The Life of Virtue

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"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

Just as there are habits that can be obstacles to our pursuit of holiness, there are also habits that can help us.  If we consciously and willingly perform a good action frequently, we will be on the right path and acquire a disposition to do it again.  Then it becomes more and more part of us.  It takes root in us.  For example, if we tell the truth, or perform one generous act, we have not yet acquired the virtue of honesty or generosity.  But if we repeat it we will be strengthened.  The word virtue comes from the Latin word for strength.

A virtue is an abiding disposition of the soul, or power that enables a person to perform good actions easily and to avoid bad actions.  It can be either natural - that is, acquired through repeated action, such as the virtue of honesty - or supernatural, that is, given to us by God.

The natural virtues in many ways resemble other habits.  Take the example of a runner.  At first running is difficult and a big effort for him.  He endures and overcomes obstacles.  Finally he can easily run for miles.  He has the strength to do it.  And then he even loves running.

So it is with virtues.  We make the effort.  We conquer the obstacles, and then we grow stronger, it becomes easier, and we finally love it.  It is a joy for us.  We conquer sin and grow closer to God.  (Sinful habits give us, for a moment of pleasure, unhappiness and a feeling of sadness in the end.)  St. Benedict says that as we progress in virtue "our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments."

And if one loves righteousness her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these (Wis 8:7).

The Cardinal Virtues

The natural, or moral, virtues enable us to act rightly in our conduct with other men.  The chief moral virtues are the four cardinal virtues.  They are called cardinal, from the Latin word for hinge, because they are the support or framework for all the other moral virtues.  These four - prudence, justice, temperance (self-control), and fortitude (courage) - are the foundation for living a good life.

Prudence is the chief moral virtue, which directs all the others.  Also called practical wisdom, this virtue enables us to determine what action is required in a given situation, and it moves us to do the action.  The person who acts using good judgment at all times - knowing the right thing to do in every situation - has the virtue of prudence.  Prudence requires that we know what to do and that we have the will to do it.

Prudence should be operating in all the decisions we make in our lives.  We must learn to examine a situation clearly and to decide on the proper course of action with deliberation.  For this to become a habit takes time and a great deal of experience.

Justice is the virtue that prompts us to give to others what is due to them - that is, what they deserve.  Justice prompts us to pay debts owed to another, to keep promises that we have made, to obey laws made by those who have the authority, to keep secrets that someone entrusts to us, to complete the demands of our work responsibly, and to respect the property of others.  Justice directs us to act fairly and honestly toward others; it is commanded by the Seventh Commandment.  For those in authority, acting justly sometimes means assigning punishments, since at times they may be deserved.

There are some debts that we can never fully repay - for example, the debts we owe to God who created us, to our parents for giving us life and raising us, or to our country.  The respect, love, and loyalty that we show to them are derived from this virtue of justice.

Fortitude is the virtue that enables us to confront difficulties or dangers, perhaps even death, with courage and hope.  With fortitude we are able to act calmly and reasonably even in the face of great dangers.

The martyrs of the Church all demonstrated the virtue of fortitude when they chose to remain faithful to Christ, despite the terrible deaths that awaited them.  We might never be called upon to die for Christ, yet we need to develop the virtue of fortitude to be able to face the difficult moments in our lives - perhaps refusing to get drunk or use drugs when others encourage us to do this.  St. Paul exhorts us to practice the virtue of fortitude when he says, in his letter to the Ephesians: Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:13).

Temperance is the virtue that enables us to control our passions and desires.  This virtue allows us to act moderately and reasonably, so that we may use our bodies correctly.  We often think of temperance as applying particularly to food and drink.  This is true, but it also applies to all areas of our lives.  The temperate person is one who eats the right amount, exercises the right amount, sleeps the right amount, and so on - that is, he is a person who habitually balances all activities of life.

Upon these four virtues hang many other moral virtues.  One of these is the virtue of religion.  Religion is the virtue by which we give to God the worship he deserves.  This means that we praise him in a manner that is appropriate to his place as our Creator and Lord.  This virtue stems from the cardinal virtue of justice.

Other Moral Virtues

Other moral virtues stemming from the cardinal virtues help us to counteract the seven capital sins.  These good habits will replace the bad habits that can so easily develop.

Humility is the virtue opposed to pride.  It leads one to have a just opinion of one's self and to give credit for our successes and gifts to God.  Humility is related to the virtue of prudence, because it enables us to see the correct way to think about ourselves.

Liberality is the virtue opposed to covetousness.  It enables a person to give freely of his money, possessions, talents, and so on to worthy purposes.  Stemming from justice, liberality enables one to act fairly with his gifts and to serve the needs of others.

Chastity is the virtue opposed to lust.  Chastity should not be seen only as self-control, moderation, and balance of sexual inclinations, but more importantly it should be understood in relation to the expression of human love.  What does this mean?  It means that sex is a great gift which by its nature entails complete donation of one person to another only in marriage.  It therefore means abstaining from sex outside of marriage, so that the purest love can be given most completely to the spouse, or, in the case of priests and religious, to God in loving abstinence.

Meekness is the virtue opposed to anger.  It is the virtue that enables us to be patient under injury or insult.  The meek person is able to control his temper even in a trying or difficult situation.  Because this takes a certain amount of spiritual strength or courage, meekness is related to the virtue of fortitude.

Moderation and sobriety are virtues opposed to gluttony.  They enable one to use food and drink sensible - enjoying them in the proper amounts and at suitable times.  As forms of self-control, they stem from the cardinal virtue of temperance.

Brotherly love is the virtue opposed to envy.  This virtue enables one to show true love for one's neighbor - praying for him, doing acts of kindness for him, and helping him in his needs.  This virtue stems from the virtue of justice - for we are giving to another what is owed.

Diligence is the virtue opposed to sloth.  This virtue enables us to do our work and carry out our religious duties - whatever they may be - with devotion and dedication.  It stems from the virtue of prudence, for we see that hard work at our given tasks is the right way to act.

The Theological Virtues

The supernatural virtues are those that belong to us as Christians.  Unlike the moral virtues, they cannot be acquired by repetition of certain acts, but are infused, given to us, by God.  We receive them at Baptism, when we receive sanctifying grace.  We exercise these virtues with the help of God.  We exercise these virtues with the help of God, through the actual graces he gives us.

The supernatural virtues are faith, hope, and charity.  Because these virtues come from God as well as direct us toward him, they are called theological virtues (theological in this sense means pertaining to God).

Faith is the virtue by which we believe all that God has revealed to us through Christ and his Church.  The gift of faith is necessary, for it enables us to believe those mysteries - such as the Trinity - that are beyond the grasp of the human mind.  We need faith in order to know our goal, which is Heaven.

Hope is the virtue by which we trust in God's promises of eternal salvation.  With hope we can find comfort in the words of Our Lord: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life" (Jn 11:25-26).  Hope tells us that God, who promised us eternal salvation, will also give us the graces that we need to reach Heaven.

Charity is the virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake and love our neighbor as ourselves.  The two Great Commandments of which Our Lord spoke to the scribe (Lk 10:25-28) can be summed up in the virtue of charity.  This virtue enables us to love God above all, simply because he is good and deserves our love.  We love our neighbors, including our enemies, because God loves them and because they, like ourselves, have been created in his image.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13).  

All three of these virtues are necessary if we are to reach Heaven, but charity, which is love in its highest and fullest sense, is the greatest.  It is the virtue that unites us most intimately with God and our neighbor.  It is through charity that we are moved to obey God's law and to perform good actions.  Every virtue we have studied so far becomes radiant, beautiful, and new when infused by this love.  As St. Paul says, all things are made new through Jesus Christ.

While the theological virtues cannot be acquired through repetition of certain acts, we can strengthen them by our actions.  Through prayer we open ourselves to God's grace so that we can receive these great gifts.  If we really want them and really strive after them, then we will receive them.  Christ says, "Ask and you shall receive . . . knock and it shall be opened to you" (Mt 7:7).  Just as our bodies require exercise to remain in shape, so these virtues must be exercised if they are to help us reach Heaven.  In general, we can develop and exercise these virtues by making acts of faith, hope, and charity.

Faith is strengthened when we profess and defend our faith, and when we study and think about the meaning of the mysteries of the faith.  It is also made stronger by the good actions that we do, since ". . . faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26).  We can exercise hope by accepting the will of God, trusting him to care for us as he cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Lk 12:22-24).  By doing so we can avoid becoming unduly anxious or upset by life - even by trials or sorrows.  We strengthen the virtue of charity by observing the Commandments, as Our Lord instructed us: "He who hears my Commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me . . .  If a man loves me, he will keep my word" (Jn 14:21, 23).  We also exercise charity by doing the works of mercy.

Living the virtuous life - practicing these virtues daily - is not easy.  It is, in fact, a great challenge.  But it is a challenge that we can meet, because we have God's help through prayer and the sacraments. In our struggle we should remember the saints.  They are the proof for us that the life of virtue is possible.  They also show that virtue will be rewarded by God.

Finally, we should recall the example of Our Lord himself.  Christ is both God and man.  But he showed us as man the perfect way to live as a human being.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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