The Great Commandment of Life is, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love is not attained all at once: there is a process, a path, a journey in Christ: discipleship. The goal – our vocation – “Be therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The school of love in Christ, for one wanting to grow in Him, is a journey traveled in stages. To grow in Christ is to grow in grace, and in His holy love, in stages. In traditional Catholic spirituality, the saints and doctors of the Church speak of three major stages: the beginning, the progressing, and the perfect.
Stages of Holy Charity:
A human being born in original sin (that is, born without the grace of God’s life in him) does not have holy charity (divine love) because he does not have the life of God in him. He has a moral sense, because of the natural moral law in him, because of the image of the God in which he was made. But he does not yet have holy charity, divine love. Holy charity is simply God’s love: the love of God the Holy Trinity and the love of other people because of God.
The man without grace has what he calls love, but he has not holy charity. He loves that which pleases and is good for him. He loves his car, his favorite football team, his favorite meal. He loves people, and he loves things, to the extent that they benefit him. His relationships with other people are defined by the good or the harm that they do to him. This is not the love of God: if it is love at all, it is the love of self.
1) The Beginner’s, or Purgative, Stage of Holy Charity
The man described above, the man who has led only a self-centered life, a life of self-love, can change radically when by God’s gift of grace he is able to hear and believe the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. The man hears the Gospel, and moved by grace he decides he wants to be a Christian. He converts to Christ. God – Jesus Christ – is recognized, seen and loved as the best of possible benefactors for him. In the past he has loved people who were good to him and who did good for him, but now he learns that God does the best of things for him. Of all things good for him, God is most good for him. God in Christ saves him from hell, and promises him an eternity of happiness in heaven! Therefore, he loves God and he loves Jesus Christ – but selfishly. However, still, he has changed. He has begun a new life in Christ, a life destined to grow and to mature in the life of God.
His relationships with other people also change. People who believe as he does, and who are good to him, are now his brothers and sisters in Christ. Other people are separated from this “us,” but if they are good to him, he will be good to them. As God is now salvation for him, so now others with him in salvation are his friends, his brothers and sisters.
2) The Progressing, or Illuminative, Stage of Holy Charity
The man in the Beginner’s stage who continues to learn and to grow in his faith, can by grace come to enter the second or Illuminative Stage. Here, he comes to know more than “about” God – he comes to encounter Him in a personal way, an experiential and interior way. God thus comes to be seen very differently from in the beginning: not only is God the best of all benefactors for the man, but now much more than this. God is now seen to be good and beautiful and true in Himself. Because of who He is, God is good – not merely because He has done good for the man.
God is good regardless of whether the man has been blessed by Him or not: God is good, beautiful and true. Thus, now he loves God not merely because God has done and will do good for him, but because of who God is. But also, the self-love of the man has not been completely replaced by whole-hearted love for God. The man loves God also because of the good He does and will do for him. He serves God because God is true, but also because it is very good for him to do so! His service of God in Christ is both for the sake of God, and for himself. His divine charity has grown, but it is mixed. His love for God has radically grown! But still it is mercenary.
His relationships and attitudes toward people also change and grow in this stage. People who know God as he now does, and love Him as he now does, and who are good to him – these people he loves; they are his brothers and sisters in Christ. All others are separated from “our brotherhood in Him,” but he knows he needs to reach out to them, to try to gather “the them” into “the us.” He wants those others to become his brothers and sisters, to come to know God and to love Him as “we” do. But if they refuse, or are not interested, he will be good to them if they are good to him – but those are the outsiders, the others; they are not his brothers.
3) The Perfect, or Unitive Stage, of Holy Charity
The man in the Illuminative stage who continues to grow in faith and grace, can grow to enter into the Unitive Stage – the oneness with God that is our vocation. The man’s vision and understanding of God grows. Now, the goodness, and beauty, and truth of God have expanded to consume the whole horizon of what the man knows of Him. God is all good, the perfection of goodness: He is goodness itself, and nothing has goodness apart from Him. God is all beautiful, the perfection of beauty: He is beauty itself and nothing has beauty apart from Him. His beauty fills the universe of all creation. God is all truth, the perfection of truth: He is truth itself and nothing is true apart from Him. His truth fills the universe of all creation. Anything good, or beautiful or true is so because of Him who made it, and who touches it with Himself, and signs it with His own signature. God is all in all, and whether the man lives or dies, whether he rejoices or suffers, whether his service of God brings him benefit or loss of everything in this life, still the man wants now only to serve Him, for God is his all. Whether God is life for this man, or death for him, God remains his all.
Other people are now seen, here, in a new and holier light. All people are in a sense his brothers, all his sisters, whether gathered with the man or separated from him, whether they are his friends or his enemies, whether they are loving him or hating him, whether benefiting him or robbing him, whether embracing him or attacking him. The man’s love for them depends not on them but on God, his God who loved him while he was still God’s enemy. Thus the man now can only love them all with and in the one God who has loved all. The man now can only serve with his God who served and who serves all. The man seeks to be Him for them, seeks to be Christ for them, seeking to be for the “others” what He was for himself: their friend, no matter what, no matter the cost.