Moral Briefs – Chapter XXVIII – Love of Neighbor

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonThe precept, written in our hearts, as well as in the law, to love God, commands us, at the same time, to love the neighbor. When you go to confession, you are told to be sorry for your sins and to make a firm purpose of amendment. These appear to be two different injunctions; yet in fact and reality, they are one and the same thing, for it is impossible to abhor and detest sin, having at the same moment the intention of committing it. One therefore includes the other; one is not sincere and true without the other; therefore one cannot be without the other. So it is with love of God and of the neighbor; these two parts of one precept are coupled together because they complete each other, and they amount practically to the same thing.

The neighbor we are to love is not alone those for whom we naturally have affection, such as parents, friends, benefactors, etc., whom it is easy to love. But our neighbor is all mankind, those far and those near, those who have blessed us and those who have wronged us, the enemy as well as the friend; all who have within them, as we have, the image and likeness of God. No human being can we put outside the pale of neighborly love.

As for the love we bear others, it is of course one in substance, but it may be different in degree and various in quality. It may be more or less tender, intense, emphatic. Some we love more, others, less; yet for all that, we love them. It is impossible for us to have towards any other being the same feelings we entertain for a parent. The love a good Christian bears towards a stranger is not the love he bears towards a good friend. The love therefore that charity demands admits a variety of shades without losing its character of love.

When it comes to loving certain ones of our neighbors, the idea is not of the most welcome. What! Must I love, really love, that low rascal, that cantankerous fellow, that repugnant, repulsive being? Or this other who has wronged me so maliciously? Or that proud, overbearing creature who looks down on me and despises me?

We have said that love has its degrees, its ebb and flow tide, and still remains love. The low water mark is this: that we refuse not to pray for such neighbors, that we speak not ill of them, that we refuse not to salute them, or to do them a good turn, or to return a favor. A breach in one of these common civilities, due to every man from his fellow-man, may constitute a degree of hatred directly opposed to the charity strictly required of us.

It is not however necessary to go on doing these things all during life and at all moments of life. These duties are exterior, and are required as often as a contrary bearing would betoken a lack of charity in the heart. Just as we are not called upon to embrace and hug an uninviting person as a neighbor, neither are we obliged to continue our civilities when we find that they are offensive and calculated to cause trouble. But naturally there must be charity in the heart.

We should not confound uncharity with a sort of natural repugnance and antipathy, instinctive to some natures, betraying a weakness of character, if you will, but hardly what one could call a clearly defined fault. There are people who can forgive more easily than forget and who succeed only after a long while in overcoming strong feelings. In consequence of this state of mind, and in order to maintain peace and concord, they prefer the absence to the presence of the objects of their antipathy. Of course, to nourish this feeling is sinful to a degree; but while striving against it, to remove prudently all occasions of opening afresh the wound, if we act honestly, this does not seem to have any uncharitable malice.

Now all this is not charity unless the idea of God enter therein. There is no charity outside the idea of God. Philanthropy, humanity is one thing, charity is another. The one is sentiment, the other is love – two very different things. The one supposes natural motives, the other, supernatural. Philanthropy looks at the exterior form and discovers a likeness to self. Charity looks at the soul and therein discovers an image of God, by which we are not only common children of Adam, but also children of God and sharers of a common celestial inheritance. Neither a cup of water nor a fortune given in any other name than that of God is charity.

There are certain positive works of charity, such as almsgiving and brotherly correction, etc., that may be obligatory upon us to a degree of serious responsibility. We must use prudence and intelligence in discerning these obligations, but once they clearly stand forth they are as binding on us as obligations of justice. We are our brothers’ keepers, especially of those whom misfortune oppresses and whose lot is cast under a less lucky star.