Christ may dwell by faith in our hearts … that we may be able to know also the love of Christ, which surpasses all knowledge.”
So, we are told, “love surpasses knowledge.” Yet both are necessary; we might say mutually complimentary. And God gives us both of these virtues. So where does that leave us?
Recall, if you will, that the virtues are sort of like God given talents; like the ability to excel at baseball or to play a musical instrument. We cannot develop the talent if we don't have it, but even if we have it, we must practice the activity if we are to be good at it. God gives us the supernatural virtues of Faith and Charity so that we can both know and love Him—but we have to put them into practice.
Now, you might say that you can exercise your Faith with relative ease, but that it is harder to practice the love of God. This is true for many people in our age, for while we are often striving to learn new things, we are likely to be much more reserved with our emotions; almost to the point of being afraid of coming to love someone.
Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves just how much effort we have made to love God:
Have we made a point of spending time with Him? Certainly, if we spend no more than an hour a week praying distractedly at Sunday Mass, after a hurried trip in the car with the radio blasting—we can't really expect to grow in the love of God.
Have we made a point of approaching Him through the Sacraments? We know that Faith and Charity are virtues that are nourished by frequent Confession and Communion; that they must come from God and can't be otherwise acquired. Certainly we can't expect to love God if we reject the means of love that He has provided us with.
Have we made a point of approaching all things in our life with humility? It is not by accident that the Church has us read this particular epistle and gospel together. “He who exalts himself shell be humbled.” Certainly, we will never come to the love of God if we go around with the attitude that we are better than those around us. By showing contempt for His creatures we can only develop contempt for the Creator.
In summary, let me say simply that if we are to have a spiritual life that is of any value, we must strive to take the God-given gifts of Faith and Charity and strive to develop them within ourselves. We must know God and love God. Both of these take time and we must be prepared to spend it. Study, and prayer, and the frequent reception of the Sacraments must be our practice—daily if possible. And everything we do must be done in the spirit of humility. For “he who humbles himself will be exalted—will be strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man—and will have Christ dwell in his heart,” both in Faith and in Charity; the knowledge and the love of God.