Humility, the foster mother of charity (Catherine of Siena)

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.

So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.

Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:

No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)

I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.

Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.

We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.

But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.

It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.

Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.

It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.

And why?

Lack of humility, I think.

Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…

If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.

So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).

Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
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