A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 45: Heroic Charity

We shall explain the nature of heroic charity by recalling the definition of this virtue. Charity is the infused theological virtue which makes us love God for Himself and more than ourselves, because He is infinitely good in Himself, infinitely better than we are, and than all His gifts. It also makes us love our neigh­bor in God and for God, because God loves him and as God loves him. Charity is thus a friendship between the soul and God, a com­munion of our love with His and a communion of souls in the love of God. We must, therefore, consider heroic charity first toward God, and secondly toward our neighbor.


Heroic charity toward God manifests itself in the first place by an ardent desire to please Him. In fact, to love someone not for one­self but for himself, is to wish him well, to wish what is suitable for him and pleasing to him. To love God heroically is, in the midst of even the greatest difficulties, to wish that His holy will be accomplished and His reign profoundly established in souls.

This holy desire to please God is a form of affective charity, which is proved by effective charity, or by conformity to the divine will, in the practice of all the virtues. The soul thus reaches unswerving fidelity in little things and in great things, or what is most difficult.

Heroic love of God is shown, we have seen, in the passive purification of the spirit, when it is a question of loving God for Himself, without any consolation, in great and protracted aridity, in spite of temptations to disgust, acedia, and murmuring, when the Lord seems to withdraw His gifts and leave the soul in anxiety. God is for this reason none the less infinitely good in Himself and deserves to be loved purely for Himself. If then, in spite of such prolonged dryness, the soul loves to be alone with God, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and if it still continues to pray, if in spite of everything its life remains a perpetual prayer, this is a sign of heroic love of God.

As St. Francis de Sales (1) shows, heroic conformity to the divine will appears when the soul receives lovingly every agreeable or painful occurrence as coming either from the positive will of God, or from a divine permission directed toward a higher good. It then sees with ever greater clearness the truth of the words of Ecclesiasticus: "Good things and evil, life and death, poverty and riches, are from God." (2) The soul here becomes deeply convinced that God makes use even of the malice of men, for example, of persecutors, as an occasion of merit for those who wish to live only for Him. Thus Job accepted adversity, and in the same way David bore the insults of Semei. (3)

In the greatest difficulties, the saints, while doing what is in their power, say: "It will be as God wishes."

To this sign is added a confirmation: namely, one who thus renounces his own will and adheres heroically to the will of God finds a holy joy in this adherence. In conforming his will more and more to God's will, he has all that he wishes. He experiences the truth of the Psalmist's words: "O Lord, Thou hast crowned us, as with a shield of Thy good will." (4) This is what the martyrs have particularly experienced.

In his explanation of the Canticle of Canticles, St. Bernard describes the ascending degrees of heroic charity as follows: "Divine love leads to an unceasing search for God, to continual labor for Him; it bears indefatigably all trials in union with Christ; it gives a true thirst for God; it makes us run rapidly toward Him; it gives us a holy boldness and an undaunted audacity; it attaches us inseparably to God; it burns and consumes us with a very sweet ardor for Him; finally, in heaven, it likens us completely to Him." (5)

These degrees of perfect charity are explained in a short work attributed to St. Thomas,(6) and also by St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night,(7) where he shows that the second last degree is the transforming union, the prelude of that of heaven. "The Apostles," he says, "experienced this sweetness of ardent love when the Holy Ghost descended visibly upon them." (8)

The greatest sign of heroic charity toward God, is love of the cross. The patience and conformity to the divine will of which we have spoken, lead to this love.

In The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, the Lord says: "It now remains to be told thee how it can be seen that souls have arrived at perfect love. This is seen by the same sign that was given to the holy disciples after they had received the Holy Spirit, when they came forth from the house, and fearlessly announced the doctrine of My Word, My only-begotten Son, not fearing pain, but rather glorying therein. They did not mind going before the tyrants of the world to announce to them the truth, for the glory and praise of My name." (9)

In the same Dialogue we read: "Such as these, . . . as if enamored of My honor, and famished for the food of souls, run to the table of the most holy cross." (10) "They slacken not their pace on account of the persecutions, injuries, or pleasures of the world. They pass by all these things, . . . their affection clothed in the affection of charity, and eating the food of souls with true and perfect patience, which patience is a sign that the soul is in perfect love, loving without any consideration of self." (11) "Such as these do not feel any separation from Me. . . . I remain continually both by grace and feeling in their souls." (12)

In other words, the eminent exercise of charity is accompanied in a proportionate degree by the act of the gift of wisdom, which enables us, says St. Thomas,(13) to know God present in us in a quasi­experimental manner. This is truly the mystical life, the summit of the normal development of grace and the prelude of the life of heaven. This summit cannot exist without love of the cross, and love of the cross does not exist without the contemplation of the mystery of the redemption, of the mystery of Christ dying for love of us.

Consequently, in The Dialogue, the Lord, speaking to St. Catherine of Siena for herself and for her spiritual children, says: "It is right for thee, and My other servants who have learned My truth in this way, to sustain, even unto death, many tribulations and injuries and insults in word and deed, for the glory and praise of My name; thus wilt thou endure and suffer pains"; (14) that is, with patience, gratitude, and love.

Such are the great signs of heroic love of God: perfect conformity to His will in trials and love of the cross. There is also another sign, perfect charity toward one's neighbor, which we shall now discuss.


Charity leads us to love our neighbor in God and for Him; that is, because God loves him and as God loves him. It makes us desire that our neighbor may belong entirely to God and glorify Him eternally.
Heroic love of neighbor already exists when one promptly dominates strong temptations to envy, discord, isolation, so different from solitude; likewise when one quickly surmounts temptations to presumption, which incline one, in the wake of certain insults, to wish to get along without the help of others - of friends, director, superiors.

Perfect charity appears when, in the midst of great difficulties, one loves one's neighbor, mente, ore, et opere, that is, judging him with benevolence, speaking well of him, helping him in his necessity, perfectly pardoning offenses, and making oneself all to all. This charity is still more obvious if by preference one seeks out, as St. Vincent de Paul did, friendless and fallen souls, poor, strayed, and gravely guilty creatures, in order to lift them up, rehabilitate them, and set them back on the road to heaven.

A chief characteristic of heroic love of neighbor is an ardent desire for the salvation of souls, a thirst for souls, which recalls Christ's words on the cross: "I thirst." St. John used to say: "My little children, let us not love in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth." (15)

Heroic love of neighbor led some saints to the point of wishing to sell themselves as slaves that they might deliver captives and thus rescue families from wretched poverty. This zeal inspired St. Paul to write: "I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, (16) for my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites." (17)

This zeal inspired the apostolic activity of great missionaries, of St. Francis Xavier, St. Louis Bertrand, Las Casas, St. Peter Claver. Nearer our own day, it is the inspiration of apostles, like St. John Bosco, who are completely engrossed in bringing back to God the misguided masses in our Christian countries who no longer know the Gospel.

Another sign of heroic love of neighbor is radiating goodness toward all amid the greatest difficulties, according to the evangelical beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers," that is, those who not only preserve peace in most difficult moments, but who give it to others and hearten the most troubled. This eminent sign appears in Mary, the Consoler of the Afflicted, and in all those who resemble her. Our Lord says: "Love one another as I have loved you." (18) "By this shall all men know that you are My disciples." (19)

Communicative goodness, love of neighbor carried even to daily and hidden sacrifice, is the indisputable mark of the presence of God in a soul. This goodness, which is as strong as it is gentle, sometimes leads one to correct others, but without bitterness, sharpness, or impatience. And that the correction may be effective, it points out the good, the salutary seed which should be developed in the one who deserves the reprimand. Then the person receiving the reproof feels that he is loved and understood; he takes courage. If the Blessed Virgin were to appear and tell us our defects, she would do so with such goodness that we would immediately accept her corrections and draw from them the strength to make progress.(20)

Perfect charity toward one's neighbor springs from close union with God, and it leads one's neighbor to this same union, according to our Savior's words: "I pray. . . for them also who through their word shall believe in Me; that they all may be one, as Thou, Father in Me, and I in Thee." (21) The more united the soul is to God, the more it draws others to Him, never to itself. In the soul united to God, shines forth the divine goodness, which radiates, attracts powerfully and sweetly, and ends by triumphing over all obstacles.(22)

An incident from the life of St. Catherine of Siena will serve to illustrate this teaching. One day Peter Ventura, a Sienese involved in the affairs of the government, was brought to Catherine with his heart full of implacable hatred. "Peter," Catherine said to him, "I take all your sins on myself, I shall do penance in your place. But grant me a favor; go to confession." "I have just been to confession recently," said the Sienese. "That is not true," replied the saint, "it is seven years since you went to confession," and, one by one, she enumerated all the sins of his life. Stupefied, Peter admitted his guilt, repented of his sins, and pardoned his enemies. By promising Peter Ventura that she would take his sins on herself and expiate them, the saint had truly offered herself as a victim, and the Lord required of His servant, or rather His spouse, expiation through suffering. She interpreted literally Christ's words: "Love one another, as I have loved you."

In the same heroic manner St. Catherine obtained the conversion of Andrea Mei, a Sienese invalid, who had grievously calumniated her. The saint with consummate devotion nursed this woman, who was being eaten by a cancer. The unfortunate creature had the sorry courage to impugn the virginal honor of her devoted nurse, and these evil remarks spread abroad. Catherine, however, did not cease to tend her with the same zeal. Her patience and humility triumphed over Andrea Mei. One day the saint, as she approached the sick woman's bed, was surrounded by light, as if resplendent in glory; "Pardon!" cried the guilty woman. Catherine threw her arms around her neck, and their tears mingled. It was like the radiation of the divine goodness and the realization of our Savior's words: "The glory which Thou hast given Me, I have given to them; that they may be one, as We also are one." (23)

Two souls united in God by charity are like two candles whose flames unite and fuse.

Charity, which thus triumphs over wickedness, makes the saints share in the victory of Christ over sin and the devil. It is one of the glories of His mystical body; through it shine forth the grandeur of the life of the Church, its fruitfulness in every kind of good and of works of mercy. It is the confirmation of the divine origin of the Church.



1. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VIII, chaps. 5 f.; Bk. IX, chaps. 3-6, 15 f.

2. Ecclus. 11: 14.

3. Cf. II Kings 16: 10.

4. Ps. 5:13.

5. The Canticle of Canticles, V, 8; VIII, 6.

6. Opus., 61.

7. The Dark Night, Bk. II. chaps. 18-20.

8. Ibid., chap. 20.

9. The Dialogue, chap. 74.

10. Ibid., chap. 78.

11. Ibid., chap. 76.

12. Ibid., chap. 78.

13. Summa, IIa IIae. q.45. a.2.

14. The Dialogue, chap. 4.

15. Cf. I John 3:18.

16. Not for eternity. but for a more or less protracted period.

17. Rom. 9:3 f.

18. John 15: 12.

19. Ibid., 13:35.

20. We find an example of this goodness united to deep humility in the life of the foundress of the Cenacle, who at the age of thirty-three resigned as superior general, and for almost fifty years obeyed like a simple sister. She was so obedient that it was only at the end of her life that those about her understood all that the Lord had given her and how closely she was united to Him. He had hidden her, but the radiation of her goodness in humility ended by revealing her. It was she who, by her love for God and souls, bore the burden of the congregation of which she was truly the foundress. Cf. P. H. Perroy, S.J., Une grande humble, Paris, 1916.

21. John 17:20 f.

22. One of the characteristics of heroic charity is to bear with great generosity the sufferings that come from those one loves. Thus saints who, like St. Catherine of Siena and St. Joan of Arc, had a great love for the Church, have also had to suffer particularly from the faults of churchmen. This suffering was in the nature of reparation.

23. John 17:22.