CHRISTIAN VIRTUES TODAY
Simply to be human calls for the formation of good habits. Freedom itself as an ongoing exercise of human powers cannot do without virtues such as tolerance, courage, patience and the like. That is how we have been made by our Creator. And every people on earth is concerned with the task of handing on to new members the virtues traditionally reverenced in its midst. Such virtues vary a great deal from one human culture to another—the mysterious potentiality within our being is not only vast but very plastic, capable of being shaped into endlessly different workable forms.
This fact means that a discussion of virtues in general cannot be attempted here: it would call for competent knowledge about human cultures and educational systems which I simply do not possess. Instead, my aim is to focus on the virtues most often stressed in the Christian (in continuity with the Hebrew) Scriptures. I have arbitrarily limited myself to twelve of (three “infused” and nine “acquired “ habits). The ones I have selected are closely related to spiritual growth, which itself must assume a radical, rather than a merely superficial, conversion to God in Christ. The three infused virtues of faith, hope and love have to do with the grace of conversion and are located at the inmost centre or core of our being—that is, in the heart itself. Even if we tend to think of them mostly in their active effects, we should not forget that primarily they are received in our hearts as three aspects of our personal transformation.
As for the “acquired” virtues, I have selected my own set of nine (I’m sure, however, that some readers would prefer to include a few other virtues in their list) poverty, chastity and obedience, patience, courage and perseverance, humility, friendship and wisdom. This leaves aside (without quite ignoring them) some of the “cardinal” or natural virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude) which, when added to the three “theological” virtues (faith, hope and charity) make up the mystical seven so dear to Medieval teachers. Besides wanting a larger collection than seven, I also desired to concentrate on what I find to be the most frequently commended and more essential virtues of everyday Christian living. The traditional four “cardinal” ones still smack somewhat of scholastic theories and disputations, it seems to me. Today we may prefer to return to the New Testament experience of trying to live-out our personal transformation in Christ within a local faith-community.
Jesus proclaims the reign of God to be near at hand—in fact, to be actually present, offered to us now. This ought to disturb us: it challenges our real connivance with worldly attitudes. It calls for a radical conversion of heart, and then for a longer process of spiritual growth in which we gradually learn how to change our old habits and replace them with new ones more expressive of the converted central core of our being-in-Christ. These new habits, both those at the centre and those dealing mainly with practical behaviour, are what I mean by the Christian virtues.
How, then, may we understand this mystery of the reign of God in our communities, one that is so powerful that it overthrows our former way of life? Essentially it consists in our acceptance of God’s compassion and love as our primary mode of being human. We are offered the gift of God’s merciful love both to heal our own hearts and to enable our relationships with others to become fruitful.
This offer is shocking because the world we inhabit socially is based on very different premises: success-oriented, competitive, money-focused, addictive, aggressive, trampling over the weak, filled with accusations and resentment, both repressive and hedonistic at the same time—we are very familiar with its false drives in their contemporary guises. Jesus showed how well aware he was of the destructive habits in his own society when he said: “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)
The way to get ahead in the world is by entering into bargaining and enslaving contracts. The way of spiritual growth in the teachings of Jesus, on the other hand, is by entering into a covenant of compassionate love with God and with others. When this covenant shall have come to include everyone (and we believe the Lord will accomplish this), the Kingdom of God shall come to its completion on earth. Until that time, the disciples of Jesus must strive to proclaim it by actually practising the Christian virtues in the midst of an alienated world. In this way the future Kingdom is shown to be really present already, although only inchoatively.
How could this paradox possibly be realized? To live a human life, I have already suggested. calls for the exercise of good habits. Of course, we can always make a serious effort to produce an unaccustomed action, but if the desired act is of any complexity or consequence for cultivated people the effort to do it well, when it has not been done before, will require enormous concentration on one’s part, and even then it may appear rather awkward in its actual performance.
Every artist, every athlete, and every technician knows how important it is to repeat a series of related actions over and over again until a smoothly operating sequence comes easily and almost without any attention. This apparent miracle of performance, which is in fact th4e very stuff of civilized life, occurs because habits have been formed that release the performers from having to advert to every detail in order to get it right in relation to the others.
The same thing is true for living a Christian life. A virtue is simply a good habit which puts on “automatic pilot” all the minute details of loving, patient, humble, wisely discerned (etc.) actions. Without often running through the scales, a concert pianist could not give artistic feeling to an individual performance before a distinguished audience. Similarly, without daily prayer and exercise in the Christian virtues, a believer cannot hope to act spontaneously in a Christ-like way when new occasions arise. This is the basic motive for the present collection of Scripture passages. It is meant to supply “finger exercises” for those who may wish to develop habits of Christian living.
But this practice of virtues is meant to be, not individualistic (achieved by isolated heroes and heroines,) but communal: faith-communities of ordinary everyday believers are graces by the risen Lord’s presence to enact the new ways of relating—however initial in form or degree—that belong to Jesus’ kingdom on earth. It makes the members happy now: “How happy are the poor in spirit—theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Concrete persons, however, need to practise the Christian virtue of poverty, for example, in the teeth of a society obsessed by the pursuit of wealth, or Christian chastity in a society obsessed with merely physical sex, or obedience to God in a society obsessed by egotistical license masquerading as freedom. And the same for all the other virtues (in the following pages more detailed essays are devoted to each virtue). In their practice of them, individual members will certainly require the support of a living community of faith.
The infused virtues of faith, hope, and love differ from the others by being focused, as I have said, in the heart’s core. They have to do with personal transformation as such: they convert our hearts from enslavement and from binding addictions, and through the free gift of loving forgiveness, of compassionate love, move us into a new way of life, a “convenantal” relationship with God in Christ.
They are called “infused” virtues because at the time of this radical conversion we are quite helpless, we are broken from our worldly habits, we lose our own powers of action, and so we become well disposed to receive God’s newly constitutive grace. And this event is known directly and experientially. We feel God’s love and mercy in our own hearts, and we come to know them as entirely free gifts which we are quite incapable of achieving by any knowledge or willpower of our own.
In contrast to the first trio, the “acquired” virtues—however long the list may be extended—call for more explicit attention and effort on our part. That is what the term is meant to suggest. However, the difference between the two sets of virtues is mainly one of emphasis. Both sets depend essentially on the grace of God and both sets call for practical efforts. But the infused virtues are foundational—they lay a new basis for a new kind of life in Christ. As such, they are given to each person beyond expectation and they change the very constitution of that person’s being. Faith, hope and love cannot be obtained simply by trying harder. Because they alter one’s whole heart, they provide a new centre of operations from which, and essentially depending on which, the acquired, virtues may proceed to develop a practical way of living in the actual world.
But for the acquired virtues grace is also essential. All our efforts to acquire them will fail if the Lord does not enable their operation. And this fact, too, may be experienced. Usually they come to us in sudden jumps of “much better than before,” rather than in gradual increases of “better and better” in a long, smooth glide of improvement. Usually we experience our own failures, often for a considerable length of time, before God comes to our rescue at a key moment and gives us more detachment that we previously knew (virtue of poverty), or chastity when we were quite unable to be chaste, or courage after years of fearful running away; and so for all the rest. The grace of God is absolutely necessary, not only for our basic sanctification, but also for every operation of a Christian—and thus for acquiring the good habit (virtues) from which our concrete actions normally proceed.
All the same, our co-operation is needed as well. Our freedom is involved, not taken away or lessened. We cannot easily explain how this may be, but we sometimes experience the reality itself. Grace enables freedom. The Holy Spirit’s action in us is of a kind that only increases our co-operation. By God’s help we find ourselves saying Yes to situations where previously we felt ourselves to be enslaved in a No which we simultaneously hated! But these complicated inner divisions may be overcome by grace. Then we may sense a new interior integration and begin to act with a new freedom even with zest. That is what growth in acquired virtues is like.
Let me list five components in an ideal sequence of moves involved in obtaining an actual grace: first, I set my mind on doing better in concrete circumstances (intention); next, I make serious efforts to get there, failing nearly every time (conation); thirdly, I become discouraged and depressed at my own failures (desolation); then, after putting the matter out of mind for awhile and focusing on other aims, I find myself actually doing what I had despaired about (realization); fifthly, I join my free consent to the graced ability that I now find within my being (liberation).
These are only five different aspects or components of “receiving a grace,” but in practice the experience is not usually as clear as that. It is much more jumbled, with many advances and retreats, excessive self-confidence at the wrong time, distractions to other needs, bitter complaints, conferring with friends or directors, beginning resentfully again after having give up, and so on. Our free co-operation should not be unduly romanticized. As subjectively experienced, it is often rather complicated and not easily discerned at the time. But after real progress has been made in acquiring a certain virtue, I can look back to the time when it was absent. Now I can do easily, even with pleasure, what I was simply incapable of doing before. My own freedom of action has in fact been enhanced by grace.
Freedom and co-operation are certainly involved in receiving the infused virtues of faith, hope and love, too, but the emphasis here is different. There are cases where (in some “conversion stories”) the gift of faith appears to be like an invasion of the inner heart: the person was trying hard to avoid it altogether. In Francis Thompson’s well-known poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” the tendency to run away from God becomes a key metaphor. Others use less dramatic, more long-drawn-out imagery, of rebirth, or gradual dawning, or a new springtime of faith, hope and love. Sometimes despair is so prominent that hope becomes the main gift, or because intellectual difficulties seem to surround God with darkness, faith becomes a grace of illumination; or perhaps hatred, resentment or long alienation from others has stifled the heart’s capacity for receiving love. We human beings may feel trapped by old habits of resistance in many, many different ways, and yet God is infinitely resourceful in finding how to release us and heal our deepest wounds. But this means that in a radical conversion to the Lord our receptivity, the more passive aspect of being changed by his grace is mainly felt.
Nonetheless, even there our radical freedom of acceptance is always implied. We may not recall any deliberate act of consent, but remember instead simply finding ourselves in a state of already consenting. We could not even image saying No (that would see ridiculous). But we do consent, and our free acceptance of the gift in fact pervades our entire being. It may be hard to explain, but the reality of freedom (much greater than before) is enormously evident to our experience—it does not even need to be discussed. Therefore, it receives less emphasis, being obvious everywhere and not located in any particular action of our own.
In the longer pull of spiritual growth, however, the practice of faith, hope and love will certainly call for co-operative efforts on our part which are much more noticeable. The gift of infused virtues may be there in our heart, but its translation into the daily language of Christian acts which influence our whole way of living does not usually come about easily or all at once. Our failures in this are often a source of purification. Or the rejection of our best-laid plans may become a personal “death” for us. But those negative moments only prepare us for new life in Christ, the risen Lord who sustains our communities of faith from within, In short, the unmerited grace of God and committed co-operation on our side are essential to both sets of virtues, but the stress falls on divine initiates for infused virtues and on human responding in acquired ones.
Finally, the two sets of Christian virtues must be intimately related: because all the virtues are connected, all of them should interact, stimulating and cross-fertilizating one another At a give time, of course, a person may need to focus on a single virtue (asking for that particular grace and striving to enact it responsibly) for normally this is how we grow—by attending to one thing at a time. But when graces and real progress have actually brought noticeable advances in that area of need, the virtue in question will tend to fade back into the larger picture. The temporary focus of a “close-up” will then be replaced by a more “panoramic” vision. And then it will be clearer just how much each virtue depends on the others, how they are linked with one another in balancing ways, how dangerous it can be to over emphasize one aspect at the expense of the rest.
Specifically, the virtue of humility may be considered a kind of key to all the acquired virtues. This is the Medieval tradition made explicit in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (nos. 142, 146: just as, under Satan’s standard, pride leads “to all the other vices,” in the same way under the standard of Christ humility leads “to all the other virtues”). For this reason I have moved humility to the head of my list.
Christian humility, in fact, tends to act as a bridge between those that are infused and those that are acquired, St. Teresa of Avila regularly links humility with love (as does St. Ignatius in his phrase, humiltad amorosa, loving humility). In the Christian tradition the experience of divine love is always humbling, and humility itself becomes an irresistible invitation to divine love. But the virtue of humility is also an avenue to more and more graces and to spiritual growth in all the Christian virtues (“Love is patient…love endues to the end,” says St. Paul, and the reason is that love “stoops” in order to conquer—this is the Christian principle kenosis).
We may come to see that the virtues of patience, courage and perseverance,
for example, are simply ways of exercising faith, hope and love amidst
a world alienated from God’s Kingdom; that the virtues of poverty, chastity
and obedience prove an a
Accordingly, it is my hope that those who make use of this new collection
of Scripture passages for daily prayer may often move back and forth between
various virtues and eventually complete the circle of them all. For
each one tends to blend into the others and their varied relationship may
be found in the fullness of a simple life in Christ.: “Yes, may you
come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely
filled with the very nature of God.” (Ephes. 3:19)
The Real Presence Of The Future Kingdom, Scripture Passages For Daily Prayer On the Christian Virtues by John Wickham, s.j., Ignatian Centre Publications Montreal, 1990 ---- can be purchased from the following:
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