The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the following definition of charity: “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (1822). How do we grow in this virtue, which is clearly connected to our moral life in the Church and the world, because it informs how we relate with others (CCC 1828)? Ultimately, we grow in charity through spiritual purgation and mortification, as described by St. John of the Cross. To see this thesis to its end, we will first investigate how the virtue of charity can be strengthened, as described by St. Thomas Aquinas in De Perfectione. Then we will see how St. John of the Cross’s plan of purgation assists us in loving God and neighbor more deeply, with sacrificial and perfect love.
To help us understand the definition of charity offered by the Catechism, let us look to Aquinas’s De Perfectione, in which he writes, “He that is perfect in charity is said to be perfect in the spiritual life absolutely” (Ch. I). He continues by enumerating two precepts of charity: love of God and love of neighbor. He explains: “That which is chiefly to be loved, by charity, is the Supreme Good, which makes us happy, that is to say, God. In the next place, we are, by charity, to love our neighbor, who is, by certain social bonds, united to us, either by the anticipation of beatitude, or in the enjoyment of it” (Ch. II). In these two divisions of charity, there are many degrees, such that perfection in charity exists only in eternal beatitude. While we are here on Earth, therefore, we can attain different degrees of charity, to help us acquire the ultimate perfection of eternal beatitude.
All individuals are called to fulfill the precept of loving God with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and this love then informs our love of neighbor. “We so love him, if there be nothing in us which is wanting to divine love, that is to say, if there is nothing which we do not, actually or habitually, refer to God. We are given a precept concerning this form of Divine love” (Ch. V). The evangelical counsels, of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Aquinas describes, are the highest way of attaining the perfection of loving God and neighbor, although there are different degrees to which each individuals fulfills these counsels, depending on their states of life. The command to charity is a precept because it cannot be completely fulfilled while we are here on Earth: we can always love God and our neighbor more deeply.
According to St. John of the Cross, purgation is one of the primary means for acquiring charity, as the perfection of the spiritual life. Purgation happens in two phases: the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. The former is for beginners, who are beginning to contemplate God, while the latter is for those who have already experienced some purgation and are prepared to enter into divine union. In the first phase of purgation, St. John of the Cross writes, “[t]his dark night is a privation and purgation of all sensible appetites for the external things of the world, the delights of the flesh, and the gratifications of the will” (1.4). In order to experience perfect union with God, we must detach ourselves from material things, because man cannot serve two masters (4.1-3). When describing the dark night of the soul, St. John of the Cross writes, “We are using the expression ‘night’ to signify a deprival of the gratification of the soul’s appetites in all things. Just as night is nothing but the privation of light, and consequently, of all objects visible by means of the light – darkness and emptiness, then, for the faculty of sight – the mortification of the appetites can be called a night for the soul” (3.1). He continues: “We are not discussing the mere lack of things[.] … We are dealing with the denudation of the soul’s appetites and gratifications. This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them” (3.4). In other words, the dark night of the soul strips the soul of the consolations it desires so that the soul might be made completely empty in order to receive God.
How, then, does purgation prepare us for charity and, in that way, prepare us to pursue the perfection of the spiritual life? If by charity we love God and neighbor as perfectly as we can on Earth, then we must be detached from those things that would prevent us from loving God and neighbor. We must experience the dark night of the senses, such that all earthly things lose their value and importance for us. We need to separate ourselves from this Earth if we wish to love God with our whole hearts and if we wish to love our neighbors selflessly. One might say the counsels assist us in detaching ourselves from earthly things; indeed, they help us to undergo the dark night of the senses. If we wish to love God even more perfectly on this Earth, desiring the divine union that we will experience in beatitude, then we must also undergo the dark night of the soul, in which we are stripped of spiritual consolations and desires. Our souls must become completely naked and empty so that God can fill that emptiness with himself more perfectly. If we are made completely empty, then we can love God more deeply, because we are attached to nothing earthly, but rather trust in him alone. Saints such as St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux model for us this complete emptying of self.
In the last analysis, the purgation of the soul and the senses helps us to love God and neighbor, which is the perfection of the spiritual life. In order to experience perfect beatitude in Heaven, we must begin to live in Heaven while we are here on Earth. This is done most perfectly by denying our sensual (and eventually) spiritual desires so that we might be made completely open to God’s grace and love.
As we progress toward Lent, let us recall these thoughts on purgation from St. John of the Cross. Lent is the perfect time to grow in charity and purge ourselves of worldly attachments as we prepare for the passion of our Lord and His resurrection at Easter.
 St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel in Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 1.2, 3. All further references will be intertextual.