There is this human quality without which, simply put, I am nothing. I could be very accomplished in academics (which a lot of Unitarian Universalists are) but without it I am empty and just a noise-maker.
In the religious and spiritual realm, I might be very intuitive, have deep insight into the meaning of life and have quite the personal library. I might be known as a miracle worker of sorts. I might have given tons of money away for good causes, established a foundation that benefits many in need. I might be a workaholic using up my life and health for all the right causes, but without this human quality, I gain nothing.
This essential quality gives me the ability to endure all kinds of things. It enables me to be kind. At the same time, this thing is not competitive–when I see it in others, I am not inclined to out do them, or show them up as inferior. In fact, this quality has no ambition of its own. It cannot be frustrated. It cannot even be irritated. It never thinks toward malicious things and would never take delight in someone else’s loss or injustice. This human quality only rises up and celebrates when truth has been vindicated.
When I have this quality, I am able to bear and carry out all kinds of things. I find that I have the capacities to trust and to overcome and to stand firm in the face of things I never dreamed possible.
As unbelievable as it may sound, this ability to hold people dear in my heart never fails. This is especially amazing in light of how many other things in human experience do fail. Religious teachings will fail. Knowledge and human scientific investigations always have their limits. I am clear that right now my own knowing is terribly limited. There may be a time when our human limits are overcome, but that hasn’t happened yet.
When I was a child, my speaking and thinking were those of a child. As an adult, I left those things behind. Perhaps that was a mistake. Right now we see and understand as if we were looking into a mirror. We can see and understand just as someone who looks me in the face sees me and knows me. We know things only in part, but we can know more fully and completely through this quality.
Really, there are three human qualities that tend to endure across the generations. They are faith, hope and this third thing I’ve struggled to put a single word to. That third thing is the one that trumps them all. If we lose it, we’ve lost everything. It is the capacity to hold others as dear, as valuable, as having a dignity which we cherish. Whatever you call that, friends, that is the core of real human life. Find it in yourselves, and practice it, for when you’ve lost that thing, you’ve lost everything.
An English reflection on the Latin text of St. Paul’s famous writing in 1 Corinthians 13. The Latin word is caritas. It is often translated as either charity or love. Neither word, in English quite expresses what the ancient text seems to want to say.