The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 62, No 4, July-Aug. 2009

Theology for the Laity

Virtue, an Introduction

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       Before we consider individual virtues, we must consider the nature of virtue itself. Each of us has been trained to call certain acts "virtuous," so we understand instinctively what virtue is, and - if asked - could reply truthfully that virtue is a good habit.

       This is a good answer, and we need not try to improve upon it. No amount of study will change it. However, if we delve a little deeper, we can discover that our good acts are built upon a rich and beautiful theological foundation. Understanding what lies behind our good acts gives us additional reason for striving to perform more, and better, acts, as well as additional reason to love God, who is the source of all goodness.

       St. Thomas Aquinas, reflecting St. Augustine, calls virtue "A good habit of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us...." (ST I-II, 55.4)

       We shall consider each of these elements in turn.

A Good Habit

       The word "habit" comes from the Latin word habere, which means "to have." Our theology teaches us that habits are dispositions, tendencies within us by which we are moved to act. God has given us the freedom to choose from among many options; when we consistently use our freedom to choose good, we find good easier and easier to choose, and good actions easier and easier to perform.

       As we cultivate this disposition to choose good, it becomes more and more a part of who we are. Habit comes from the word that means "to have," so when we speak of habits, we describe something a person "has," namely, a disposition to act in a certain way.

A Habit of the Mind

       Our bodies act either from nature or from some impulse of the soul. Although an act such as breathing appears to be habitual, because we do it continually, our bodies have no power over the act of breathing. Freedom and choice are essential components in habits, so habits are qualities of our mind or soul - the part of us that makes choices and commands our bodies to perform particular acts in particular ways.

A Righteous Life

       The relation of virtue to living righteously should be self-evident. If we describe bad habits, the dispositions that impel us to perform the evil acts we call sin, we are not speaking of the dispositions that encourage us to do good. St. Paul teaches

    Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).

       The qualities St. Paul enumerates are the choices we refer to when we speak of the habit of living righteously.

No Bad Use

       Once again, our definition confronts us with the selfevident. If virtues are the habitual choices by which we live righteously, they cannot be directed toward evil.

God At Work In Us

       The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early Church Fathers (A.D. 335 - 395), "The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God." God works in our lives in various ways. He can enable us to perform some heroic act for which we are altogether unprepared, and for which we have no natural aptitude. We call this infused virtue, and we will discuss it more thoroughly when we consider the theological virtues.

       In our everyday lives, Godís activity is far more subtle, prompting us to choose the good which lies before us, and to reject what will lead us to sin. St. Thomas observes, "...He works in every will and in every creature" (ST I-II, 55, ad 6). These words describe the immensity of Godís desire for our good, but they also describe our awesome responsibility in relation to God. When we say, "God works in every will," we acknowledge not only Godís power in our lives, but the power of our human freedom to cooperate with God, or to thwart Him.

       God can work in our lives without any action on our part, as when He inspires martyrs to face threats far beyond normal human courage. However, God does nothing in our lives without our consent. Godís will does not replace our will; it perfects our aptitude and power to do good.

Virtue and Fredom

       The Catechism teaches, "The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good" (1804). Godís Word, revealed through the Scripture and the authority of the Church, provides direction for our actions. When we exercise our freedom to act according to Godís Word, we not only choose to do a good deed, we discover what is most God-like - that is, what is the best - in ourselves.

Virtue and Prayer

       Prayer enables us to embrace the truth of Godís Word and, thus, to "have" it Ė as an habitual part of our interior life. Prayer is one of the ways by which we form our conscience and learn to make the choices that will manifest Godís will and make His love visible to our world.

Virtue and Practice

       Anyone who has mastered a complex skill understands the virtue of practice. Whether we strive to excel in a physical sport, learn a foreign language, or play a musical instrument, our success increases in direct relation to the time we devote to repeating the same tasks over and over. Once a skill becomes habitual we call it "second nature." This term describes the ease with which we do something, and the grace with which we act. We may devote years to developing the ability to swim well, or to perfecting a golf stroke, but once we master the skill, we no longer have to think about its component parts, we simply "do" it.

       The same is true of our lives of virtue. The Catechism teaches "A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good" (1803). It continues

    Human virtues are firm attitudes...perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith (1804).

       These dispositions do not become either habitual or firm overnight; they are something we achieve by performing virtuous acts repeatedly. These acts may be as obvious as contributing to a favorite charity, or as subtle as "letting go" of a grudge, but if they are to become a part of our personal treasury, we must pursue them regularly.

The Reward of Virtue

       When speaking of virtues, the Catechism remarks, "They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life" (1804). The appearance of joy in this list is significant. Our theology teaches that joy is the satisfaction that comes from possessing some good thing or from doing some good deed. Joy is often linked with peace, which is a state of tranquility, in which the soul simply rests.

       In his Confessions, St. Augustine cries out to God, "our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Augustine is obviously speaking of the everlasting life - and eternal rest - we look forward to sharing with God in heaven. However, we must not overlook the application of these words to the here-and-now reality of our everyday existence. Common sense and human experience tell us that the peace and joy of Godís kingdom may prove to be very elusive goals in our daily lives, but a life of virtue is nonetheless a sign, however imperfect, of Godís kingdom. Joy and peace most definitely have social - even global - consequences, but they begin as our very personal awareness of having acted well.

Virtue and Truth

       Truth is the correspondence between some created thing and the image of that thing in the mind of its creator. Our faith tells us we are created in Godís image and likeness. This means that our actions bear witness to the truth of Godís image in us. At least they should. A life of virtue reveals more and more clearly - more and more truly - Godís image in us. We earlier quoted St. Gregory of Nyssa, who said "The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God." This is not an invitation to pride; even the greatest saints do not approach Godís infinite goodness. Nevertheless, our efforts to live virtuously enable each of us to be for the Church - and for one another - the same source of inspiration that God is.

Virtue and the Virgin Mary

       No one who has read Light and Life for any time at all will be surprised if we introduce Godís Mother as the supreme example of a virtuous human life. To say this in no way diminishes the honor due Maryís Son, our Lord. However, Mary, like us, one of Godís creatures, faced the challenge of showing the world the true image of God.

       We earlier observed that God may occasionally work in our lives without any deliberate action on our part. However, God does not act without our consent. Our first encounter with Mary in the gospel shows us the example of her consent, which gives flesh and blood, a human face and human hands, to Godís Word. Whenever we find her in the gospel account her actions demonstrate this same, fruitful consent.

       Obviously, this consent could not have been always easy to give. A look at the choices God asks us to consent to tells us that Maryís consent must sometimes have been a wrenching experience. Who of us can face the death of someone we love without regret? The many artistic representations of Mary at the foot of the cross - our Sorrowful Mother - show the grief and anguish that were the price of her consent. But at the same time, these images depict Mary surrounded with the quiet and calm that are the characteristics of peace. Hard as her choices were - hard as ours are - Mary shows us the peace that crowns a life of virtue.

       Mary shows us, too, that true joy is something different from the exhilarating happiness we may feel in the face of some pleasant event. Such feelings, however delightful, are a small part of the theological joy that rewards a life of virtue. The Old Testament figure of Job shows us the fragility and impermanence of many of the things that delight our senses. True joy is the satisfaction of having done some good deed, or possessing some good thing. It lasts far beyond the intoxication of passion or the thrill of a well-deserved victory. If theological joy pales in comparison to the feelings we experience in the presence of loved ones, or in the face of some good fortune, it is, perhaps, because true joy - the reward of virtue - is not subject to the peaks and valleys of our emotional lives.

       The Litany of Loreto addresses Mary as, "Cause of our joy" and "Queen of peace." If we consider that virtue is, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas teach, "a good habit of the mind by which we live righteously," we may begin to understand a new richness to these titles we attribute to Mary. Mary is cause of our joy, of course, because she gave us her Divine Son, who promises

    If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Fatherís commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:10).

       Jesusí words are nothing less than an invitation to a life of virtue, lived according to His commandments and example. His promise of joy that is complete, i.e., full, unthreatened, everlasting, is at once a challenge and a promise. A challenge to be alter Christus - another Christ - for the world. And a promise that the God who is careful enough to keep track of sparrows will not fail to applaud our efforts to show His love to the world.


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