Prayer is the activity especially intended for making fervent acts of charity. During prayer the soul lovingly meets with God. A soul that loves God does so with a pure heart; a heart that loves Him so much that it seeks only after His glory and His will. The prayer of a soul that loves God forgets itself and is ready to sacrifice every wish for Him. Its love grows stronger and will continue to grow as it performs all its actions with a whole heart and with all of its capacity for goodwill. A soul devoted to loving God has made the one necessary resolution in prayer which is to be recollected. Only then is it able to give itself entirely to God.
The soul that truly understands that love is “the greatest and first commandment“ (Mt 22:38) is a soul that is not preoccupied with unnecessary practices and exercises in its spiritual life. This soul aims straight at the heart. Love is its only concern. As love increases this soul lives in love actually. This soul strives to please God and to give Him glory. Of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is charity that holds primacy of place (1 Cor 13:13). Charity is the basis of the spiritual life and is necessary for a life of grace.
An Act of Love
O my God, I love you above all things, with my whole heart and soul, because you are all-good and worthy of all love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask pardon of all whom I have injured.
Contemplative souls make many acts of love throughout the day.
Unfortunately, sin, vice and imperfections can disfigure the divine image in us and in our neighbor. This divine image remains, however, and it takes faith in order to know how to find it. We are all children of God even those who have moved away from God and live far from His grace. For those striving for contemplation it is important to exercise this faith and seek God in creatures. When a prayerful soul can do this then nothing can distract it from a spirit of recollection. Contemplative souls do not shy away from those whose outward appearance may be displeasing. They see and serve God alone in everyone they meet. A distracted soul sees and dwells on the sins and imperfections of others. Dwelling on the sins and faults of others leads the soul away from any union with God and disturbs its peace. A recollected soul keeps its eyes on God.
Everyone needs to love and be loved. Only with the grace of God can souls learn to see and recognize Him in every creature. A soul wanting in this grace asks for it and listening to Jesus, the master teacher, imitates Him.
clothed them in beauty.
~(Spiritual Canticle, stanza 5)
“It is only charity that can expand my heart”. In chapter ten of The Story of a Soul, St. Therese gives a kind of discourse on charity that began with Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as He loves them. Of course, our neighbor isn’t necessarily the person we like. We like our friends. Our neighbor, on the other hand, is someone we often have to bear with. In this discourse on charity St. Therese begins with how important it is to be charitable in thoughts about our neighbor because she clearly understood how the devil can be a great meddler here. Since the “devil tries to place before the eyes of my soul the faults of such and such a Sister who is less attractive to me, I hasten to search out her virtues, her good intentions, I tell myself that even if I did see her fall once, she could easily have won a great number of victories which she is hiding through humility, and that what appears to me as a fault can very easily be an act of virtue because of her intention.”
We must never judge because we can be mistaken and judge acts of virtue for imperfections and take for virtue what may be an imperfection. All judgments about ourselves and others should be left for God who in the end is the judge of all.
St. Therese goes on in this discourse of charity to express other ways she went about loving her Sisters. She would pray for her Sisters, “offering Him all her virtues and merits”. When tempted to answer back in a disagreeable manner, she would give a friendly smile and change the subject. If she did not have the courage to permit herself to be accused without saying a word, she would have recourse to flight in the situation. She would not lay claim to what belonged to her since she took a vow of poverty. She would give to those who asked of her considering herself a servant and slave of others, rendering them a service and consider it an honor and trying to anticipate their needs in order to do so. St. Therese would also allow someone to take what belonged to her without asking for it back and would try to do good to others without hoping for something in return.
Jesus gives us His own commandment on love in the Gospel of John. He says we are to “love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). We are to love our neighbor as Jesus loves loves our neighbor. This goes in quite a different direction than loving one’s neighbor as oneself. St. Therese of Lisieux came to realize how imperfect was her love for her sisters when she came to understand that she did not love them as God loves them. “I understand now that charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice. But I understood above all that charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of the heart.” (Story of a Soul, chapter 10) Oh, how often charity remains in the bottom of the heart! Charity does not consist in feelings; it must be expressed in deeds. Charity should begin in our thoughts towards others remembering that Jesus has said: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Mt. 7:1). How impossible this seems; yet St. Therese found a way to overcome the weaknesses and imperfections of love she discovered in herself. She first came to understand that “never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me“. Trusting that Jesus wanted to give her this grace and assured that His will is to love, she exclaimed, “Oh! how I love this new commandment since it give me the assurance that Your will is to love in me all those You command me to love! Yes, I feel it, when I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me, and the more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters.”