I try, at least once a week, to be present on the university campus on which I serve as the Newman Center chaplain. I do this for a variety of reasons. When I am on campus I will often have someone approach me with a question about the Catholic Church or interested in the Catholic Center. I use my time walking from building to building posting flyers to pray for the university and all its members. I enjoy running into Catholics on campus and I get to check out all the flyers of the different groups on campus and get a sense of what is going on.
In reading the flyers I have learned that there is a lot of verbiage shared on the college campus about rights and freedoms (which is certainly fine and appropriate) but not so much about responsibilities.
This has left me wondering because we grow in full maturity as human persons not just through the exercise of our rights and freedoms but also through the living of responsibilities and commitments. The truth is that an over-focus on one side without an awareness of the other side leaves the human person stunted in his or her moral development and ultimately frustrated; precisely because we are not achieving that which we are meant to achieve – full personhood.
Because of this I have decided to spend time this semester reflecting and writing on responsibility and commitment in human life and sharing these reflections through the Catholic Center facebook group and website and my own blog site.
I share these thoughts because I truly believe that our responsibilities and commitments matter and that to pretend that they do not or to negate through silence is, in fact, a great disservice.
A good way, I believe, to approach this issue of responsibility and commitment in human life is to explore what we mean by the term “virtue” – what it is, where it comes from, and how we develop it in our lives.
So, what is “virtue”? The word “virtue” has its root in a Latin word meaning “force”. Virtue can be defined as a practiced and developed, “habit of good behavior which enables us to do what is right with increasing ease, joy and consistency, in response to God’s offer of and invitation to covenant love” (The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia).
There are three components to this short definition that I believe are worthy of reflection and consideration. First, virtue is a “habit of good behavior”. We must be involved in the process and our choices do have consequences. No one is going to get stronger physically by just thinking about it. To get stronger and healthier physically, a person needs to develop the habit of exercise and appropriate rest and also that of right eating. It is the same dynamic in the moral life; exercising the virtues are the means by which we grow morally. Second, virtues “enable us to do what is right with increasing ease, joy and consistency”. There is a basic law of physics which states that a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion remains in motion. The effects of the practice of the virtues and good choices are not confined only to the moment in which they occur but strengthen us also for the “next moment” or the choice that awaits us in the future (a choice which may have truly serious ramifications for our lives). Third, virtues are lived “in response to God’s offer of and invitation to covenant love”. God’s grace is present and it is important for us to recognize this. God is involved in the equation of life and how we live. It is important to remember that we do not have to “go it alone”. God is present. Even when we stumble (which we all do, hence the sacrament of reconciliation) God is there to offer his grace and love. We on our part have to be willing to receive and the habit of the virtues just as it is grounded in God’s continual invitation to us also opens us up to receive even more of God’s presence and love. Grace is not opposed to our lives but rather grace builds upon nature.
Our Christian heritage lists seven virtues: the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love). All of the virtues depend on our hearts being open to, working with and developing the habit of the virtues while also cooperating with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Last week, at the International Day of Peace event on campus, I watched a couple demonstrate the beauty and fluidity of the tango. Time and again, the couple in their comments stressed that the dance was not choreographed beforehand but was directed by the flow of the music in the moment but (at the same time) it was truly apparent that the couple was dedicated in knowing, studying and practicing the style and movements of the dance. This continual practice in no way hindered nor opposed the movement of the dance in the moment but rather it was the two in tension and cooperation together that brought the dance to its beauty and fulfillment. In the habit of the virtues the steps and practice are our own and the flow of the music is the Holy Spirit active. The two are not opposed but rather together bring to fulfillment the beauty and rhythm of a life well lived.
Over these next few weeks I will reflect on each of the seven virtues and how each – when practiced and lived – truly helps us to achieve the beauty and authenticity of a life well lived.