by Mr. Craig Taffaro
The force of charity is often lost on the modern American man. In American culture, even amongst Catholics, charity gets reduced to the dollars one puts in the collection basket or gives to a favorite (or annoyingly persistent) charitable organization. Sometimes, charity breaks free of this common mold and becomes a different, but still comfortable, idea: be nice to others, treat them with kindness and respect; love others for who they are. Charity, though, is not comfortable; it is the root cause of the Cross. Donating money generously is good. Donating money sacrificially is better. Treating others with kindness and respect is good. Loving others as God loves them is better. The challenge is in moving from being a “good man” to being a saint. Charity is both the means and the end of that movement.
History is replete with examples of charity drawing men and women to sainthood. There is a famous contrast, though, that summarizes the force of charity in history while challenging one’s own motivations in the present: the Virgin and the Dynamo, as contrasted in the experience of Henry Adams.
Faced with the sheer force of the mechanical wonders at the Great Exposition of Science and Industry in Paris in 1900, Adams pondered the dawning of “forces totally new. . . . Forces that were occult, supersensual, irrational” (The Education of Henry Adams, ch XXV, para 6, 7). He felt a certain attraction, even a natural inclination to worship, when in the presence of the most powerful man made instruments of the day. Yet, he recognizes that
“All the steam[-engines and dynamos] in the world could not, like the Virgin [Mary], build Chartres. . . . Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world had ever felt, and had drawn man’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done” (para 16, 17).
The Blessed Virgin Mary literally embodied Charity and, in doing so, became the cause and effect of the true, the good, and the beautiful expressed in the architecture, art, music and poetry of the Western world.
The “occult” forces that Henry Adams felt the need to worship in 1900 have only grown stronger today, but the Virgin remains greater, still. While man is enamored by his own instruments, charity can be reduced to dollars and societal niceties. While man is enamored by the Blessed Mother and her Son, the fire of charity burns in his soul and he becomes a saint. God gave His whole Self in the Incarnation, becoming man. Mary gave her all by receiving that gift perfectly and totally. Men must choose to either love God or love something else, to paraphrase St. Augustine. In choosing charity — choosing to love God with his whole soul — a man embarks on the greatest of adventures with the greatest of endings.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/159/.