Zeal doesn’t have a very good reputation these days. When someone is called a zealot, this often suggests that they have an irrational attachment to a particular agenda or ideology; they are zealous for something they perceive to be good, but are not willing to carefully differentiate between their perception of the good and the good in itself, or between the good they seek and the means which they stoop to employ to achieve their end.
Intemperate zeal often expresses itself by means of speech, when we use bitter words to cut down our contemporaries, sometimes pretending we are doing it for their own good. Aelred of Rievaulx gets to the heart of this problem in his Spiritual Friendship: “Indeed, I have observed that in reproving friends some people hide their growing bitterness and overflowing rage under the cloak of zeal or frankness. As a result, because not reason but passion has led them on, such correction has done more harm than good.” Aelred marvelously captures the self-deception that can attend improper zeal. We may try to convince ourselves that we have pure motives, but we cause tremendous suffering if our verbal attacks flow from bitterness.
The issue is not that one should never criticize or correct, but that it must be done in the proper mode. Thomas Aquinas articulates this proper mode of admonishing in his Commentary on Romans: “Two things are required of one who would admonish properly: first, that he admonish not from anger or hatred but from love. … Second, knowledge of the truth is required, because some have zeal for God in correcting, but it is not enlightened.” For an expression of zeal to be fruitful, then, it must both proceed from love and express the truth and not merely the ideology of the zealot.
In addition to fruitful expressions of zeal in speech, it can often be even more effective to show a positive zeal by means of actions: “Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). This theme is beautifully expressed by Thomas Celano in his First Life of St. Francis of Assisi:
He was so filled with fire that, even if in preceding ages there had been someone with a purpose equal to his, no one has been found whose desire was greater than his. He found it easier to do what is perfect than to talk about it; so he was constantly active in showing his zeal and dedication in deeds, not in words, because words do not do what is good, they only point to it. Thus he remained undisturbed and happy, singing songs of joy in his heart to himself and to God.
A loving zeal for the truth is shown marvelously by the Apostles Simon the Zealot and Jude Thaddeus. In the apocryphal account of their martyrdom offered in the Golden Legend, Simon and Jude express the merciful but zealous love of Christ, which brings not death but life and freedom. “We were sent to bring the dead back to life, not to bring death upon the living,” they say when they save a group of pagan magicians who are put into their power after they try to kill the apostles. “The Lord does not stoop to accept forced service. Therefore get up cured, and be on your way, free to do whatever you wish.” On encountering a woman who has falsely accused a holy deacon of having fathered her child, Simon and Jude command the infant child to tell them whether the deacon is his father. After the child miraculously replies that the deacon is chaste and saintly, the parents of the woman insist that the apostles find out who is the father of the child. In response to this request, Simon and Jude show that their loving zeal for the truth excludes a sort of vindictive prurience: “It is ours to absolve the innocent, not to bring ruin on the guilty.”
Authentic zeal can only proceed from love in imitation of God who is love and who is consumed with zeal: “Those possessed of spiritual insight describe [God] as ‘zealous’ because his good yearning for all things is so great and because he stirs in men a deep yearning desire for zeal. In this way he proves himself to be zealous because zeal is always felt for what is desired and because he is zealous for the creatures for whom he provides” (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4).
Authentic zeal must be conformed to the Truth who has revealed himself to us as Love. Only then will we be consumed with zeal for the Lord in such a way that we will bring mercy, peace, and love to those whom we encounter.
An explanation of this depiction of Sts. Simon and Jude is provided on the artist’s website: “The artist’s intention was to work within a Romanesque idiom, but to give each apostle an individual personality, and a degree of interaction with the other figures in the composition. In this group, Simon is shown engaged in a lively dispute with Jude. James the Less is placidly writing his Epistle in the midst of the clamor on either side.”