Because of human fear, sloth, and self-seeking, zeal is rare. It is especially difficult to find in our present age, when relativism and “tolerance” are so prevalent. Both relativism and excessive tolerance are really little more than sloth masquerading as something more benign. People consider truth to be relative and exalt tolerance more out of laziness than anything else. Seeking the truth and obeying it is just too much trouble for most moderns.
And thus zeal is quite hard to find today. Rare indeed are those fiery souls whose love for God and neighbor compels them to speak, teach, and suffer for souls and for the glory of God. Zeal once sent missionaries around the world, hungry for the salvation of souls, dedicating their whole lives to Christ and the glory of His vision.
Sadly, with notable exception, many once effective missionary orders slumber in a soporific universalism which presumes that most, if not all, will be saved without repentance and faith.
And more locally, a great somnolence is upon too many Church leaders, priestly and parental. Despite the horrific condition of our culture and of many, many souls, a kind of sleepiness consumes most Catholics. There are silent pulpits with sleepy priests. There are silent dinner tables with parents who should speak out but are distracted by less important things, rather than being awake and vigilant for the salvation of their children’s souls and the protection of their moral lives.
Meanwhile the secular and also the satanic are passionate and dedicated. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light (Lk 16:8). Oh, for the zealous—ablaze with love for God, love for souls, and joy in the truth; who spend themselves sacrificially and earnestly work for the Kingdom! They are among us, but they are too few.
Therefore, we should seek this gift of zeal. But we must be careful—for zeal, like anger, is difficult to master. Zeal admits of defect (as we have noted above) but also of excess. Zeal is not some wild sort of running about; it is not indiscriminate argumentation or a mere lashing out at evil. As with any gift of God, it must be rooted in and balanced by other virtues, natural and theological, such as charity, prudence, counsel, and meekness.
In this brief reflection I am drawing from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who himself draws from St. Thomas Aquinas. Because I am drawing from a more lengthy work and reordering some of its content, I am not presenting exact quotes but rather selecting and paraphrasing his material in substantial ways and interweaving my own commentary. Fr. Lagrange’s thoughts are recorded in The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol II, Tan Publications pp. 213-223.
Zeal is the ardor of charity, the burning fire of love, but one that is enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested. We shall see that each of these words is important.
Consider first some motives or causes of zeal:
The first reason or motive of zeal is that God deserves to be loved above all things. Knowing this and experiencing His love and providence for us should light a fire of love in us for Him. He is worthy of our love and gratitude. Zeal’s first object is an increasingly bright and burning love for God.
The second motive for our zeal is the inestimable value of the immortal souls redeemed by Jesus Christ. We love them and their well-being is important to us. We zealously seek to reach them knowing that each of them is worth more than the entire physical universe. St. Paul wrote, “I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less” (2 Corinthians 12:15). Wow, that means he will love and spend himself for them even if they do not return his love, even if they turn on him! This is a motivated zeal for souls!
Yet another motive of our zeal is the contrary zeal with which the enemies of Christ and His Body the Church dedicate themselves—working disorder, corruption, and death. Their work is indescribably perverse and influential; many are lost through them. We work against them even as we pray that they will turn back from the road to damnation along which they are dragging so many others with them.
While zeal should be ardent, it must also be free from all excessive human self-seeking. Thus, it should be enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested.
Enlightened – Zeal should, first of all, be illumined by the light of faith. If zeal is only animated by our natural spirit it easily drifts from the task of converting souls to God and begins to imagine a worldly utopia. Utopianism is often envisioned by restless, angry, blundering, ambitious people and features what is impulsive, unreasonable, trendy, and ephemeral.
Thus Christian zeal must be illumined not only by the light of faith, but also a faith rooted in obedience to Christian prudence and the gift of wisdom and counsel. The goal is the glory of God, the triumph of His truth, and the salvation of souls. Zeal not enlightened by faith tends more to the tower of Babel than to the glory of God.
Patient and Meek – Zeal should also be patient and meek. We must learn to avoid the tendency to become uselessly irritated by evil, venting in unproductive indignation and indiscriminate sermonizing. Patience and meekness teach us to tolerate certain evils in order to avoid greater ones, and to not allow ourselves to become bitter in the great struggle that faces us.
Most of us know people who have been in the battle just a little too long; people who, though understandably aggrieved by the condition of our culture, have tended toward bitterness and harsh condemnation of others who do not have their exact priorities or just the right combination of views on issues.
If zeal becomes detached from charity it too easily becomes mere indignation. God mysteriously tolerates certain evils, often for lengthy periods. He does this for some greater good. And though He bids us to fight error, evil, and injustice, He does not always promise immediate victory. The cross must be endured, even the grave experienced. But in three days we rise with Him. Patience and meekness engage the battle, endure the Cross, and look to the vindication that will one day come.
Disinterested – True Christian zeal should also be disinterested. The glory of God is our goal, not the winning of an argument or a political victory. True zeal works for the Kingdom. It does not care who gets credit for the victory. We should not claim as our own what really belongs to God. The battle is the Lord’s and to Him is the victory and the spoils. Neither should we appropriate to ourselves what belongs to others. Never should we claim credit for what God or others have done; we should rejoice that God worked it through and through. Zeal for the Kingdom is our work. It is not about our glory; it is about God’s glory, His truth, and the salvation of souls.
So in the end, zeal is the ardor of charity: enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested. While it is clear today that zeal is too often lacking, we should not presume that the solution is a kind of reckless zeal that indiscriminately and foolishly lashes out at everything and manifests more of a kind of bitterness or human anger.
Zeal is for God’s glory and the salvation of souls. Like anger, it is difficult to master. It is needed as never before, but it must be true zeal, not some human imitation of it.
Lord, give us true zeal! Give us the zeal such as your servant and prophet Jeremiah spoke of when he said, If I say, I will not mention the Lord, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (Jer 20:9-10). Give us the zeal of St. Paul, who said, I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls (2 Cor 12:15). Yes, Lord, give us fiery zeal; give us the ardor of charity for you, your people, and your truth. Let zeal for your house consume us, that we may be a fiery warmth and a purifying fire to all around us. In your grace we pray. Amen.
This song says, “Fire, fire, fire, fire fall on me. On the day of Pentecost, the fire fall on me.”