THE SUPERIORITY OF CHARITY TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD IN THIS LIFE
Some intellectuals raise an objection to the traditional doctrine, based on Scripture, according to which perfection consists primarily in charity. They ask whether the intellect is not the first faculty of man, the one which directs the others and which primarily distinguishes us from the animal. Since this is true, they say, should we not then conclude that the perfection of man lies chiefly in the intellectual knowledge that he can have of all things, considered in their principle and in their end, and therefore in the knowledge of God, the supreme rule of human life? From this point of view, a Bossuet may seem to surpass a number of canonized servants of God who did not particularly excel in intelligence, as for example, a holy lay brother or a St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
We have already virtually cleared up this objection by pointing out in one of our previous chapters that speculative and abstract knowledge of God can exist without being accompanied by profound righteousness of the will. It may exist in a very intelligent but heartless man, who could not be called "a man of good will" in the meaning given to this term by the Gospel. For the same reason, infused faith can remain in a soul that has lost charity and has turned away from God. Moreover, we said with St. Thomas, that on earth the love of God is better than the knowledge of God.(30) It is important to insist on this point. St. Thomas clearly recognizes that the intellect is superior to the will which it directs. The intellect has, in fact a more simple, more absolute, more universal object, being in all its universality, and consequently all beings; the will has a more restricted object, the good, which is a modality of being, and which is in everything the perfection that renders it desirable. Besides, we must not confound apparent good with true good, which the intellect recognizes and judges, and proposes to the will. As the good presupposes the true and being, the will presupposes the intellect and is directed by it. Therefore by the intellect, which is the first of his faculties, man differs primarily from the animal.
St. Thomas admits also that in heaven our beatitude will consist essentially in the beatific vision, in the intellectual and immediate vision of the divine essence, for it is above all by this immediate vision that we shall take possession of God for eternity. We shall plunge the gaze of our intellect into the depths of His inner life seen directly. God will thus give Himself immediately to us, and we shall give ourselves to Him. We shall possess Him and He will possess us, because we shall know Him as He knows Himself and as He knows us. Beatific love will be in us a consequence of this immediate vision of the divine essence; it will even be a necessary consequence, for the beatific love of God will no longer be free, but superfree, above liberty. Our will will be invincibly ravished by the attraction of God seen face to face. We shall see His infinite goodness and beauty so clearly that we shall be unable not to love Him; we shall even be unable to find any pretext of momentarily interrupting this act of superfree love, which will no longer be measured by time, but by participated eternity, by the single instant of the immobile duration of God, the instant that never passes. In heaven the love of God and the joy of possessing Him will necessarily follow the beatific vision, which will thus be the essence of our beatitude.(31) All this is true. It is difficult to affirm more strongly than St. Thomas does the superiority of the intellect over the will in principle and in the perfect life of heaven.
Since this is true, how can the holy doctor maintain that Christian perfection on earth consists primarily in charity, which is a virtue of the will, and not in wisdom or contemplation, which belong to the intellect? To this question he gives a profound answer, which should be meditated on for the spiritual life. He says in substance: Although a faculty may by its nature be superior to another, it may happen that an act of the second is superior to an act of the first. For example, sight is superior to hearing, it is less painful to be deaf than blind; nevertheless, although sight is superior to hearing, the audition of a Beethoven symphony is more sought after than the sight of an ordinary object. Likewise, although the intellect by its very nature (simpliciter) superior to the will which it directs, here on earth the love of God is more perfect than the knowledge of God.(32) Therefore perfection lies chiefly in the love of God. A saint who has little learning in theological matters but who has a very great love of God, is certainly more perfect than a theologian who has a lesser charity. This observation, which is elementary for every Christian, appears upon serious reflection as a lofty and precious truth. It could be illustrated by many quotations from Scripture and from the works of the great spiritual writers, especially from The Imitation of Christ.
Whence comes this superiority of the love of God over the knowledge of Him that we have on earth? St. Thomas answers as follows: "The action of the intellect consists in this, that the idea of the thing understood is in the one who understands; whereas the act of the will consists in this, that the will is inclined to the thing as existing in itself. And therefore the Philosopher says (Metaph., VI) that good and evil, which are objects of the will, are in things, but truth and error, which are objects of the intellect, are in the mind." (33) It follows that on earth our knowledge of God is inferior to the love of God, since, as St. Thomas further says,(34) when we know God, we draw Him in a way to ourselves, and in order to represent Him to ourselves, we impose on Him the bounds of our limited ideas; whereas when we love Him, it is we who are drawn to Him, lifted up to Him, such as He is in Himself. An act of love of God made by the Cure of Ars as he taught catechism, was worth more than a learned theological meditation inspired by a lesser love. Our knowledge of God draws Him to us, whereas our love of God draws us to Him. Therefore, as long as we have not the beatific vision, that is, while we are on earth or in purgatory, the love of God is more perfect than the knowledge of God. It presupposes this knowledge, but it surpasses it.
Further, says St. Thomas, even here on earth our love of charity attains God immediately; (35) it adheres immediately to Him, and from Him it goes on to creatures. "For knowledge begins from Charity ought, therefore, incontestably to have the first place in our soul, above that of the love of knowledge and of any kind of human progress. Moreover, charity will increase tenfold all our moral and intellectual powers by placing them in the service of God and of our neighbor. The love of esteem (appretiative summus) which we ought to have for God will thus become more intense, as it should.
30. See Ia, q.8:, a. 3. "Wherefore the love of God is better than the knowledge of God; but, on the contrary, the knowledge of corporeal things is better than the love thereof. Absolutely, however, the intellect is nobler than the will."
31. See Ia IIae. q. 3. a.4; q.5, a.4.
32. See Ia, q.82, a.3. On the contrary, it is better to know inferior things than to love them.
35. See IIa IIae, q.27, a.4.