Charity suffereth long

It is a remarkable passage (1 Cor. 13. 1-13) and worthy of attention. Traditionally read in Chapel during the week of winter carnival, now morphed into ‘spirit week’, it speaks to the true nature of things spiritual that counters the dogmatic forms of technocratic reason in our current culture. In the King James Version, the operative word mentioned explicitly nine times is charity; it is implicitly present eleven more times for a total of twenty times in a passage of thirteen verses. Charity is the English translation of the Latin caritas and of the Greek agape. In contemporary English translations the word is love.
In Greek and Latin, there are a number of different words for love as distinguished by the object loved. As Plato in his treatise on love, The Symposium, observes, love is love of something. It is not simply an object, a thing, but the active desire for the Good in us. Paul contributes wonderfully to this way of thinking. Charity or love here is a theological virtue, a grace which perfects human character. In that sense, it is a higher form of justice. The classical virtues of temperance, courage, and prudence are “nothing worth”, we might say, without justice as the principle of their proper relation. But beyond these four classical virtues which concern the natural person, Paul identifies the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity that speak to who we are as spiritual creatures, and which transforms the classical virtues into forms of love. Faith has to do with a kind of knowing, the idea that things are knowable; hope concerns our desire for an ultimate good. And charity? It is “the greatest of these three”. Why? Because it unites our knowing and our desiring. It speaks to the ultimate perfection of our souls signalled in the qualities of love which Paul describes.
Charity or love is not simply a human activity but the activity of God’s grace in us. Such is the power of love. It cannot be reduced to a technique, to a set of rules, prescriptions, and proscriptions. It transcends the realm of things contingent and arbitrary and shapes a whole discourse of love in the theology of amor, itself another Latin word for love.
Whenever I ask students (and faculty) about the meaning of charity, I always get the same answer. It is inevitably associated with giving to the poor and needy. This is one of its meanings, to be sure, but only part of its larger meaning as amply shown in Paul’s hymn. Our concern for those in need should be a form of love towards the other but not out of pity or a kind of guilt both of which say more about ourselves and our own self-interest. Charity seeks the good of all. Love is motion towards the other as neighbour not as fearful enemy. It is, in that sense, a higher form of justice. Portia, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, wisely notes that “mercy seasons justice”, perfects it. Mercy is love. As Thomas Aquinas profoundly argues, “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it”. Charity is the grace of God at work in human souls. It engages the whole person as made in the image of God to whom honour, respect, and dignity are rightly and freely owed.
It is only in this way that one can make sense of Paul’s hymn. Charity or love is what matters most. Without it, he says, “I am nothing”. Charity is everything. A fragment from a lost play by Euripides says “never that which is shall die”; the fragment itself is a testament to what it says. It serves as the frontispiece for Timothy Findley’s great classic novel, The Wars. Love is what never dies in the face of the contingent, arbitrary, and passing nature of the world and, especially, in the face of human evil and suffering, of the overreach and misuse of power.
Charity or love, as Paul suggests, is long-suffering, is kind, is not envious, does not promote itself, is not puffed up, does not behave unseemly, does not seek her own self-interest, is not easily provoked, does not think evil of others, does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Charity never fails but abides forever. A wonderful and comprehensive encomium to love, Paul’s hymn speaks to the deeper meaning of our humanity, a counter to the forms of technocratic culture which reduce us to things, to objects, to commodities, to bots in an algorithm. It identifies the operative principle in matters spiritual in the idea of charity or love which is far more than simply the emotional, the sentimental, or the erotic and far more than a cog in a machine. It speaks about what never dies and whichever is.
We may be tempted at times as Shakespeare puts it to “beweep [our] outcast state” and even to “curse [our] fate” but “thy sweet love remember’d” lifts us up to “sing hymns at heaven’s gate”. We are more than the circumstances of our disturbed times. Charity is all and suffers long.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

IB Programme
King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.