Listen more deeply - Madonna Magazine

Listen more deeply

Julian Butler SJ 15 March 2022

God is charity. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as, God is love. Love is a word that evokes beauty, depth, integrity.

In our English vernacular, charity can evoke a sense of duty, at worst something based on not much more than pity. Yet charity has long been understood as a key form of love, as the fundamental element of loving. Indeed, the true grace of love reveals itself in the engaged, active, outward processes of charity. Rather than attracting through a benign beauty, charity adds the ingredient that allows love to be real in the world, in its here and imperfect now.

In his majestic little book, The Four Loves, CS Lewis describes three ‘natural’ loves: affection, friendship and eros. The fourth love is charity. Charity, for Lewis, is that which transforms the ‘natural’ human inclination to love in those first three forms into something beyond their natural limits. It is, in other words, the grace in love. Our ‘natural loves’ lose their self-serving dynamic and are taken up in the self-sacrificial love of God.

God’s giving

Christ’s teaching, Lewis is sure, ‘was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities’. God in the frame, charity as an element in love, does not forestall our natural attractions, make them something measured or dour. Rather, it grounds love in the abundance of God’s giving. Maybe counterintuitively it grounds it in vulnerability. As Lewis notes, ‘To love at all is to be vulnerable.’

Jesus expresses that vulnerability most explicitly on the Cross. But the whole movement of the Incarnation takes vulnerability, and is an act of charity – love as gift. In the great drama of his life as conveyed by the Gospels, there seems to me no more poignant and affective expression of that vulnerability than at the tomb of Lazarus. Those simple words of John’s Gospel, ‘Jesus wept’, convey so much of what it is to love, what it is for the divine to love.

It is personal and particular, and yet it is without ego, full of compassion. ‘Jesus wept’. They are words to make you shiver. If you take in all they mean. Words to pray with, coming back to as the need arises. Love done as abstraction does not seem to work. It requires those bonds of affection, friendship, eros. They are not, initially at least, relational states to be overcome but to be fulfilled.

The right fit

Recently I was away on a retreat with some senior school students. Much of the dynamic of the retreat played out in small groups where sharing occurred. Personal sharing about life, its struggles, and possibilities. The students were at that point in their lives where they were earnestly trying to work out where they fit: What’s my place in the world?

In my small group none of the students knew each other too well – they weren’t friends. At the beginning of the retreat, they weren’t especially concerned by each other, but as the retreat went on, their care for each other grew. They could and did weep before, and for, each other. They displayed a vulnerability that blew me away. I realised as I reflected on the experience that this was only possible through listening.

This experience of listening, deep listening at that, and accompanying others as they listen deeply, has convinced me that the heart of charity is not an outward activity. Much as this is important, the action is only charitable to the extent it is the product of that deep listening that allows me to move beyond my own ego. Listening to God, listening to myself, listening to those around me.

It seems right to say with Aquinas that, ‘To love is to will the good of the other.’ We might add, ‘and to act for it.’ How could we possibly do this without an attentive listening? Not just to ourselves, but to God as he communicates to us, and just as importantly, as he seeks to enter the life of those around us. It is this charity which allows us to love; where love is beyond the transactions of those who find one another mutually attractive. This is loving in a way, at least approximate to the way, that God loves.

‘Filling out’ relationships

It might begin, of course, with those we naturally care for. Those to whom we are attracted by the bonds of family, or the shared interests and experiences of friendship, or those who spark the mystery of magnetism and with whom we fall in love. But it won’t end there. Charity allows those relationships to ‘fill out’, to move beyond our attraction to take account of the other, increasingly for their own sake. And in time for their sake as, first and foremost, one loved by God.

When we love another like that it must change the way we love all others, too. So, charity does not just change our relationships of affection, friendship and eros, it suggests the possibility of relationships born purely of that charity. It suggests we might make time for someone we don’t find immediately attractive, who we don’t necessarily find it easy to be around.

Charity allows us to hang around long enough to listen to that person, and so to listen to God in new and unexpected ways.