The Valley of Tears & The Order of Charity
Whom are we to help, and when, and in what order
Domestic terrorism. Religious persecution, both secular and professedly religious. The posturing of pro-abortion extremists. Assaults on democracy. Economic wars. Some weeks it’s crushingly obvious: we live in a valley of tears. Psalm 84:6-8 speaks of such a valley. So does the Marian anthem, “Hail, Holy Queen,” which so many recite at the end of the rosary. The Latin version has a distinctive beauty.
Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
We pray to our “mother of mercy,” and to her “do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”…in hac lacrimarum valle.
Like Mary, we are to engage in the works of mercy. Yet once engaged, we often ask questions about whom we are to help, and when, and in what order. They are questions that Scripture raises, of course, when it speaks about strangers and neighbors and about our families and friends.
Drawing on Scripture and tradition and, yes, natural law, Thomas Aquinas proposes an “Order of Charity” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 26 and q. 31). We are first to love God, the source of all happiness. We are to love ourselves and others as sharers in that happiness. We seek the good of those we love, and so St. Paul urges us to work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10).
But where to begin? Augustine, in his On Christian Doctrine, judiciously writes: “Since one cannot do good to all, we ought to consider those chiefly who by reason of place, time or any other circumstance…are most closely united to us.” We are variously joined together: as kinsmen, as fellow citizens, as believers.
Noting this, Thomas teaches that we ought first to help those to whom we are closest. Yet if one is closer and another is in greater need, there is no general rule. Indeed, “in some cases one ought…to help a stranger in extreme need rather than one’s own father if he is not in such need.”
Since there is no general rule, it’s best to follow the prudent person, the person who shows right reason in acting. Such are the saints. In any case, Thomas observes, “there is a good that we can do to all,” that is, “we [can] pray for all, for unbelievers as well as for the faithful.” Again, the saints show us the way.
In carrying out the works of mercy, in acting for others and in praying for all, we change ourselves as well. With God’s grace, we change ourselves more than we change others. In changing ourselves, we come to be authentic servants. To build a culture of life we must become more fully alive: in our families, in our schools, in our jobs, and in our politics.
Mother Church teaches that Jesus “hands over to the Father” the fruits of our struggle, even in this Valley of Tears, and that even now “the Kingdom is already present….” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 39). Dare we believe even in this Valley of Tears that every tear will be wiped away?
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