One of my best friends wrote a paper on virtue and holiness, and since that has been my focus so far this year, I wanted to share with you all 🙂
Virtue and Holiness by MZ:
Stacie Orrico’s song “(There’s Got to Be More) To Life” came out in 2003, but thirteen years later, it’s still as relevant as it was when it first became a hit. Orrico sings: “I’ve got it all, but I feel so deprived/ I go up, I come down and I’m emptier inside/ Tell me what is this thing that I feel like I’m missing?/ And why can’t I let it go?” Orrico’s lyrics describe the “Hedonic treadmill”, the tendency we humans have to always return to the same level of happiness even after we’ve bought the newest cell phone, car, house, or whatever else the ads on television have told us would finally put an end to our search for happiness and make our lives better. Through our personal experiences and the testimonies of our peers, what eventually becomes clear is that these external, finite things and experiences don’t, in fact, bring us happiness. So what does? What is it that we’re missing? Ultimately, we’re missing our relationship with God: “Only in God will [man] find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #27). There are many ways to enter into and deepen our relationship with God. Common suggestions include “go to Mass more”, “pray more”, and “receive the Sacraments frequently”. While all of these are true and solid answers, there is another suggestion, often left out, which affects us every day and in every moment of our lives. Another way to deepen our relationship with God and to finding ultimate fulfillment and that “something more” is to actively pursue a life of virtue and Christian holiness.
God wants to be in relationship with us, to bring us the joy and peace that we seek. When He created us, God placed the desire for happiness in our hearts so that we would search for and long to be in relationship with Him (cf. CCC #1718). God yearns to be with us, and we are not complete without Him. God invites, intends, each one of us to be in relationship with Him. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus said, “Where I am going you know the way … I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father” (John 14:4, 6-7). The more we follow Jesus, the closer to God we become. Through His life and death, Jesus shows us how to be in full relationship with God; He’s our guide and our teacher. One of the ways Jesus showed us to live in full relationship with God is to live a life of virtue, a life of “habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC #1803). By showing us that we are to pursue good, Jesus, and God, invite us into a new kind of life. Saint Paul tells us, “whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s in this new life from living in relationship with God that we find the happiness that we’re searching for. In being in relationship with Him, our lives change, and we become part of something much bigger than ourselves.
The new life God calls us to, the life virtue prepares us for, and the life we were made to have, is a life of holiness. Holiness is described as “perfection of charity” (CCC #1709), and charity “is the form of the virtues; … Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love” (CCC #1827). In other words, holiness is perfect love. The Beatles sang “all you need is love,” but they should have sung “all you need is holiness” because holiness is the peak of love, the best kind of love. By being “the form of the virtues,” we understand that love is the root of all virtue. To be virtuous, to be holy, is to be loving. When asked about what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). The first three words in both of these commandments is “You shall love,” which, again, is the root of virtue. Thus, Jesus is describing the virtues here. When Jesus says “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”, Jesus is implicitly referring to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. which “relate directly to God … They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object” (CCC #1812). When Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” He is implicitly referring to the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance which “govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (CCC #1804). Jesus’ two greatest commandments tell us to live virtuous and holy lives.
The virtues, especially the theological virtues, may seem like grandiose, abstract ideas, but they actually have very real and practical applications in our lives. Faith is the virtue by which we believe in God in the first place (cf. CCC #1814). It can be very tempting to believe that faith is “just between Jesus and me”, that it’s a private matter and that we are supposed to keep it to ourselves. But Saint James makes it clear that “just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). If we don’t let ourselves be guided and transformed by our faith, we’ll lose it, just as a plant stops growing and eventually dies if it isn’t being watered. To see practical examples of living out our faith, we only have to look to the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes. Our faith should lead us to action. Knowing that there is a loving God who wants to be in relationship with us, knowing and experiencing the fact that growing this relationship with God is the only thing that will make us truly happy, changes our lives. In this way, hope goes hand in hand with faith. Hope is “an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, … where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner” (Hebrews 6:19-20). Hope reminds us that we were made to be in relationship with God (cf. CCC #1817), and that relationship with God is the only thing that will truly satisfy us. Charity, as already mentioned, is what helps us love God and others more (cf. CCC #1822). Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). When we remember that Jesus loved us so much that he died for us, we see how radically God is calling us to love our friends, neighbors, and even our enemies. Our everyday actions are influenced by the fact that Jesus calls us, commands us, to imitate Him.
To see the practical applications of the human virtues, we can use the example of going out on a Friday night. In a way, prudence is like mindfulness. It’s what helps us take a step back and asses a situation, giving us space to figure out what the good and right action should be (cf. CCC #1806). On a Friday night, prudence would be the voice in our head telling us we should go home early if we have to wake up early Saturday morning to meet with someone. By going home early and getting a good night’s rest, we can be cheerful, present, and awake with our friend on Saturday morning instead of being tired, groggy, and somewhat grumpy. On a Friday night, justice is the voice that makes sure you leave a good tip at the bar when your bartender gives you really great service. It’s also the voice that tells us to break up a fight or to take our friend home when we see that they’ve had too much to drink. Justice helps us respect one another and think about the common good (cf. CCC #1807). Fortitude, or courage, is what helps us do what’s right even when it may be an intimidating or a scary thing to do (cf. CCC #1808). For those who don’t like getting involved in conflict, they would need fortitude to help break up a fight or to confront someone about a wrong that was committed. Finally, temperance on a Friday night is what tells us to have two drinks instead of three, to drink only until “lightly buzzed” instead of “getting hammered.” Temperance provides balance, “ensures the will’s mastery over instincts”, and “keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.” (CCC #1809). Temperance allows us to truly be free to “do whatever we want” because with temperance, rather than being addicted to something and “needing” it, we can choose whether or not we want it and how much of it we want. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – whether or not we are aware of it, these four virtues are relevant to just about every moment and every situation in our lives.
Living a virtuous life can very quickly seem like a restrictive set of rules that prevent us from having fun or from being who we “truly are.” But Jesus promises, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11). Jesus promises that by following His example, we will have complete joy. He proposes that the virtues, which go hand in hand with Jesus’ commandments, serve as a set of guideposts that lead us to lasting happiness and the things that we truly desire. We are assured that “the way of Christ ‘leads to life’” (CCC #1696). However, Jesus does not deny that this way of life can, and will, be difficult: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). Again, the words “narrow” and “constricted” can make us feel that pursuing virtue is all about repressing our “true desires” and our “true self”. But freedom is defined as “the power, rooted in reason and will, … to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility” (CCC #1731). The goal is self-mastery and awareness, not blind submission to our impulses. We often like to reduce human nature to animal nature, but we forget that we were made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26) and that we, in fact, have been designed and created to live for something higher than our base desires. Saint Paul writes: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Just like Don Quixote’s “Impossible Dream” in the musical “Man of La Mancha,” “the world will be better for this/ That one man, scorned and covered with scars/ Still strove with his last ounce of courage/ To reach the unreachable star.” Pursuing a life of virtue will be a challenge. It will require sacrifice and choosing to do things that we may not want to do, but that we know are the right things to do. But by pursuing virtue, by striving for the perfection of love, for anything good, noble and true, we change the world, making it a better place.
Like any meaningful task worthwhile, pursuing virtue is a challenge. Virtue “allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (CCC #1803). In other words, virtue doesn’t require that we “play the part”, it requires that we “be the part”, we must authentically, from our heart, give the best of ourselves to others, even in moments when we feel they don’t deserve it. Saint Paul discovered, “when I want to do right, evil is at hand” (Romans 7:21). If we’re in a situation and there’s a “right” thing to do, it implies that there is also a “wrong” thing to do. Just as a left side necessitates a right side, Therefore, in order to participate in the “divine nature” and the “perfection of charity” God calls us to, we should be humble enough to ask God for help; it’s pretty clear it would be impossible for us to do on our own. We should always be praying for the grace to live virtuously (cf. CCC #1811). Grace is the “free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become … partakers of the divine nature” (CCC #1996). Through grace, not just our own willpower, we can reach our full potential, imitate Jesus, and, more importantly, deepen our relationship with God. God told Saint Paul, and through Saint Paul tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We are incomplete without God and without God’s power working through us. However, God willingly wants to be with us. God wants to help us up. He wants to give us the grace, the help we need, to feel the lasting joy that comes from being in relationship with Him, living His commandments, and living virtuously. All we have to do is ask for His help.
Through the virtues and grace, we can grow in our hope of reaching Heaven. Heaven often seems like an abstract and far off place, irrelevant to our life here on Earth. However, Heaven is defined as “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity … the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC #1024). Heaven is permanent relationship with God, permanent participation in the divine nature. This means that when we pursue virtue and experience the divine nature here on earth, we’re experiencing a glimpse of Heaven. In other words, Heaven is not just a place we hope to end up at when we die; it’s a way of being that involves being in true, deep relationship with the Trinity, God. Achieving heaven and glimpses of heaven necessitates that we avoid sin, “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor” (CCC #1848). Saint Paul writes, “sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). As followers of Jesus, as believers in Heaven, we’re called to live differently, but by living differently, we are promised a great reward.
The Mass and the preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent offer us prime opportunities to reflect and focus on growing in virtue. At the start of Mass, the priest invites us to take a moment and “acknowledge our sins.” While it is not necessarily sinful to fall short of living a perfectly virtuous life, “sins can be distinguished according to … the virtues they oppose” (CCC #1853). When we think about what sins we may have committed, we can look back on each week and ask ourselves if we’ve fallen short of perfect prudence, perfect justice, perfect fortitude, etcetera. After all, Jesus tells us to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). By doing this deeper examination of conscience, we can become more aware of our venial, or “less serious” sin. We can then take corrective action to avoid falling into more serious sin and to work towards more perfect charity, more perfect love (cf. CCC #1863). This is doubly the case during Advent and Lent. During Advent, the readings each Sunday help us to reflect on faith, hope, joy, and charity. We can make this an annual season for reviewing how well we’re living out the theological virtues, and asking God to help us grow in them. Similarly, we can make Lent an annual season for reviewing how well we’re living out the human virtues. Lent is classically a time when everyone, knowingly or not, focuses on developing the virtue of temperance through fasting and sacrifice. But we can practice justice by practicing any of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy; prudence by spending more time in prayer and maybe even by making our Lenten promise one of thinking things through before committing to anything; and we can grow in fortitude by meditating on any of the various times in Scripture where God’s strength is displayed, where someone triumphed, through God’s help, over adversity, or where God assures us of His goodness and blessing. Every day of the year is a good day to reflect on how well we’re living virtue and to deepen our relationship with God, but we can take advantage of weekly preparing for Mass and the seasons of Lent and Advent to reflect and deepen our relationship even further.
Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, gratitude, “step into your power”. When we first begin our search for deeper meaning in our lives outside of faith, these are often the first words, phrases, and self-help directions we hear. Many people find deep satisfaction in them and sense a true spiritual awakening. But what people don’t realize is that these directives are actually fragments of the kind of life God has had in mind for us all along. Mindful of virtue, meditating on Scripture and the life of Jesus, grateful for our participation and sharing in the life of the Trinity, and stepping into God’s grace, we enter into the divine life and find the happiness and fulfillment we’ve been searching for. It won’t be easy, but “God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). God wants to be in relationship with us, He wants us to be truly happy, and by deciding to pursue virtue, cooperating with God’s grace, prayer, and the Sacraments, we can enter into a new life here on Earth and satisfy the longing in our hearts.
Photo from Photobox UK on Pinterest