Many of us are familiar with St. Paul's words, "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13).
Perhaps at different times in our lives, we find ourselves gravitating more towards one of these virtues over the other. We need more faith, or we find ourselves in a circumstance that enables more hope, etc... Sometimes it may seem that we experience a deficit of one or even two of these virtues, but cling tightly to the one that we have mastered.
When reading that love is the greatest, it is perhaps hard not to feel that one ought to focus on that particular virtue then. It seems silly to desire what is less than the greatest.
However, the Catechism gives us some insight about the virtues that is helpful:
The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”; it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice. Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love (CCC 1827).
Here we may come to understand that while love or charity is the "greatest," it is the greatest in a way that is not so much a hierarchy of faith receiving the bronze, hope the silver and love the gold. Rather, none of the other virtues can truly be what they are, that is, virtues, without charity as well. Therefore, faith requires love to truly be faith. Hope likewise requires love to truly be hope. We experience true hope when we realize the love that God has for us and place our trust in the truth of that love. We experience true faith when we believe that God is love and has called us into a relationship of love with him. We can isolate these virtues to help understand them and bolster them, but they cannot dwell apart from charity.
This brings a new focus to the times when we find ourselves struggling with one of the virtues. Perhaps you have found yourself facing challenging circumstances that have caused you much sorrow or pain. In these circumstances, it is natural for us to ask God, "if you love me, then why?" Moreover, it is common that we encounter doubts. Doubts about God first and foremost, because he is Love. Our belief system is based on this revelation, that the Blessed Trinity is a communion of Divine Persons, three in one, who are infinite love and who have created us out of generous love. Therefore, we wonder if we have been wrong. Is God truly so good, all good? How can the bad exist alongside the good in a world where perfect love exists?
If one stops on the journey of reasoning there, one will remain lost in the woods forever. It is true, sorrow and evil beg us to enter down the path of deeper reflection and better understanding. Yet, we must emerge from the path on the other side, knowing more clearly the truth that we always knew.
We come to understand that love is not what we thought. Love requires freedom, otherwise, it is servitude or some mockery of true love. Love must be free to give of itself. Love is giving of oneself. God in his truth and goodness created man in true love, allowing him to be free to return or reject the love offered him. Man has the power to sin, and man does. Sin engenders sadness, evil and suffering in the world. While we do not hold the belief that we suffer consequences proportionate and directly related to our actions (you did not get a cold because you cursed at work), we do believe that the world suffers from the effects of sin and that man partakes in that suffering. God allows this not because he is vindictive, but because love is just. Love requires freedom, and so it is just that there be a choice, and it is just that there be consequences to our choices.
All of this is to say that we ought to understand love as a greater thing than "warm fuzzies" or abundant blessings. The love revealed to us by Christ reached an apex at the Cross, and came to fulfillment at the Resurrection. We understand that love is free, love requires justice, love invites us to give of ourselves, love allows suffering for the sake of heroic sacrifice, and true love (that is, love that is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God) will always triumph over death.
This should therefore inform our experience of faith and hope. We return to those other virtues to see how our faith is strengthened by knowledge (for we learned more of who God is and what love is) and our hope is strengthened by endurance (for we traveled the path of understanding to seek the necessary answers) and we find ourselves more ready to accept the virtues. We can face the challenges and struggles of our lives with one hand holding tightly to the rope of hope, knowing that we must hold on in every storm and never let our grip slacken. We bear the helmet of faith on our brow, keeping always before our mind's eye the truth we have come to know, that great mystery that God has revealed, the Paschal Mystery of Christ. And we hold within our hearts the intangible but great crown of love, the glory of the virtues, which is the buoyancy for us to stay afloat when tossed at sea.
Faith, hope and love remain, and let it be that we work to foster and cultivate each simultaneously, always keeping in mind the harmony that they share with one another, so that we do not doubt too much, nor lose heart too quickly, nor cease to love altogether.
"As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love" (John 15:9).