How is it that to call someone ‘virtuous’ is practically an insult in modern English? You might as well just use the word ‘boring’.
But the life of virtue is meant to be anything but boring. Not only are we meant to pursue virtue as Christians, but, as human beings, we should want to.
Virtue isn’t so much about what we do as who we are. We grow in virtue (or not) through our actions, but the point of acquiring a particular virtue is to shape our character. Growing in virtue is part of life for all human beings. We wouldn’t be particularly impressed with an adult who had the self-control of a toddler.
Growing up involves growing in virtue. A certain amount of that virtue grows quite easily in the right environment. When we are encouraged by our families and our friends, our school or our workplace to take on certain responsibilities for ourselves and for others, we have no option but to grow in the virtues we need to live and work with other people.
But that will only get us so far. The level of virtue society demands of us is not the same as the level God calls us to. The standard of our virtue is not meant to be our friends on earth, but our friends in heaven — those men and women the Church has recognised as examples of ‘heroic virtue’.
Every so often, a video will hit the news or social media and be watched by millions around the world because it shows someone doing something that is highly skilled, often to the point of being unbelievable. There’s no trick though. We know how they did it. Practice. And more practice. If you want to be a skilled athlete, musician or artist, you know that it takes practice and hard work. The same is true of the virtues.
Sometimes there are shortcuts. The Lord can, if he wants, give us a virtue we’ve never had to work for. But even in the Christian life virtues are normally acquired only with our co-operation. Because virtues are also skills. They are the skills of the moral life, of decision making and action. A temperate person can decide without hesitation when to stop eating. A patient man controls his temper without a second thought. And such people are able to act in this way because they have practised making the right decision over and over again.
The members of some religious communities make an explicit commitment to strive for one particular virtue each Lent. As Lent approaches, we can take the opportunity to ask ourselves what we would like to change about our character by the time we get to Easter. We don’t need to know the technical names of the virtue we need, and we don’t need to tell anyone else what we’re doing. We just need to identify one particular bad habit we want to overcome and do something each day to chip away at it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and saints aren’t made overnight. Virtue requires a consistent, daily effort — like we see in the life of St Andrew Avellino, who promised God that he wouldn’t let a day pass without making at least some small progress in virtue.
If you’re still not sure where to start, help is on its way. The Church identifies seven principle virtues: the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. We’ll be exploring each of these over the next seven weeks and looking at how we can make them part of our own good character.
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