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Universal Call to Holiness
Each person is created in the image and likeness of God and he or she is of inestimable worth. Human dignity is the greatest equality in our world. People may come from different cultures, times, places, and creeds, but they all have human dignity in common. This worth is not without a purpose. Created by the grace and love of God, we are ordered towards eternity with Him in Heaven. In short, we are called to be saints.
In Latin, the word for “saint” and the word for “holy” are the same: sanctus. Sanctus means to be set apart or consecrated [the assumption here is consecrated for a purpose]. The call to be a saint is universal and applies to each and every person. What is more astounding is that this call is remarkably individual. God’s call to be holy and thus to share in His own blessed life is offered to us in a way that we will understand, if we have ears to hear.
How, then, can we grow in our ability to hear the voice of God? How can we have eyes to see more readily His grand design for our life? How can we become more disposed to God’s grace and cooperation with His grace? One of the most practical tools in this endeavor is the life of virtue.
Fullness of Christian Life and Perfection of Charity
The Second Vatican Council makes this call explicit in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The Council fathers write, “All Christians… are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity (LG 40).” And lest we believe that we have attained the pinnacle of growth of virtue, St. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us: “Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none.”
Certainly, there is no more important effort in our lives than cooperation with grace ordered towards communion with God. If we make progress in virtue, then we make progress in holiness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Spiritual progress tends towards ever more intimate union with Christ (CCC 2014).” Not to belabor the point but it is worth saying again: any progress we make is the fruit of God’s grace in our lives.
What is a Virtue?
The Catechism defines virtue in the following way: “A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good (CCC 1803).” We do not fall into virtue haphazardly. A firm disposition is required for virtue. Regular and habitual performance is also necessary. Finally, it is an action and disposition which firmly intends towards the good.
The Catechism rightly shows that these good actions are not to inflate our pride and make us feel good. Rather, they are ordered to communion with God and to become like Him. In the words of the Catechism: virtue “allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself… the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God (CCC 1803).”
The Theological Virtues
The life of virtue is ordered to God but it also originates in God. He gives us the grace to be virtuous. Prior to Baptism, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity swirl around us and woo us into the salvific life of the Christian. Then, after entering through the door of Baptism, we receive these tremendous gifts as an indwelling of God’s own life in our soul.
We receive faith to be able to know and believe what God has revealed. We receive hope which is sure and certain that if we love God and heed His commands then we will forever behold the beatific vision in paradise. And we receive the virtue of charity which makes possible everything that we do. God’s own love and life is charity, for God is love. All things were created out of His sheer goodness and love; His love is the ground of being.
All three of these remarkable theological virtues are not something that we can grow in on our own volition. God gives them, we receive them, and then we choose to cooperate freely with them or squander them. Then, we can ask for a greater share in faith, hope, and charity. In this respect, we are habitual and firm in our disposition to cooperate with God’s grace to do the good.
The Human Virtues
Aside from the theological virtues, are there virtues which we CAN grow in by our free use of them? Are there virtues we can strengthen like going to the gym to strengthen our muscles? These are called the human virtues.
The Catechism says that the human virtues are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith (CCC 1804).” In other words, the virtues allow us to be in control of our actions, emotions, and overall conduct.
The final note from the Catechism here should not pass without comment: our actions and conduct should be in accordance with reason and faith. Doing whatever we want is not virtuous. Doing what God wants is. So, it should be very clear that the virtues are part and parcel of living the Christian life and answering the universal call to holiness.
The Cardinal Virtues
Before we explore the human virtues in more detail, I would like to spend a few moments on the cardinal virtues. The word cardinal comes from the Latin word for hinge. On these virtues all the other human virtues hinge. They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Let’s see what the Catechism has to say on each.
“Prudence disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it (CCC 1806).” It is called the charioteer of the virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas said that it is “right reason in action.”
“Justice consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Through it, we are disposed to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (CCC 1807).”
“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life (CCC 1808).”
“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable (CCC 1809).”
How Do We Acquire Human Virtues?
How do we actually go about acquiring human virtues? The first way is by education. We must never tire of allowing ourselves to be formed more and more in the life of virtue. Virtues are habitual and deliberate. Therefore, we must persevere in repeated efforts to cooperate with God’s grace. By His goodness, our character is forged and our intellect and will are freer to practice the good. We will know that we are growing in virtue when we are truly happy to practice virtue.
Pursuing virtue will not always be easy. Living in a world wounded by sin, it is difficult to maintain balance in the virtuous life. With God’s grace, we must continue to live a life in the Church with the sacraments, read Scripture regularly, take time each day for prayer, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and be docile to what He calls us to love and what to shun. Intention and deliberation follow from cooperation in the spiritual order: grace always goes first.
In Medio Stat Virtus - In the Middle Stands the Virtue
Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, once quipped: “In medio stat virtus” - In the middle stands the virtue. Living a life of virtue is a balancing act. Practically speaking, we do not want a deficiency or a disproportionate emphasis.
For example, if we go too far towards the excess of justice, we will lose mercy. But if we have a deficiency and we stray away from justice towards what we think is mercy, we are not being just at all.
In another example, if we are trying so hard to be prudent that we do not act, this is an excess of virtue. However, if we are deficient in prudence, we will act rashly and unadvisedly. Neither excess or deficiency is meritorious and virtuous.
There is a chart (below) which has a listing of virtues in the middle column and the deficiencies on the left and excesses on the right. I hope that this visual is helpful to be able to see how virtue is often found in the mean between two extremes.
In practicing virtue, we must continually examine our actions at the end of each day. Begin by giving thanks to God for the times when you were able to choose virtue recognizing that His grace allowed this. Then, sort through some times when virtuous acts strayed towards deficiency or excess. Finding this balance is a lifelong struggle. Run, but do not grow weary! The life of virtue is worth it. The more you and I embrace virtue, the happier we will be, in the ways that actually matter.
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