Tag Archives: virtues

Life After an Election

“Put not your trust in princes,” we are warned (Psalm 146:3). During the last eight years, excepting possibly during the midterm elections, most faithful Catholics have heeded this warning. Let us not forsake it based solely on the fact that the lesser evil won this round of elections.

pinestrawThe US elections are over, though I would say that the fallout from them has only just begun to settle. The election fatigue set in long ago for some of us, perhaps even before the primaries were ended. We were given a choice between a cad (or at least a man who plays one on TV) and a crook (albeit one who never quite seems to be indicted), and have elected the former.[1] If he may be said to be the lesser of two evils, then we must remember that the lesser evil is still an evil.

We Christians—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, “conservative” Christians of all stripes—collectively elected Donald J. Trump to be the next president.[2] We now have the duty to do what we can to facilitate the implementation of his good policies and to mitigate his bad ones.

However, I see that neither I nor (presumably) my readership are in particular positions of power or influence: we can’t have much in the way of direct effect on any of this. We might finally dare to believe that federal government’s culture-shaping and moral-corrupting edicts will cease or at least relent for a time, that we may be at the very least left alone. Whether we will, in fact, have a respite from the outgoing administration’s attempts at social engineering is speculation at this point. The media is temporarily cowed, but it is not thoroughly repentant; and social media will probably persist in its propaganda campaigns, thereby further polarizing the nation. Indeed, I suspect that both will return to their natural states with a vengeance long before the presidential inauguration (witness, for one, the many bitter recriminations broadcast by both in the immediate wake of election night).

man-matures-problems-politicsWe must remember that all politics are local, which is I suppose a sort of outline of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We cannot determine the actions of this or any other president—but we can determine our own, at least in part. In another election-related column, Mr. Ryan Kraeger offered a few ideas about how we ourselves can work to make the world a better place, to some extent regardless of the outcome of the elections [3]:

I think politics, especially National politics, is really a distractor for a lot of people. We get all wrapped around the axle and bent out of shape over these huge things that really don’t concern us. Worse, the fact of getting engrossed in them distracts us from the good we should be doing.

The government does not adequately take care of the poor in America. So? How does that prevent me from taking care of them?

The president has not solved homelessness and poverty. Does that prevent me from donating to my local homeless shelter, or volunteering my time, talent and treasure?

Abortion is legal in America. This is a tragedy, but it is not the greatest tragedy. The root of that tragedy is selfishness. It is selfishness that makes it so that babies are unwanted, that mothers feel like they have no other option, and that some so-called doctors do not care about human life. I can do foster care, or adopt, or sponsor an unwed mother, or engage in conversation with my fellow medical care providers. The government does not and cannot prevent me from doing so.

The president has not provided free healthcare for everyone. So? Why can’t I provide free healthcare, or reduced cost healthcare for patients who can’t afford it (once I get my PA certification, that is?)

The president has not stopped pollution, or saved the planet. So what? How does that prevent me from living simply, reducing my own trash and exercising stewardship of the environment?

Of course, the outcome of the elections may decide whether our virtuous actions are punishable by law. Elections do have consequences, and so for example we have spent time, energy, and even political and social capital battling over whether Catholics should be forced to pay for others’ contraceptives or abortions, and whether or not our young daughters should have to share the public locker room or bathroom with adult men. In both cases, we are fighting the good fight, but again, I can’t help but think: what a waste. To pick one more example which is keeping more in line with Mr. Kraeger’s suggestions—it becomes difficult to choose to feed the poor when doing so is punishable by law on account of not having taken the proper bureaucratic steps in obtaining a food handler’s license, a license to operate a food truck, and the right to peddle wares (even for free) on any public street corner. These are not fights we should even have to be considering; they should be non-issues, but our government has decided to make them issues. Nor can we back down here.

cs-lewis-error-in-pairsNevertheless, making the world—or our own country—better all begins with making our own small corner of the world better, perhaps only our own household. If Hillary Clinton is the epitome of what is wrong with our politics, and Donald Trump is the summation of what is wrong with our culture, we have to remember that neither is formed in a vacuum. Our society is put together from the building blocks of our own families, and these we can and do have some influence upon.

We can look at president-elect Donald Trump’s words and behavior in public and be aghast at his lack of modesty or decorum. Do we stop to ask whether we comport ourselves with modesty or decorum at all times in public? This goes for how we speak, how we act, even how we dress.[3] We may be rightly aghast at the possibility that our president elect is a racist or a bigot—I think that these charges are overblown to some extent, and that the media certainly has done its best to paint him in the worst light possible, but not all of the charges can be easily dismissed as merely more media manipulation.[4] It is certainly easier to be outraged at this prospect than to examine our own behavior in public and online: are we kind to others, do we give them the benefit of the doubt (every so often, let alone always)? Do we allow for the possibility that a disagreement may be honest and purely motivated [5], or do we assume that there is some malice afoot, that it is rooted in racism or bigotry or even simple selfishness?

We should remember above all that our political and cultural and even religious adversaries are still human, too. They should be treated with some level of respect and dignity, and above all with charity. Anything less and we are undermining whatever short-term progress we may make.

—-Footnotes—

[1] There are in addition some also-rans, some of whom may even have been better choices… but none of them were going to actually win this election. Still, a vote for the third party/write-ins is not a wasted vote: had they received a more substantial share of the popular vote, it might even have signaled dissatisfaction with the two major candidates.

[2] I say this recognizing that not all of the members of any of these voted. Full disclosure: while I suspect that Trump is the lesser evil, and that much of his TV persona is a large act, I still wrote in my vote.

[3] Though this latter point is not something with which I can generally fault Mr. Trump, or any other prominent politician. At worst, we can complain about how lavishly they dress in buying very expensive clothing, or getting expensive haircuts, etc. For my part, I have never complained about this because even buying expensive clothes is helping to keep someone somewhere employed.

[4] The Left in general and the media in particular are always quick to blame any disagreement on either a mental defect or some form of bigotry (or both). Hence, the narrative is that Trump won because of stupid, poor, angry white men. I didn’t know there were so many more stupid poor angry white men than all other demographics in America. Apparently neither did Mr. Trump’s electorate.

[5] Confession: I sometimes have to work on this too. Admonishment: so, dear reader, do you.

Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.”
G.K. Chesterton

Deserter Rainbow
What 2015 brought.

The new year is upon us. This fact alone may not necessarily be cause for celebration, though it is the progressivist’s most sacred holy-day, being the day of change. The wise pessimists among us may be bracing for a new year with the prediction that it will bring more change for the worst. Meanwhile, the more optimistic observers are writing their resolutions with the aspiration that this change will be for the better.

ResolutionIt is the last of these which is of interest to us today: the new year’s resolution. Lists and advice for such resolutions abound: the most popular resolutions, the most commonly broken resolutions (a very similar list); some media sources go so far as to offer blanket coverage of new year’s resolutions. “You are never too old,” C.S. Lewis once observed, “to set another goal or dream a new dream.” Moreover, since we liven in a fallen state of original sin, it is right to add that we are never so good that we do not need nor can bear some further improvement.

In particular, we can all stand to improve morally. This means ultimately becoming more virtuous. Indeed, five or six of the ten most popular resolutions [1] linked above would be aided by improving our moral virtues:

  • Are you resolving to help other more? This should help you to become more just.
  • Are you trying to save money this year? Prudence and justice [2] will help with that.
  • Are you hoping to accomplish your life goals [3]? This will likely be helped by some combinations of the four cardinal virtues.
  • Are you planning to go green? Temperance will help with that by reducing your level of consumption, in particular your consumption of non-essential or “luxury” items and hence of the resources to produce them.
  • Are you resolving to quit smoking or drinking (etc.)? This is another goal which is helped by temperance.
  • Finally, did you resolve (as so many other did) to diet, exercise, and/or lose weight? Temperance will certainly help with this by moderating your appetite. Fortitude can also help with exercise: against the “fear” of going to fast of pushing too hard, and by extension against the fears of not pushing hard or fast enough. By extension, you would need to know how hard and how fast to push yourself in exercising, or else recognize that you don’t know the answer to this and thus that you need a reliable trainer (prudence).
4-Cardinal-Virtues
From this source.

What are the virtues, then? I am here focusing on the cardinal (moral) virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Let us consider each of these briefly in turn, before considering them collectively. To do this, I will turn a bit towards one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. Tally ho!

Prudence is actually an intellectual virtue. Nevertheless, it also functions as a moral virtue in the sense that it is knowledge of what to do and how to act and what to say to be moral and virtuous in any given situation. Thus, it is knowledge, but practical knowledge, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas (echoing Aristotle), “right reason applied to action” (ST II-II.47.4). The other cardinal virtues, the ones which are properly moral virtues, because they govern or appetites (that is, out will) so that we may have the right intentions. But the road to hell is paved by good intentions, if those intentions are misguided: prudence then is the right guidance of our intentions. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the following definition of prudence:

“[Prudence is] an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances.”

Or to summarize, prudence means knowing what is right in a given situation, and while in situ.

Having right reason does not mean that we will necessarily act rightly. This is where the other three cardinal virtues (and their parts) come into play. Justice governs the will, fortitude the irascible powers and temperance the concupiscible powers of the sole.

4-cardinal-virtues1Justice “is a moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them.” It is the habit or power of desiring what is right, as contrasted with prudence which is the habit or power of knowing what is right. In particular, it is the right ordering of our desires towards others, “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own,” as St. Thomas notes (ST II-II.58.11). It is the virtue by which harmony in society is achieved.

Fortitude is about overcoming our fears, in particular as they prevent us from doing what is right. Saint Thomas says of fortitude that

“it belongs to the virtue of fortitude to remove any obstacle that withdraws the will from following the reason. Now to be withdrawn from something difficult belongs to the notion of fear, which denotes withdrawal from an evil that entails difficulty…Hence fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself therefrom for the future, which seems to come under the notion of daring. Therefore fortitude is about fear and daring, as curbing fear and moderating daring” (ST II-II.123.3).

Fortitude means risking discomfort, pain, suffering, and even death that we may do what is required of us by justice and prudence, to say nothing of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Temperance is the last of the cardinal virtues; it governs the lowest of our appetites, and so in that sense is often counted as the least important [4]. On the other hand, it may well be the most important, because when it is lacking—as it so often is today—the other virtues can very quickly come to naught. Fortitude governs our fears—ultimately, our attachment to this life at the expense of what is right—and justice governs right conduct in regards to others, prudence with practical knowledge of what is right. But temperance governs our pleasures, and prevents our over-indulging them. And it is our pleasures run amok which make it difficult to sacrifice, be it for our own sake or for the sake of others: “Temperance it is which restrains the undue impulse of concupiscence for sensible pleasure, while fortitude causes man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties.”

The Prodigal Son after leaving home: intemperance following from injustice.

Temperance is, alas, a very unpopular virtue, and it counts among its own many unpopular parts: chastity, modesty, decorum, abstinence, humility. It is unpopular, perhaps, not because it has been tried and found wanting, but because it has been found difficult and thus left untried. And, moreover, it is in some way the virtue which needs the most continual practice [5]. On the bright side, it is the simplest virtue to cultivate in that it is most easy to understand what we must do to cultivate it.

Now that we know what the virtues are, we can turn to how they might help us (and, conversely, be helped by!) our resolutions. Stay tuned!

 

—-Footnotes—-
[1] For what it is worth, three more of these resolutions are meant to improve our intellectual virtues, a process which is aided (if indirectly) by the moral virtues.

[2] Magnanimity (liberality) is one of the subjective parts of justice, and guards against avarice and envy.

[3] This is one of the odder resolutions. The goal in question usually is “run a marathon,” “write a book,” etc. These are life goals, in other words. For example if the goal is to run a marathon, a combination of temperance (in dieting) and fortitude (in not giving in to self-doubts or fears) may be required.

[4] Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s remark on the matter:

“[Temperance] is called a cardinal virtue because the moderation required for every righteous habit has in the practice of temperance a specially trying arena. The satisfactions upon which it imposes a check are at once supremely natural and necessary in the present order of human existence. It is not, however, the greatest of moral virtues. That rank is held by prudence; then come justice, fortitude, and finally temperance.”

It is in many ways the most difficult of the four cardinal virtues to inculcate and to practice, and it must be practiced constantly.

[5] Though fortitude needs this continually in battle, spiritual or secular; and justice is to be practiced at any time when we are dealing with another person; and prudence must be almost constantly practiced as well at any time that a moral decision must be made.

Give Fairy Tales a Chance

fairy-tales-1

Fairy tales (especially princesses and Santa Claus) get a lot of crap. From comments such as, “princesses teach girls that the only way to attain happiness is to find a man” or “telling your kids a fat man in a red suit delivers presents to them is lying” to “these stories don’t present strong, realistic role models,” fairy tales are really getting a bad rap these days. It’s no wonder companies like Disney are shying away from typical romance and fairy tales and presenting alternative types of female characters and storylines (such as Brave and Frozen). On the surface, these observations are true – each traditional princess finds a prince to take her away from her sorrow to happiness; there is no physical, living man who flies around the world via reindeer sled delivering presents on Christmas Eve, and all of these stories are rather fantastical (I mean seriously, glass slippers cannot be comfortable). But beneath the surface, fairy tales can show us so much more.

The great and wonderful G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” There is evil in this world and there are obstacles to goodness, joy, and happiness. That is a cold, hard fact. Fairy tales open our minds to heroes, to powers and forces beyond our own that can defeat any obstacle and any evil. Fairy tales are a primer to the power, wonder, and majesty of God. God who threw Satan into hell, Christ who defeated death, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace who lifts us out of our sin and sorrow into eternal happiness, these realities of God do not seem so fantastical and hard to swallow when we’ve been primed on stories of knights who slay dragons, princes who rescue condemned maidens, and even a fat man in a red suit who delivers presents to children.

Santa Claus actually has a leg up from most fairy tales in that his mythology is derived from the life of a real, living, breathing, flesh and blood person named St. Nicholas. At least the myth of Santa Claus can be anchored into a true story. Other fairy tales do not have the same grounding, yet they are just as important for expanding our imaginations and hearts to the infinite glory and love of God.

Now, the original versions of most fairy tales we are accustomed to are rather gruesome, but they were written in a time and for an audience that dealt with a gruesome daily existence. If the gory details of the originals are too much for you or your children, nothing of the lessons and virtues taught through fairy tales will be lost by reading or viewing (most) of the modern, cleaned-up versions.

With that said, here are some specific examples, just in care you are still skeptical. Cinderella was a hard and cheerful worker despite her forced servitude, and neither did she wait for the prince to come to her – she found a way to get to the ball and got the prince herself! Snow White was chased out of her home by the jealous queen but never once condemned her, nor said a wicked thing about her. Rapunzel (as portrayed in Disney’s Tangled) was courageous enough to go out into a world that she was raised to fear to fulfill her dream and, consequently, find her true identity.

Of course, fairy tales are not the only paces to find strong role models and virtuous examples. The stories of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are superb examples of virtuous fantasy, and The Little House on the Prairie series offers examples of real men and women. As Catholics, we also have a wealth of examples in the stories of the saints (many of which are bound up with myths and facts) and, almost needless to say, the best stories come from the Bible. This still, though, does not render fairy tales needless.

If we allow them, fairy tales can expand our minds beyond the here and now and open us to virtue and the wonders of heaven. Tools like fairy tales remind us that life is not boring or full of strife but rather, full of adventure and glory despite hardships. Put on a new pair of lenses and give fairy tales another shot. At the very least, you’ll have fun experiencing fairy tales from a new perspective.

Reflections on Generosity

The past month has been, for me, a month of humbling lessons in generosity as millions worldwide answered calls to help my fellow-Filipinos who survived Typhoon Haiyan.

I learned, for example, that one need not be rich or powerful in order to be generous. Stories abound of such examples as a pre-schooler who donated his piggy bank savings, a beggar-boy who dropped a few coins out of the day’s “earnings” into a donation box, and a taxicab driver who did not charge evacuees who took a ride with him from the airport. These gestures from people whom I thought not to have much to give reminded me of Christ’s appreciation for the poor widow’s contribution, and prompted me to examine my own willingness (or unwillingness) to part with my comforts to help others.

I learned that giving hurts. Often, parting with one’s money is, in itself, the least painful part of giving. I learned this from donors who have had to sacrifice time and effort to investigate solicitor-institutions to ensure they are legitimate ones, or to wait in a long line at a bank that has insufficient and inefficient tellers in order to deposit the donation. Others, giving up sleep, worked at their jobs at night or on weekends so that they could volunteer to serve the evacuees during the day, or volunteered at night shifts at the evacuation centers despite having busy workdays. Small as these sacrifices may be for some, they are sacrifices nonetheless which elicit appreciation and deserve emulation. I realized that while I often want to give, I sometimes want to avoid the inconvenience it entails. But generosity, being a virtue, truly exists when it is practiced despite difficulty.

Finally, I learned that being a gracious receiver is as important as being a cheerful giver – and I consider myself a receiver as well of the aid to the typhoon survivors; they being my brothers and sisters, their sufferings are also my sufferings.

I have sometimes been tempted to judge others by how much they are giving or not giving (e.g., This company is cancelling its Christmas party and donating to the typhoon victims instead, while that other company is not.), or to second-guess others’ motives for giving (e.g. This company is only giving for its corporate image; that person is giving only because he wants the cool fundraising shirt.) But then, I asked myself, will the typhoon survivors themselves, who have been left with nothing, be pleased with such small-mindedness regarding help extended to them? In this situation where the need is dire and every contribution counts, what good will come out of finding fault with others’ ways of being generous? Doubtless, there may be some imperfect acts of generosity, but these should not be of my concern. All that should matter for me is that God appreciates generosity, no matter how imperfectly manifested, and He Himself will purify whatever needs to be purified in the giver’s already noble deed. I know that my own acts of giving can be tainted by pusillanimity and self-serving motives. But God, in His goodness, uses my grudging efforts as occasions to move me to do more.

During this typhoon, for example, I have had to think less of myself and pray for friends whose relatives have been missing. To my own surprise, I found myself praying even for acquaintances whom I am not close to but whom I know to be living in the affected area – and to be happy and grateful upon receiving news that they are safe. I thought I was praying to help others, but in reality, God moved me to pray to teach me to expand my heart.

Indeed, every opportunity to help a brother or sister in need is an opportunity to receive immeasurable blessings in return. I agree with what one priest told participants of an out-of-town volunteer service program before they left: “You are going there not for an outreach, but for an exchange.”

Mary: Model of the Theological Virtues

Photo Credit: Archdiocese of Atlanta
Photo Credit: Archdiocese of Atlanta

In my youth, I prayed the rosary with my grandmother or other ladies from the parish after daily Mass.  Before the first three Hail Marys, the leader always announced a special intention: “We pray for an increase in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.”  As one could imagine, this piqued the curiosity of a twelve year old boy to inquire more about these virtues.   Two questions emerged:  What do we mean by theological virtues? Why ask Mary to intercede for us in regard to these virtues?  The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are graciously given to us by God and orient us toward God, beyond our natural capabilities.  It is fitting we ask for an increase in these three virtues through Mary’s intercession because she possessed and exemplified these virtues.  As such, Mary encourages us on our journey toward holiness.

Pope Emeritus Benedict called for a Year of Faith to help Catholics better understand the beliefs of their faith.  This month, our celebration of the Year of Faith will reach its culmination.  The Year of Faith began by Benedict’s entrustment to Our Lady at her shrine in Loreto.  In his motu proprio dataPorta Fidei, Benedict also addressed the role of Mary in the life of the Church.   Additionally, Mary has been a vital part of the Year of Faith as evidenced by last month’s Marian Day of Faith at the Vatican.  With this in mind, as we end Annus Fidei, let us look to Mary as an example of  faith, and more specifically, as a model of the three theological virtues.

Faith is belief in God and things not visible to us (e.g. eternal life).  We receive the gift or grace of faith at our baptism.  If we were baptized at a young age, our parents made the decision for us to receive this virtue.  The virtue of faith involves the intellect (knowing divine principles) and the will (consenting to belief).  Our intellect helps us to assent to what is non-apparent.  There are several vices or threats to the virtue of faith: unbelief, heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Mary was a woman of deep faith.  When the Angel Gabriel appeared and announced that she would be the Mother of God, she expressed her faith by her fiat, her yes to God.  She also had faith in her Son at the Wedding Feast of Cana, when she interceded for the couple because they ran out of wine.  She believed Jesus could help the couple.  Mary also helps us to have a greater understanding of Jesus.  This is evidenced by one of the threats to faith: heresy.  In the 400’s, a heresy called Nestorianism rejected the title Theotokos or God-bearer, a name attributed to Mary.  Nestorius claimed that Mary was only the mother of Jesus’ humanity.  In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the Church rejected Nestorius’ claims and declared that since the second person of the Trinity took on a human nature through Mary, she could rightly be called Mother of God. By defining Mary’s role, we can better understand Jesus’ role in salvation.  Mary leads us to faith.

The second theological virtue, hope, is defined as trust in God’s help to obtain our eternal happiness.  The virtue of hope is centered on our goal of heaven and anticipating the world to come.  In order to have hope for salvation and eternal happiness, it is first necessary to have faith!  Hope also has its own set of vices:  despair and presumption.  Despair is having too little hope in God.  Mary, at the foot of the cross, was the antithesis of despair.  As she watched Jesus suffer and die, she could have despaired, asking God why her Son had to suffer and die.  She could have lost her faith and hope in God, but instead she held out hope in her Son’s promises. She maintained hope that she would be united with Jesus again in heaven.  There are two connected vices to despair: lust and sloth.  Both are related to apathy.  If I am lustful, my desire for the spiritual is hindered by my inordinate desires for pleasure.  I despair by believing God does not give me the grace to turn toward Him.    If I am slothful, I do not believe I can rise to the good, so why bother trying.  It would be easy to look to Mary and say, “Mary was such a saintly person, and she was perfect; I could never be like her, so why should I even try?”  We should try, because by imitating the virtues we see in Mary, we become closer to her Son, and have an even greater hope in God’s grace.

The other vice opposed to hope is presumption, either about one’s own power or in God’s power.  Presumption places too much hope in God to the point of underestimating God’s mercy and justice.  Mary’s Assumption and Coronation give us hope that we too may one day enjoy eternal bliss.  This grace should not be presumed merely because of our devotion; instead, we must continue to live virtuous lives, filled with hope.  Unfortunately, Marian devotion sometimes promotes presumption because of promises attached to specific devotions.  For example, a person who wears the scapular is promised that he or she will not suffer eternal punishment.  Mistakenly, the scapular could be seen as a “get out of jail free card,” in other words presumptuous if one relies solely upon the promises attached to wearing it.  However, wearing the scapular entails fidelity to one’s vocation and persistent prayer.  Salvation is not presumed; rather the scapular should help us deepen our faith and hope in God’s power to save us.

St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13 NAB).  The third virtue, charity or love, is intimately connected with faith and hope.  Of the virtues, love lasts the longest because its full attainment is union with God in heaven.   Thus, when one experiences eternal life, faith and hope are no longer necessary, because only love remains.  Consequently, love gives life to all the other virtues.  Aristotle said to love is to will the good of others.  Christianity sees charity as loving God and also one’s neighbor for God’s sake. True love is friendship with God which permeates and affects our relationships with others.   Mary can be held as an example of love because after receiving the words of the Angel Gabriel, she went in haste to the hillside of Judea to assist her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, who in old age miraculously conceived a son, required the assistance of others.  Mary, filled with the love of God, went to serve and love others.  The vices opposed to love are hatred, sloth, envy, discord, schism, offense, and scandal.

To grow in the virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is necessary to root out the vices specific to each virtue.  In terms of the vices related to faith, it is important to study the faith and understand Jesus.  Read the Church Fathers and other Catholic writers.  Also, we need to be cognizant of our language, how we speak about God, so as to be careful not to blaspheme by taking His name in vain.  For the vices related to hope, despair and presumption, it is crucial to continue fostering trust in God, even in difficulties, and then ask God for forgiveness when we fail through the Sacrament of Penance.  Persevere in prayer, asking God for help.  To rid ourselves of offenses against love, we must practice small acts of charity toward an enemy or refrain from speaking ill of someone in order to build up those around us.  Lastly, we can pray that God will give us the grace to expel vice.

Those three opening Hail Marys for faith, hope, and charity, are important.  In so doing, we express our faith that God will hear Mary’s prayers.  We are hopeful that she will “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” so that we may eternally love God in Heaven.  May we continually seek the things of Heaven through the intercession and guidance of Mary, the model of virtue, by our words and actions.

This article was originally written for a class on moral theology and was modified for this online publication.  The original article  is also under consideration  for publication in the Chicago New World.  To read Edward’s published works, consider ordering one of his books from his online store. 

Regret

“Live as though dying daily.”

-St. Antony of Egypt, as recorded by St. Athanasius

We have almost no viable perspective from which to evaluate our past actions or decisions. We are, after all, products of those choices, and the perspective from which and the values against which we would measure the things we have done are themselves the results of the choices we have made.

Our own perfections most often seem to be the consequences of the lousiest choices we have made. Most of my best progress comes from serious reflection on the unpleasant consequences of my past actions. More than regret, a kind of helpless fatalism can seem the most reasonable response to experience. I see now that what I did was not best, perhaps, but I didn’t see it then, and I only see it now because I actually did it. Who am I to say that I would have this perfection, this knowledge, this robust and conscious capacity to choose rightly in any number of analogous future cases, if I had not done it?

And yet, how often on shallow reflection do those choices seem wrong that after more experience and deeper consideration turn out to have been for the better? “#$%(# this diet!” “I hate the piano, Mommy, do I have to?!” Choices like these yield little immediate fruit; we find that we are only in a position to see them in their full light, to appreciate enough of their good consequences to make peace with their pain, after one, two, or three years. Why should we not begin to suspect that we might find ourselves grateful after all for the pain of our past actions in the twilight of happy old age, a lifetime’s journey through the humanioria that that has filled out our inner depths and given us insight into all aspects of ourselves, and that even the perfection of insight we once thought we possessed was itself just a zig to be zagged, a yin to be yanged, another path our Selfgeist had to traverse in its quest of self-discovery?

All of this is to say that we are unable to see ourselves sub specie aeternitatis, seeing what we can see through lenses colored by what we have done, unable to peer past our present into the working-out of all our past actions that will go on for years to come. Even if we try, we cannot begin to suspect the impact of the smallest choices we once made on the people we have become, and left to ourselves we are quite powerless to determine whether those choices were ultimately for good or for ill.

We often see how God has led us through our sins back to Him. Providence works wonders that way. In that light, even for the Christian it is obscure whether some truly regrettable past action was right or wrong for him. The Church sings of the felix culpa of Adam; seeing such incomprehensibly good consequences from the Fall, She finds it difficult to believe that it was wrong at all, since God’s redemptive power has put everything so right.

The same can be seen on the natural level. Beloved children are born to fornicators and adulterers, and even if one repents of the sin, it is difficult for him to regret having done what he did; on how many lustful glances, impure touches, rapes, forced marriages, incestuous unions, and the like does our own existence depend? Shall we regret every sin ever committed? Shall we regret thereby our own existence? Every child coming into the world is a new basic locus of moral value; doesn’t he give some value to the actions that begat him?

Life is not for the naive. We cannot simply regret our pasts, wish that we had made every decision rightly, and lament the happiness we have lost as a result of those choices. Inevitably when we do so we imagine some great “Undo” button on life, which we press and then the picture isn’t there anymore, and we start over. But we never start over, not even in MSPaint. We never imagine ourselves back at square one along with the bitmap. We imagine ourselves redoing the painting in light of our mistakes.

We like to imagine our lives, our experiences, our memories, our happiness, as something separate from ourselves, as a drawing which we stand back from and are creating. They aren’t. Our lives are ourselves in process, and it is our eternal self, which exists in its most finished form in this present moment, and which will stand finished for good or for ill in the eternal moment, that is the drawing. Undoing our experiences would be tantamount to trying to correct a mistake we do not remember making.

At the same time, we cannot let our faith shrink. We cannot simply resign ourselves to the fact that God has worked with us in our failures, shaped us into what we are in spite of and in full consideration of our sins, using even these as He can to bring us to perfection, and conclude sola fide, that it is just as well for us to have sinned as not to have sinned. We must have the faith to acknowledge that it would have been better for us never to have sinned, and what is most painful, to realize that we cannot ever see how. Objective right and objective wrong mean nothing less than that, although I cannot see all of the consequences of my actions, and even though I can see the good that God has brought out of my wrongdoing, I can still affirm that it would have been better for me if I had not sinned.

And so in bliss we will be perfectly happy, even in the knowledge that there was yet more that God was calling us to be, if we had but answered Him. But God seeks us where we are, and He will make us all that we now can be, if only we let Him.

 

Purity Culture and Abstinence Only Sex Education

In my last column, I discussed the distinctions between abstinence, chastity, and purity, noting that the first of these is a means to an end, the second a virtue as well as an act, and the third a beatitude. In doing so, I cited and even quoted from a few Catholic and secular sources, many of whom were arguing more-or-less against the various forms of abstinence-only sex education (henceforth, “Abstinence”) and the so-called “purity culture” (henceforth, “Purity”) [1]. In light of my earlier column, it should be apparent that both Abstinence and Purity fall well short of chastity and actual purity.

The always interesting Calah Alexander writes in commenting on Elizabeth Smart’s criticism of Abstinence and some of the reaction to this criticism:

What almost no one did was hear what she said. No one was horrified at what she had been taught in her abstinence-only sexual education. No one acknowledged that the direct, logical result of such an education is a sense of shame and unworthiness after having been “used.” No one showed even a hint of sympathy for how she had suffered, not only at the hands of her captors, but at the hands of a degrading philosophy of human sexuality. Such a callous indifference to human suffering is appalling. It shows that too many Christians, too many proponents of abstinence-only education, have put their concern for the welfare of a quasi-political movement above their concern for the welfare of a human being, of human dignity itself….

This does not teach anyone chastity or purity. “Abstinence-only” sex ed is a fundamentally flawed concept, beginning with its very name. It teaches children to negate an act, to deny a fundamental part of human nature until such a time as it’s permissible to indulge. It doesn’t teach children what sex is, what their sexuality means, how to understand it, or how to properly integrate it into a life of chastity both without and within a marriage. It doesn’t teach a boy that sex is primarily about the giving of himself, and that he can’t fully give himself to his wife unless he learns how to master himself first, how to wait, how to have patience, how to love her instead of using her as a vehicle for pleasure. Actually it teaches boys the exact opposite of that; that a woman is a trophy, a prize, that a good one (one worth keeping forever) will be untouched, but that there are plenty of dirty water-glasses walking around that have been ruined for any decent man anyway, and they might as well be used up since they’re not worth saving.

And what does abstinence-only sex ed teach girls? It doesn’t teach girls anything. It conditions girls into conforming with a sick, “religious-ized” chauvinism that masquerades as concern for moral purity but is really just plain old abhorrence of sloppy seconds.

if your view of purity reduces women to this, then you're doing it wrong.
if your view of purity reduces women to this, then you’re doing it wrong.

 

While Mrs. Alexander is right [2] to criticize this narrowed view of Purity—and of Abstinence—I think that there is another problem which is overlooked. It is bad that Abstinence is so focused on the negatives, on degrading the “sluts” and with them the occasional unfortunate rape victim [3], and to the extent that an Abstinence program uses the water-glass/chewing-gum, etc. analogies, they will indeed have these deleterious effects on the psyche of a lot of innocent girls. To that extent, even the vituperative Miss Lindy West gets it right in her (NSFW) commentary on Purity.

This is not to say that these elements of Purity and Abstinence are utterly devoid of truth in all cases. To the extent that we—boys and girls alike—jump from bed to bed of our own volition, to that extent we slowly begin to lose the ability to make an actually meaningful gift of ourselves. If sex is only for our own pleasure and our own gratification, then it can hardly be an expression of our love for another person. As Professor J Budsiszewski puts it in his On the Meaning of Sex,

“When I say we aren’t designed for this sort of thing, I’m not just speaking for females. A woman may be more likely to cry the next morning; it’s not so easy to sleep with a man who won’t even call you back. But a man pays a price, too. He probably thinks he can instrumentalize his relationships with women in general, yet remain capable of romantic intimacy when the right woman comes along. Sorry, fellow. That’s not how it works. Sex is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping it off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick any more….”

SONY DSCBut to compare this with a glass of water which has been spat in time and again is a bit excessive, especially when devoid of the context of sex as a gift of self, and especially when the analogy is meant in a merely physical manner.

The problem is not just that it can be damaging to the psyches of the good girls who weren’t able to remain “pure”, whether by their own volition or somebody else’s. To clarify, I mean here those girls who are presently trying to to be Pure, that is, “pure” as meant by purity culture. The problem with Purity is that it raises maidenhood to the highest virtue and conflates maidenhood with being “pure,” so that a woman who has lost her maidenhood [4] cannot ever be “pure” again.

The various Purity analogies not only fail girls who have been raped, but also those who have merely fallen and fornicated but once. According to the logic of Purity, once fallen and dirty, always fallen and dirty, so why bother rising again [5]; there may be forgiveness, but there is no forgetting, and no cleaning of the soiled soul. The water glass analogy lacks a means of filtering and reclaiming the water, of making it “pure” once more.

Virginity, maidenhood--these can be lost. Purity, on the other hand, can be reclaimed.
Virginity, maidenhood–these can be lost. Purity, on the other hand, can be reclaimed.

All of which brings me to my own criticism of Abstinence, and to the fake Purity which is invoked to support it. In light of my previous post, it should be obvious that abstinence is a part and a tool of chastity, and that chastity is in turn a virtue and an action which is ordered to purity. But chastity, being a fruit of the Holy Spirit, also involves the indwelling of God’s grace, to say nothing of full-blown purity. We do not make ourselves pure, and we can but cooperate with God to become chaste.

Both Abstinence and Purity overlook these facts. They apply a technical solution to what is a moral and a spiritual problem. They attempt to achieve by human ingenuity what can only be obtained through God’s grace. Whereas the comprehensive sex-education programs run by the likes of Planned Parenthood objectify men and women into walking sex machines over which are incapable of moderation and temperance, of self-control, Abstinence and Purity reduce the human being into an object which can simply be “reprogrammed” or “conditioned” to override their inclinations, and this this done not through love, not through God’s grace to gain mastery over the self, but through shame.

Even aside from the shame, the problem remains that Abstinence and Purity have reduced purity to maidenhood and chastity to abstinence, and this is done without thought for a culture which actually encourages either chastity or purity. It is true that we can help each other to be chaste, or otherwise virtuous: this is done first and foremost by being joyfully chaste ourselves. Instead, Abstinence says “Just wait until marriage, just hold on until then, and then the fight is over;” and Purity says “If you don’t manage this, then you are less valuable as a human being.”

Our_Wedding_ringsThis ignores that our dignity, our worth as people, is not just something which is tied to our actions, but to our very selves; and it equally ignores that marriage comes with its own set of struggles, including perhaps its fair share of sexual struggles. Chastity is a state which is equally applicable to marriage as to the single life, and there are times in every marriage during which abstinence is necessary [6].

It ignores that many people—including often the parents and teachers of those same boys and girls who are enduring Abstinence—are not themselves particularly chaste, not particularly joyful in taking up their own sexual crosses. When the only witness to chastity that children have is parents who contracept, friends who fornicate, teachers who engage in adultery, and even some priests who break their vows of celibacy in the most shameful manner, is it any wonder that Purity and Abstinence are burdens too great to bear (see Matthew 23:4)?

A commentator by the handle of WSquared wrote an insightful comment about the problems with Abstinence and Purity:

The problem with “Just keep it together until you’re wearing a ring, and then it’ll be a non-stop release of pent-up desire” is that it also suggests that the non-stop release of pent-up desire is okay, “because you’re married.” Making pleasure the highest good of sex is okay, “because you’re married” (I’m wondering if this is why many think that using contraception in marriage is okay, too). That somehow, what marriage is primarily designed to do is to “contain” all that, and make it “respectable,” without any real thought about sanctification, or even what it truly means to love and respect (which is another reason why our culture’s idea that love is primarily an emotion is dangerous). Lust in marriage, as Bl. John Paul II wrote, is still sinful. And he’s right.

Indeed, this is a very succinct summary of the problem posed, and in some sense of the solution. If we Christians would have a more moral culture, we might begin by being ourselves the leaven of that culture (see Luke 13:20-21). We must be light of the world, salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-15)—and in this case, we do this by being not merely outwardly moral, but actually virtuous, and joyfully so. We must rely on God for this not merely a technical program of education—or more accurately of conditioning—which is divorced from the witness of our on lives. Anything less is bound to fail, perhaps in a spectacularly dehumanizing fashion.

 

—-Footnotes—-

[1] How’s that for a reversal? Abstinence and Purity in this case refer to more superficial understandings of the two concepts, rather than to deeper concepts.

[2] It’s worth drawing a distinction between Abstinence/Purity as she is describing it and a broader Purity which is a bit less “chauvinistic,” since my own observations of the purity culture at large do not bear out that girls are told to be pure while boys are told simply to value purity as a “trophy,” but then I grew up in Oregon and saw less of this stuff in the schools to begin with.

[3] If the former need no help in further degradation, the latter even more so need support in knowing that they still have worth and dignity. As Saint Augustine writes,

“Our adversaries certainly think they have a weighty attack to make on Christians, when they make the most of their captivity by adding stories of the violation of wives, of maidens ready for marriage, and even in some cases of women in the religious life. On this point it is not our faith which is in difficulty, nor our devotion, nor is that particular virtue, the term of which is chastity, called in question. But our argument is in a way constrained and hampered, between the claims of modesty and reasoned argument. Here we are not so much concerned to answer the attacks of those outside as to administer consolation to those within our fellowship.

In the first place, it must be firmly established that virtue, the condition of right living, holds command over the parts of the body from her throne in the mind, and that the consecrated body is the instrument of the consecrated will; and if that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body, provided that it cannot be avoided without committing sin, involves no blame to the sufferer. But there can be committed on another’s body not only acts involving pain, but also acts involving lust. And so whenever any act of the latter kind has been committed, although it does not destroy a purity which has been maintained by the utmost resolution, still it does engender a sense of shame, because it may be believed that an act, which perhaps could not have taken place without some physical pleasure, was accompanied also by a consent of the mind” (City of God Book1Chapter16).

This point is lost on those who reduce purity and chastity to Purity and Abstinence, as is the fact that St Augustine was virtuous and pure during the latter part of his life despite his less-than-chaste adolescence and young adulthood. On the side of slut-shaming (that is, shaming of actual sluts), there is this post (and related) by the Zippy Catholic.

[4] In modern parlance, one who has lost her virginity, though of course virginity means something more than maidenhood.

[5] They become little more than whitewashed dung heaps by this bit of logic.

[6] To return again to Prof. J Budzisewski’s On the Meaning of Sex, it’s worth considering what might be meant by the old idea of marriage as a remedy for lust:

“Our wisdom traditions used to call marriage a ‘remedy for lust,’ making a true point that is almost always misconstrued. Lust isn’t sexual desire per se, but disordered sexual desire—the problem isn’t the desire, but the disorder. The idea in the old saying about the ‘remedy for lust’ isn’t that marriage provides a way to blow off steam when the pressure inside the boiler gets too high, but that the sweet disciplines of married life have a tendency to rearrange our emotions and desires, to help them become more orderly. Of course that won’t happen if a man does treat his wife as a steam-pressure vent. But part of the meaning of marital purity is that he learns to treat her as a wife.”

This is precisely what both Abstinence and Purity at their worst fail to do, teaching husbands to treat their wifes as wifes and vice-versa. Rather, Abstinence and Purity at their worst teach boys and girls to treat their future spouses precisely as “steam-pressure vents.”

Loving Interchange Is Not Enough

I feel I can speak for many people that Catholic teaching on sexuality comes across most of the time as a big laundry list of NOs. For example: no masturbating, no fantasizing about sex, no acting out same sex attraction, no extra-marital affairs, no contraception, etc.

There is nothing wrong with that, on one hand. It can assist in the practical matter of identifying and avoiding sin, if one assents to Church teachings.

On the other hand, it can leave people feeling bewildered as to why on earth anyone would want to engage with such a stringent Church, one that may seem practically impossible to follow. As one reads more deeply into the teachings on sexuality, their many nuances will amount to an entire lifetime of discipline, consequent periods of both appreciation and~~possibly~~frustration, and, most importantly, living in authentic communion with God.

Last night, while re-reading Humanae Vitae, I was struck by a particular section. It states that conjugal love

…is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring a new life into being. ‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.’

A lot of that statement is kind of radical. What really grabbed me was the mention of “loving interchange.” In other words, while loving interchange is present to varying degrees in the act of sexual union between a husband and wife, the Church is saying, “This is not enough.”

In the Catechism (paragraph 2333) we read,

Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.

This is quite a different understanding of “sexual identity” and “sexual fulfillment” than what the culture teaches us today. The Church does not view sex as a means to personal gratification, pleasure, or even self-fulfillment. She views sexuality as “oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life,” and consequently, to the harmony of a couple and thus society. Thus, we are not our own. Naturally, the Church is not teaching that we cannot have fulfillment; rather, She teaches that, when human sexuality is correctly ordered, we ourselves flourish.

When two people become united in conjugal love, it is not for the sake of fulfilling our superficial desires as individuals (although it is designed to fulfill our deepest real desires). Marriage, according to the Church, is a sign of the communion of Persons that is the Holy Trinity. It is a creative and self-giving union in which the spouses make of themselves a complete and total gift to the other. It is through this creative self-giving that the gift of marriage is realized in the generation of children. By this type of self-giving and creative love, society is strengthened and the Holy Trinity is revealed in the world. Marriage is a sacrament, and that means it is a visible sign of God’s grace.

Not every marriage functions in this way. It is not guaranteed purely because it is between a man and a woman. A marriage in which a man and a woman are using each other for pleasure and emotional fulfillment is dramatically different from what is described above. In fact, the example that immediately comes to mind from a movie is the relationship between the characters played by Tom Cruise and Kelly Preston in Jerry Maguire (imagine they are married).

On the other hand, I immediately think of this scene from Fiddler on the Roof when thinking about the sacramentality of marriage. Love, in this movie, is not about personal fulfillment. In fact, it is action, it is generative, it is society-building, it is self-giving…and frankly, they look exhausted and are not always happy with each other. But by the end, it’s apparent that the love they have for each other is deep, abiding, creative, and fruitful. As their children proceed to marry and procreate, it is as though their marriage is the stalk of a tree with branches that extend outward and in many directions.

Finally, just to twist around our culture’s viewpoints even more into a bunch, children are not actually to be chosen for our fulfillment; rather, they are a “gift from God” and “contribute to [our] welfare.” For parents, this is always an edifying reminder.

 

Talents and Trust

  • Prayer is not a waste of time.
  • Others praise for a while and leave you ruined; only God’s love lasts.
  • Loving others–true, selfless love–is the greatest  achievement of all.
  • Why do you need worldly praise to feel like you can do it, anyway? Jesus already died for you! He knows you can!

These are notes from my prayer journal that I wrote on 8/22/12. I was struggling with the feeling that I haven’t achieved enough in life. I think we all go through that phase–it’s an on-and-off thing.

I felt like they needed to be shared.

It isn’t worth losing yourself and wringing out your soul for the sake of worldly praise. Sometimes, though, it’s very tempting to think so. When we’re going those through dry phases that come when it’s least convenient, we want someone to give us a physical pat on the back.

(Stop and consider that sometimes He will pat you on the back through another person.)

Chances are they’ll lose interest, walking away to the next big thing. They’ll leave you with injured pride and an ego too heavy to carry. Worldly things can destroy you, and make it difficult to find your way back to Him–not impossible, but difficult. His love lasts forever and the only approval we ought to look for is His.

You won’t be satisfied with anything else.

If you’ve been craving worldly things lately, or seeking praise for an achievement, stop and remember the source of it all. Every gift you have comes from the Creator, Who crafted you and is always guiding you in every aspect of your life. There’s nothing wrong with feeling proud for having done something, but it’s easy to forget where it came from. When you forget about Jesus, nothing tastes the same–things become dry.

Ask for the virtues of humility and patience. It isn’t easy, but we’ve all got to remember that only His opinion matters. Once we realize that, everything else will fall into place.

He already has a path written out for you, but you won’t be able to find it without Him. Sit and pray about it right now! Remember that if you’ve been failing at these virtues, it’s perfectly normal. We’re going to fail at them much of the time. What counts is that we realize what’s wrong in our actions, and try to change.

Pray Jesus, I trust in You. Tell Him everything that’s bothering you, and ask for the strength to be humble. You might not believe it now, but everything tastes a lot better once you’ve given the reins of your talent to Him.

He will take you to great places!

Proverbs 31: Woman of Action

There is a great fear among women that we are being under-appreciated. It’s not that we women want all the power; we just want credit for sharing it! In Amanda Mortus’s “To Be Used or Appreciated?”, she laments how tired a Proverbs 31 woman seems, and wishes more of those holy verses spoke intimately of her heart and character.

“Yes, she does all these things, but who is she?” implores Ms. Mortus.

Two Sundays ago, we heard “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14). The September 2012 issue of The Magnificat focuses specifically on work as the blessing of the month, and features a passage from Blessed John Paul II:

“Work is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it… Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes ‘more of a human being.’ (Laborem Exercens #9)

The Proverbs 31 woman may be tired, and she is also satisfied. She has “strength and dignity and laughs at the days to come” (Prv 31:25), which directly correlates to all the mentioned work she does. And why is that? Because she has joy in serving others; she “works with willing hands” (Prv 31:13).

She is an ordinary woman who respects her husband and has his utmost trust, loves and is celebrated by her family, whom takes responsibility for the running of her household, and knows where she can be of use. She may have worries, but she “does not eat the bread of idleness” (Prv 31:27).

Women have the amazing opportunity to share their gifts and talents with their family and in their community. Whatever a woman’s role, may she speak out of “her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prv 31:26).

In contrast to Ms. Mortus’s speculation, these verses are not so outwardly focused but rather inward; her character is shown through her actions. It is a classic “faith with works” collaboration. Without a woman’s love, her actions would not yield laudable results. Without a woman’s actions, her love would grown barren.

As St. Paul wrote, “We urge you, brothers, to progress even more, and to aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instruct you” (1 Thes 4:10-11). This is the essence of such a virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31 and is not meant as a disheartening load, but an encouraging example.

This is the beauty of a Proverbs 31 woman: she gets the job done. She doesn’t complain or seek recognition for her deeds; she does what is necessary out of love and she moves around from her flax to the fields to the merchants to her family. We are shown her character – she has discipline, patience and perseverance – and her heart: she seeks no reward outside God’s provisions. She laughs at the future because she is content today.

How many of us can claim such inner peace?

Suffering to sanctity

If it causes pain, it cannot be true.

This principle, it seems to me, is an unspoken premise underlying the general public’s passionate opposition to many of the Church’s teachings. The same-sex marriage movement, for example, decries the Church’s position on the subject because it causes emotional pain and anguish to gays and lesbians. Abortion advocates constantly bring up the physical pain, financial difficulty, and psychological challenges that many pregnant women face, the implication being that their struggles make abortion a tragic necessity.

Yet the same conviction outside the Church — that a moral precept that causes pain cannot be true — is present inside the Church, too, and probably in our hearts. On one Catholic blog, a female commenter said her (Catholic) husband was struggling to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception because natural family planning (when used to postpone childbearing) requires abstinence at the peak of a woman’s sexual desire.

So if any given ethical principle requires some degree of sacrifice, pain, or unpleasantness, it’s unfair and probably untrue.

Obviously, when it’s stated like that, almost everyone would reject it. Those of us who theoretically accept all the Church’s moral teachings would definitely reject it. But how much of the (unavoidable) pain of obeying Christ’s moral teachings are we actually willing to bear?

Are we willing to give our money and attention to the poor? To accept correction humbly? To criticize our own political parties when they fall short? To forgive those who have hurt or slandered us? To acknowledge the authority of flawed Church leaders? To face rejection for proclaiming the Gospel?

Does some internal resistance to sacrifice prevent us from accepting the full ramifications of following Jesus Christ?

Just some questions I’ve been pondering.

Because if Flannery O’Connor is right about sanctification — “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” — and you’re not encountering pain in your efforts to live virtuously, you may be doing something wrong.

False Greatness and its Remedy

Most of the time I assume myself to be a person falling into the same category Churchill found himself in when dealing with people he didn’t like: “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” People rub me the wrong way, and they will continue to do so until the day I die. But at least I try to keep an eye on my own prejudices; that someone rubs me the wrong way might not be a problem with the other person, but a problem with me. Maybe a person’s loudmouthed, snap-to-judgment personality isn’t truly something to despise, rather a facet of their person-hood that deserves all the tolerance and respect as their annoying but harmless mannerisms and inability to manage a working relationship with personal hygiene. A person may be annoying, grating, and obnoxious, but that hardly makes them evil. Thus it makes it even more difficult when, in dealing with a person, that deep unease takes over and, without calculated judgment or malicious intent on my part, I realize that, yes, this person is truly and unmistakably nuts.

What makes this even more difficult is when I come to know a person, have some real understanding of their character, and then I see that most of what they emanate through the grating obnoxiousness is a real and willful striving toward a notion of greatness that lacks a basis in reality. Great a man as he was, for example, Steve Jobs was a bona fide jerk toward those he worked with and who worked for him: he always lived as though he were some exceptional person to whom the rules did not apply. He would park in handicapped spaces because he felt like it; he would be unrestrained and particularly harsh in his criticisms of others. I do not mean to defame an otherwise good man who made real contributions to the world–what I mean to say is that our notions of greatness can become so inhuman, so draconian, and so self-centered that we lose sight of the real importance of life itself.

Contrast this pragmatic, one-dimensional view of greatness with the teachings of Catholic morality and spirituality. If we can put them side-by-side, we can see many similarities and differences, but the most foundational difference between our notions of greatness lies in the places of both charity and humility: the foundation and the keystone of the whole structure, respectively.

Humility and charity. Great men have feared very little, except these two things. Caesar could have embodied all of the great virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude, but when reminded that he too was a mere mortal prone to mistakes, he lashed out in fury. When the face of charity looked him in the eye and hinted at some sort of reality beyond politics, pragmatics, and power, he had it crucified, and hasn’t stopped since. How delightfully humorous it is, that the humility of a child is enough to make a great man lose himself in fear; how deliciously ironic that the love of a saint can make such “greatness” retreat to the bowels of Hell. No, this is not greatness at all–greatness refuses to associate itself with the petty trifles of the world and the stifling limitations one puts on oneself. If ego, slavery to one’s own opinions (and by extension, enslaving others to your own opinions), fretting over having one’s own way, and treating others as mere accessories in achieving your own vision, goals, and dreams don’t count as petty trifles and stifling limitations, then there’s no such thing as a petty trifle or stifling limitation.

The Christian call to greatness raises us up out of this one-dimensional and inhumanly pragmatic view of greatness and into something truly great, based on Truth and Charity. It calls us to recover the essence of our human nature and to fulfill it. Without humility we can’t know the truth of our nature; without charity, we can’t use it to aspire to anything. Any substitution to either of these is false and will lead to frustration, fruitlessness, and futility.

Humility means that we base our understanding of our nature and worth on what is authentic and true. That means that we do not base our worth on our work or achievements, but on the fundamental openness we have to God and to each other. Nothing else matters.

I find it telling that all the qualities that we associate with an ugliness of person all have to do with an overreaching ego, with a preoccupation with self and an exaltation of one’s own personality. The more you strive for greatness, the more you are to surely lose it, unless you first start by striving for humility.

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation. — St. Augustine

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website isSinging in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]