Believing in Jesus Christ and being committed to the Christian faith is a tremendous source of encouragement, calmness and courage. The center of our faith is that for all eternity there has existed an infinite being who willed our individual existence, provides us with what is necessary to become adopted children of God and surrounds us with an unending invitation to holiness and to wholeness. Among God’s greatest gifts are those that we describe as special gifts of the Holy Spirit.
When you begin to talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, theologians soon jump into the discussion and make it more complicated than it has to be. The gifts of the Spirit are spiritual. They envelope and fulfill our souls but they are different from the virtues.
The word “virtue” simply means a habit and almost everyone has both good and bad habits. Good virtues are lived at the natural level – generosity, courage, competence. Some theologians have wanted to match virtues and the gifts but it is simply not necessary. We need to concentrate on the reality of God, his existence, his love for us and his desire that we share in his infinite joy for all eternity.
Nothing is more mysterious in our lives than our own inner being and thoughtful people endeavor always to know more about themselves and the relationships through which they are living. I have been talking about the importance of our relationship to God, about the importance of virtues and the gifts of the Spirit. In closing, let me mention that St. Paul, in the fifth chapter of Galatians, made reference to the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
“On the other hand, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control. No law can touch such things as these!”
Theology can be a challenge, can’t it?
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It is April of 2011 and several weeks ago Newsweek had on its cover the exclamation, “Apocalypse Now!!” It didn’t take much imagination to know what would be handled inside the magazine; nuclear disaster in Japan, the U.S. involvement with a third war with a Muslim country, bitter labor disputes and demonstrations in the Midwest, the threat of economic disaster in Europe, continued war and violence in the Near East, fear of continuing earthquakes in the Pacific, etc., etc. There is no doubt about it. Things are grim for much of the planet and what is required to move forward with confidence in the virtue of hope.
About two weeks ago, I talked about the theological virtues – the three virtues that tie us directly to Almighty God, the virtues that make it possible for us to begin to share God’s life even on this planet. I talked about faith, the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe that all he has said and revealed to us. The next one is the virtue of hope, the theological virtue by which we desire the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises. We need this theological virtue in order to hold firmly to our faith and optimism about the ultimate outcome of life on this planet and life hereafter. We do need to try to develop this virtue at the supernatural level but, at the same time, we are aware that there is the natural virtue of hope too – hope which gives us the courage to face extraordinary difficulties – the optimism to make us realize that if we utilize the natural gifts that God has given us we can move forward easing our pain, alleviating our suffering, solving the problems, etc., etc.
Newsweek magazine didn’t say very much about hope in discussing “Apocalypse Now” but the Gospels provide enough documentation to encourage us to move forward with confidence and joy and hope at the supernatural level and at the natural as well. We must be people of hope.
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When we talk about the English language, we often brag about its extraordinary diversity. English utilizes more words than any other language on earth – at least a quarter of a million, and I haven’t checked that figure lately. One of the disadvantages of being so large is that the vast majority of English words lend themselves to many different meanings or interpretations and one that comes to mind right now is the word charity. Sometimes it is used in a very negative sense. “We don’t take charity.” Sometimes it describes a particular kind of program or maybe the temperament of the individual person, that he is very charitable which means that he doesn’t malign his neighbors reputations.
The word itself comes from the Latin word caritas, which is the word for love. Therefore, it is really a wonderful word. When charity is put in the box with faith and hope, we are referring to what I mentioned earlier as a theological virtue. The object of the theological virtues is God himself. We have faith in God, we have hope in God and in the case of charity, we have caritas, which means we have a deep, honest commitment to love this Infinite Being who has brought us into existence and sustains us in existence.
The theological virtues, lived as they are at the supernatural level, underpin the natural virtues that we live with day by day so that ideally the person who is charitable, the person who doesn’t malign people, the person who is concerned constantly about the needs of others is that kind of person because of his love for God.
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I find it interesting that most of us are rather comfortable with the word “vice.” We know exactly what it means. We read about it frequently in the newspapers. Our cities have vice squads and newspapers remind us that certain neighborhoods are filled with vice. On the other hand, virtue, the opposite of vice, is a word that leaves some of us a little uncomfortable. We describe a person as being a virtuous man or virtuous woman but we don’t know exactly what that means. When we use the word virtue, we are really referring to the fact that it is a quality in a person that provides a habitual and firm disposition to do good. Vice, of course, is the opposite.
During these holy days of Lent while we are trying to develop certain qualities in our spiritual life, such a patience and empathy, what we are really trying to do is to become virtuous in that or some other aspect of our journey towards God.
Earlier in the week, I mentioned the theological virtues. It seems somewhat less clear than the natural virtues, such as generosity, empathy, self-control, etc., etc. Natural virtues direct us towards some aspect of our day-to-day life in the natural area, whereas theological virtues are centered on God. When we call faith a theological virtue, we are saying that if we believe in God that we center our life on him and that the theological virtue of faith is one of our strongest underpinnings.
Tomorrow, let’s take a brief look at hope.
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Most of us are very conscious of the interaction that we have with the people with whom we are sharing life. We talk, we communicate, we get angry, we step forward to help, we step back in shock. There are so many emotions and responses in the people around us and oddly enough if we stop to evaluate those relationships, we might put one or another under a good heading. We might even call one of them a virtue!
A virtue is simply the facility in doing a good thing easily as opposed to a vice, which is a tendency towards more easily doing something that was wrong. We think of ourselves as being patient, impatient, kind, hostile, generous, selfish, etc., etc. We are familiar with those expressions because they neatly tab all these actions that we have with others and we evaluate them as we look inside ourselves and try to see how we are doing in our moral journey.
Then out of the sky comes the theological virtues. I may be judging others on the basis of my own shortcomings, but I have to honestly admit that although while I am intellectually conscious of the theological virtues, they are not always at the top of my list as I examine my conscience; they are not always goals to which I set myself as I continue my Lenten journey. There are only three of them – faith, hope and charity. Tradition tells us that these three virtues of the foundation of all Christian moral activity are animated and give it special character. On the basis of our baptism, these virtues are infused by God into the souls of the faithful and they make us capable of acting as his children and meriting eternal life (Catholic Catechism #1813).
As a favor to myself, I am going to take a little time and begin to think about these three awesome gifts. I know that if I develop the virtue of faith, if I cling to the virtue of hope, and if I allow the virtue of charity to pass through me, my spiritual life will be greatly enhanced. I also know that if I neglect them, I will be spiritually damaged.
As we reach the midpoint of Lent, I would encourage you to do the same thing.
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People frequently hear me making the statement that the lectionary that came out of the Second Vatican Council is a wonderful spiritual gift and a first-rate school of theology. The lectionary is a rearrangement of thousands and thousands of biblical texts into themes or in a manner to spotlight certain seasons or feasts of the Church. Now we are in the second half of Advent and let’s take a look back to see if it has influenced us in any way.
Naturally, the main theme of Advent is expectation, looking into the future with faith and hope in our belief that God visited us in the person of Jesus. The liturgy of Advent will lead ultimately towards the saving actions of Holy Week which brought about our redemption. There is, however, a second theme of Advent and it is also extremely important not for the hereafter, but for the here and now. That second theme is patience.
Patience is a natural virtue and everyone of us has a need for it but some of us are willing to admit that impatience is one of our biggest weaknesses. Patience is a gift that brings calmness and steadfastness in day-to-day living. Impatience is a weakness that leads to unnecessary pain and suffering. In the second reading on Sunday, St. James told us that we should be like farmers in the winter – patiently and confidently looking forward to spring and the harvest. He also stresses the need to be patience with each other, not to grumble but be prepared to take suffering and hardships.
Each of us should examine his or her conscience about how many people we have caused to be hurt or cry simply because we do not have the power to keep our emotions under control when irritating developments occur around us. Being patient when nothing is wrong and everybody is behaving correctly is not much of a challenge. Being patient in the face of bad manners and insensitivity and mechanical problems that beset all of us is a real virtue and we should strive for it.
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We would all like to be considered virtuous but we all know that each of us has serious limitations. A virtue is simply a facility of doing good things…good actions. A person who never speaks ill of another is credited with the virtue of charity. A person who puts up with a neighbor or family member who is by nature very irritating is credited with the virtue of patience. While we can describe these objectively as different qualities, the fact is that in most of us they are interlocking realities. A person who is patient is usually kind. The person who is kind must, of necessity, be patient.
Let’s think about these two virtues for a second. They are certainly appreciated by everyone as we share life together. It is wonderful to work with and deal with a person who is consistently kind. That is a blessing to us because of our own weaknesses that we also deal with people who are patient with us. We look for these virtues in the lives of people around us because our own actions generate a justifiable impatience and challenge the natural kindness of the people with whom we are sharing life. When we prepare for the Sacrament of Penance, we should not examine ourselves simply in terms of sin but much more importantly in terms of virtue. Reconciliation is a sacrament to help us to grow forward in holiness, to walk evermore closely with our Divine Lord in his journey towards Calvary. That means that we need to really work, really practice in achieving a more virtuous life. In my opinion, the key word here is practice and opportunities for it is very much available to us.
The average person has had an opportunity a half dozen times to practice both virtue and patience before lunchtime. A large number of the people on the freeway are crazy. The people in our carpool talk too much or won’t talk at all when we want to discuss yesterday’s game. When we feel the temptation towards unkindness or impatience, we need to grasp the reality that is taking place there and strengthen ourselves to do the right thing. Okay – we didn’t do too well this morning but we will have plenty of time before dinner is over tonight. Let’s try together.
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