From Chapter 1 of Saint Josemaría Escrivá’s book The Way: Character
You are ambitious: for knowledge, for leadership, for great ventures.
Good. Very good. But let it be for Christ, for Love.
It can be said that ambition for knowledge and leadership without love are vanity. A vain pursuit of something that without a key ingredient, such as love, is empty, or even dangerous. Knowledge and leadership are often equated with power or a means to gain control over someone or something.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was an ambitious lawyer who lost a case in spectacular fashion when it turned out that a key document in his case had been misinterpreted by him and in fact proved his opponent’s case instead. There can be little doubt but that the young Alphonsus with his high spirits and strong character was ardently attached to his profession, and on the way to be spoilt by the success and popularity which it brought.
He immediately left the law and began to study for the priesthood, certain that his humiliation had been sent him by God to break down his pride. This learned man of the law became a humble priest and preached in the rural districts around Naples and strove to never deliver a sermon that “the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand.”
A selection from one of his sermons is in today’s Office of Readings (today is his feast day) and speaks to our portion from St. Escrivá:
All holiness and perfection of soul lies in our love for Jesus Christ our God, who is our Redeemer and our supreme good. It is part of the love of God to acquire and to nurture all the virtues which make a man perfect.
Since God knew that man is enticed by favors, he wished to bind him to his love by means of his gifts: “I want to catch men with the snares, those chains of love in which they allow themselves to be entrapped, so that they will love me.” And all the gifts which he bestowed on man were given to this end. He gave him a soul, made in his likeness, and endowed with memory, intellect and will; he gave him a body equipped with the senses; it was for him that he created heaven and earth and such an abundance of things. He made all these things out of love for man, so that all creation might serve man, and man in turn might love God out of gratitude for so many gifts.
Virtues? Gifts? What are these things Liguori is speaking about? Commonly known as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him; the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2-3)
How do these gifts help us? The Baltimore Catechism says in #126:
The gifts of the Holy Ghost (Spirit) help us by making us more alert to discern and more ready to do the will of God.
If we have not love in our use of the gifts we have been given, we have nothing. It is not wrong to be ambitious or to seek to use the gifts given to us, as long as we remember from whom we have received such wondrous gifts and use them in a spirit of humility and love. Pope Benedict XVI said it better than I in his 2005 encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est:
Saint Paul, in his hymn to charity (cf. 1 Cor 13), teaches us that it is always more than activity alone: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (v. 3). This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service; … Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.
This proper way of serving others also leads to humility. The one who serves does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be. Christ took the lowest place in the world—the Cross—and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that in doing so they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no merit or achievement of their own. This duty is a grace. The more we do for others, the more we understand and can appropriate the words of Christ: “We are useless servants” (Lk 17:10).