Charity is all of those, and more. Charity can also be a way of life or a world-view. In fact, charity can be a state of being - and that is God. For as we know:
"God is love" 1 John 4:16.
If charity is love, and love charity, and God is love, than God is also charity.
But, echoing the Scriptures, who has ever seen God, but the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals the Father to?
So how are we to know what charity really is, or what it really means?
I have always found it very interesting that the Gospel of Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount ending with Jesus instructing us to "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect," (Matt 5:48) and the Gospel of Luke says in a similar fashion and yet differently, "Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36).
This is certainly insightful when it comes to contemplating what it means to be "charitable."
To "love" someone, to look at another in "charity" or with "charity," is to imitate our heavenly Father. We have been taught and believe that God is perfect. Yet, we know that we cannot be perfect, and certainly not in the same way that God is perfect, since he is infinite and beyond us even while he comes to us so intimately.
Certainly, this question has been raised often in the history of the Church - Lord, how are we to be "perfect"?
On of the first or most obvious answers is that we must be "merciful." The interchange found in the Gospels between "perfect" and "merciful" assists us in understanding that God's perfection, God's ultimate charity, the very being of the Blessed Trinity who is a Communion of Love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a perfection and charity that is mercy.
Now, we have all heard that "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Cor 1:25) and "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (Is 55:8). What is the context of these statements? St. Paul is speaking of the "paradox of the Cross," that the Son of God would become man and suffer and die for the sins of men so that we might have hope for eternal life. And Isaiah's passage states immediately before those words:
"Let the wicked forsake their way,
and sinners their thoughts;
Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving." (Is 55:7)
The Lord has revealed that God's mercy is a mercy that can be surprising, sometimes even confusing, and often incongruent with what "human wisdom" might dictate. Yet, Sirach 2:18 says:
"Let us fall into the hands of the Lord
and not into the hands of mortals,
For equal to his majesty is his mercy;and equal to his name are his works."
Here we should recognize that the glory and splendor that are proper to God who IS, cannot be separated from the mercy of God, which is both his wisdom and his works (charity). We may often think of "justice" or "what is right" in a sense of retribution. We tend to have a sense that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction," and that this applies to all things, including human relationships and how we see and treat others. Retribution might seem like a term for someone who purposefully seeks revenge, or who goes to some length to "pay someone back" for an offense (such as trying to cause someone to lose his job, or making up falsehoods about someone so that she is disliked or unwelcome). Yet, the truth is that we often carry this type of attitude around with us in daily life, even when we may not realize it. Even small incidences of a friend who fails to show up for a meeting time, or a coworker who "drops the ball" and leaves you with all of the hard work, etc.. can bring us quickly to a point where we are at least hard-hearted toward that person for a while, if not that we desire to "return the favor" at some point. Even when we aren't acting out of revenge, per se, we might still have an attitude or disposition of vengeance. For example, perhaps later in the week that same friend tries to make up for the missed date by asking you to set up another time for meeting. Perhaps you agree, but then find that you have other things you might prefer to do when that meeting time comes. How quickly and easily we can justify calling that friend "apologetically" and saying that we cannot make it, and feeling very little guilt or remorse since it is "fair" considering that he or she did the same to us. Yet, if we paused to think about it, we should be all the more aware of how hurtful being stood-up can be, since it hurt us enough that we were upset with that friend. It is so silly, but we feel "justified."
This is what we can call "human wisdom," which is not God's wisdom. This is what we can understand as not God's justice, not the Lord's mercy, not our Father's charity, and not in line with the perfection that is Love, that is God.
Truly, I do not think that we can be charitable without also being merciful. There will always be things that we must forgive in one another. Even things that are in no way intentional or even personal choices, such as someone who might simply offend us because of body odor or because we find him or her unattractive. Perhaps we can keep in mind that while the cliche of "skin deep" can be no more than a cliche, it can also be a very real danger. If we see only what is on the outside, while our Father in heaven sees the whole person, especially the heart and soul, then can we really hope to be charitable if we are not also merciful, and merciful in the way that acknowledges just how similarly sinful we all are? We all share the common bond of humanity; and from that, we all share the fallen nature of sin, and even when we have received the great grace of Baptism, we still carry the concupiscence of our nature. Therefore, while there are many differences that set us apart from one another, there is also the common ground of being a sinful man before God, a creature who has failed and rebelled against his Creator. We all need mercy. We all stand in need of forgiveness, and a forgiveness that we cannot give to ourselves! Only the mercy, the charity, of the one who created us can heal us and restore us, can actually recreate us, can aid us in becoming more perfect. We must always keep in mind that if we should desire to love as God loves, and be perfect as our Father is perfect, than we must strive to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
May this last week of the Lenten season be a time for us to enter more deeply into that paradox of the Cross, into the mystery of the mercy of God. Perhaps we can receive the sacramental grace of Reconciliation, and find ourselves more intimately united with the wisdom of God that is always charity and mercy.