“New Year, new me.” So the saying goes, presenting the start of each new year as an opportunity for self-transformation. For 2021, many of us set ourselves lofty goals with just that aim. To transform our bodies, we resolve to eat more greens and work out every day. To transform our minds, we plan to read more books and set aside study time. The idea is that by consistent repetition, these activities will over time become ingrained habits, so much a part of our lifestyle that we actually look forward to the reading and exercise that we started by forcing ourselves to complete.
For me, the annual theme of new years’ “transformation” always brings to mind the core Journey course and the U-Life class we all took as first-semester freshmen. In U-Life, we are required to complete 10 hours of Christian service, as part of our introduction to the Seton Hall educational experience. I remember grumbling about the requirement, wondering what the big deal was and how service was supposed to be “transformative.”
So, what is the big deal? Why is community service such an important “Hall-mark?” On the one hand, the answer is obvious: we are a Catholic institution. The Church’s legacy of service is unparalleled from the ancient world onward. Paganism offered little incentive for human beings to help one another in the face of natural disaster, epidemic, and other crises- their gods desired only sacrifices to themselves. Meanwhile, the early Church quickly developed such a reputation for philanthropy that the Roman emperor Julian felt threatened, fearing a Christian-run miniature welfare state that would undermine his authority.
This unique Christian call to serve has to do with the theological virtue of charity. In a secular context, most people associate this term with monetary donations. While this definition makes sense, considering that if you follow Jesus’ teachings you try to help those in need, charity in the Christian sense has always entailed more than almsgiving. The English word comes from Latin caritas, comparable to the Greek agape. The term caritas describes a love for God which loves all else in Him.
By this definition, Christians understand charity as the virtue which connects our love for God with love for others. Thus, the reason we are supposed to serve is not because God arbitrarily commands us to, but because, if we really love Him, we already have that desire within our own hearts. Love of God and love of neighbor are integral, impossible to separate.
This is not to say that serving others comes easily for Christians. We’ve all complained before that being required to volunteer defeats the purpose. This is because we are assuming that charity is a purely altruistic endeavor, one that belongs to the realm of saints, or at any rate, people much holier than we are. People like Mother Teresa, who willingly give up their time, wealth, and energy to serve others must have some anomalous selflessness that the “average” person just doesn’t naturally possess.
Of course it is true that Mother Teresa, now recognized as St. Teresa of Calcutta, is known as a model of charity. But given that we are ALL called to be saints, her example should encourage, not intimidate us. In The Rise of Christianity, anthropologist Rodney Stark points out, “To call Mother Teresa an altruist and thus classify her behavior as nonrational is to deny the finest of human capacities, our ability to love.” Her charity did not stem from some perversity that caused her to seek out costs and eschew rewards; she served out of love for Jesus Christ, whose face she saw in each of the poor she served. In love that is charity, you genuinely WANT to serve those in need, such that the act is its own reward.
But here again lies the rub-what if we don’t find service rewarding? So often we panic and shy away from the attempt just because we’ve not yet reached that point, not realizing that we can get there the same way Mother Teresa did- by practicing. Virtues are good habits. We can literally “practice” charity until it actually does come naturally, and of course when something comes naturally we will tend to enjoy doing it. What you freely choose to do over and over becomes part of your character, whether that’s working out, eating healthy, or performing acts of service.
Looking back now at my U-Life woes, I’ve realized that just because Seton Hall tells us to serve does not make the act any less our free choice. After all, it would be just as easy to forge the hours on your U-Life log sheet as to check off a daily workout you actually skipped. However, if you are already in the habit of working out, to the point where you enjoy it as a hobby, chances are you wouldn’t be tempted to skip it in the first place. Forming a habit takes repetition, and how can we expect to transform our hearts unless we put the same discipline into exercising our wills which we would into exercising our bodies? Being required to “get your hours in”, even (and perhaps especially) when we don’t particularly feel like it, gives us the opportunity to practice choosing charity. Eventually, with enough practice, we may become charitable people, for whom service is a source of joy. At that point, our wills may align with God’s, so that we will want to go out and serve because it makes us genuinely happy.
This year, make a resolution to cultivate charity. Seton Hall’s DOVE program offers a multitude of service opportunities to get started, including virtual outreach for COVID precaution. Of course, service doesn’t need to be organized to be charitable. It could just be a regular effort to help your mom around the house, or to take time calling or visiting a lonely neighbor. The point is in the consistent, intentional self-giving that makes it a transformative act of love.
God does not demand perfection. He knows better than anyone our human limitations. Growing in virtue, like growing in fitness or in scholarship, is going to take sacrifice. But that’s the beauty of virtue and of charity; by serving others, we grow in real love for God, and the more we love God the easier it becomes to serve, because we cannot help but grow in love for others at the same time. The relationship is reciprocal. There’s nowhere to go but up!