Spiritual Virtuosos

“Wisdom and her three daughters: Faith, Hope, Charity” Icon by Karp Zolotaryov, c. 1685. wikimedia.org

As I’ve read and re-read the Pope’s new encyclical, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role played by the virtuous life in developing an authentic vision for the right stewardship of creation. No matter how convincing are the arguments for moral principles, without virtuous people to incarnate them no lasting difference can be made in the world. Only when we possess the virtues — which are really various facets of charity, the “soul of the virtues” — are we able to rightly relate rightly to neighbor, self, all of creation and God. Hence virtues, which are habitual and firm dispositions to do the good, are a big deal in Christianity.

The pope notes throughout Chapter Six that at the heart of an authentic spirituality stands the life of virtue. So often in (post)modernity, spirituality is equated with subjective states of consciousness or self-centered notions of personal fulfillment. Such a spirituality gives rise to a god who is really the self, writ-large as an all-affirming deity blessing my preferences and canonizing my worldview. The God of Israel, on the other hand, judges all such gods to be idols and calls idolaters to repentance and reform, i.e. to the life of virtue based on the Law. For Christianity, what especially distinguishes authentic spirituality are the “hard” virtues that Christ evinces in their perfect form; virtues such as prudence, justice, charity, temperance, mercy, chastity, obedience and fortitude in the face of suffering. The truly “spiritual” are the truly virtuous, and the surest measure of spiritual growth is not the heightened experience of a refined or ecstatic consciousness, but the increased ability to freely forgive harm done to you or cheerfully give alms to the undeserving.

St. Teresa of Avila, in describing the different states of active and passive prayer in The Way of Perfection as different means of gathering water, argues that the real purpose of prayer is to grow the virtues: “The water [the graces of prayer] is for the flowers [the virtues].” Union with God, she contends, is not some ethereal union or rarefied state, but rather natural and theological virtues in sync with God’s will and attributes. We are in union with God when our justice harmonizes with His Justice, our charity with His Charity, our patience with His Patience, our mercy with His Mercy, our purity with His Purity, our generosity with His Generosity, et cetera ad infinitum.

So, the Pope says, if you want to be spiritual, be virtuous. And if you want to be virtuous, work with and pray for grace. Let me let the Pope speak for himself…

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers. (#222-224, 226)

4 comments on “Spiritual Virtuosos

  1. […] up the self-centeredness of many forms of modern spiritual practice, and I think this excerpt from his blog does a good job of clarifying the distinction I’ve noticed, emphasis […]

  2. number one sinner says:

    AGAPE AGAPE AGAPE…

    • Sorry I have not commented in a while — I am out of town and away from email…but am happy I checked in for these comments. Agapex3 sume it up — could have saved me 1034 words! Always a great gift to hear your responses and think with you about these things, NOS. Prayers for your Orthodox friend, according to your own intentions for him. Peace and joy in Jesus, my friend. tjmfjn

  3. Jennifer says:

    I finally finished reading it today! Of all that was in there, I thought it was lovely and a deeply important idea that we Christians are being asked to all return to praying before and after our meals. Anyways, I’m not going to go into my thoughts on the encyclical here ha ha. Love this post! It ties in so awesomely with the earlier ones this week!

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