Friday, February 24, 2012

40 Things #3: Seven Virtues

Many thanks to Jen for hosting!

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***  

I've decided to combine quick takes with my Lenten series featuring Catholic beliefs, traditions, and moral teachings.  This week, I'll be looking at the seven virtues and talking about how each has played a role in my life.  The first four (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) were described by Aristotle and Plato; the final three (faith, hope, and love) are the theological virtues described in the letters of St. Paul.  Church fathers adopted all of them together as the seven virtues.

1. Prudence: this is "the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason."  It enables a person to choose between doing something virtuous and something vicious, all within an appropriate place and time.  In even more difficult situations, people rely upon prudence to choose among various goods (for example, in deciding how to allocate charitable contributions).

In recent times, English-speakers have used this word to mean a sort of cautiousness; the two are really not synonyms, however, because although cautiousness may indeed be prudent if a risk is not worthwhile, it may actually be cowardly in other circumstances.

This is a virtue I struggle with at times, especially in my role as a mother.  How best do I parent when my daughter is sleeping poorly?  Frustrated and cranky?  Wanting to nurse nonstop for no discernible reason?  There have been many occasions when I have been dreadfully imprudent in performing my parental duties!

2. Justice: this is the "moderation between selfishness and selflessness" to "render to each and all what is due to them."  This implies both an equality and an inequality: each person gets exactly what he or she is entitled to have (equal) but each person is not entitled to the exact same thing (unequal).

My hopes of being a just person were frequently on my mind during the time I taught at a two-year career school.  It was very important to me that each student have the attention and instruction he or she deserved (more or less equal); I also wanted to make sure each student's grade reflected what he or she had actually earned (unequal).

3. Temperance: this is "moderation in action, thought, or feeling," commonly thought of as control over excess.  As it can refer to many kinds of excess, it has many classes, such as chastity, humility, forgiveness, and mercy.

In my own life, I must admit I mostly think of temperance relative to alcohol.  I certainly understand that some people must avoid alcohol, and if someone chooses not to drink, I absolutely respect that.  But I've always rejected the idea that alcohol is evil and should be avoided by everyone.

4. Fortitude: this is acting rightly in spite of one's fears -- namely, courage.  It can be physical (in the face of physical pain or death) or moral (in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement).

Well, I know I need to work on this one.  I do have a hideously awful story of a time I actually got it right.  One time, I was at a relatively intimate bridal shower (of all places), and the topic of assisted suicide came up (this was around the time of the tragic Terri Schaivo story).  One member of the party decided that we should all go around the table and say whether we'd want to go on living if we were in a condition like Terri's.  Every single person there said no, except me.

5. Faith: this is the virtue by which "we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself." 

I have always believed in God and in the tenants of Catholicism, but I have not always necessarily lived my faith.  (Well, sinful as I am, I never live it 100%.  But there have been periods in my life, particularly during my teens and early 20's, when I blatantly ignored many of the most basic Christian teachings, like "love your neighbor.")  Our tradition emphasizes that acting on one's beliefs is an integral part of faith -- "Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself." (James 2:17)  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15)

6. Hope: this virtue enables us to "desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit."

It is comforting to know that I am not "going it alone."  I think that, especially in America where our  history has emphasized the self-made man and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps, there is a great emphasis on self-reliance.  To an degree, I'm happy about that: it does someone no good to insist on an "external locus of control" and accept no personal responsibility.  However, I think we must be careful not to go too far the other way in our thinking.  We do not, and cannot, rely on our own strength to be virtuous, and we need not: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always....the Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name -- he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you."  (John 14:16, 26)

7. Charity: this is Christ's greatest commandment: to love God with one's whole heart, soul, and mind; and to love one's neighbor as oneself. (Matthew 22: 37-39)

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

How often have we heard these verses read at weddings?  And with good reason: St. Paul's words are some of the most beautiful ever written about love.  But I think it's good for us to remind ourselves that he was not writing specifically about romantic love in this passage.  We are called to "love our neighbor," and our neighbor is everybody.  Of course, this love is often not a feeling, but it is always an action.

As I mentioned in the section on faith, this is one of the virtues I have had difficulty living up to in my life.  "Love your neighbor" sounds great -- of course I should do that!  And I am hurt, or betrayed, or even simply irritated by a stranger in the grocery store, and loving that person doesn't even enter my mind.  I'm trying to change that, and it really takes a conscious effort!


  1. I like your example tying the virtue of Justice to the grading process during your time teaching. I used to have my kids work in cooperative groups quite a bit, and it was important that I still assigned credit in a way that was just - so that one person didn't end up doing all the work, for one thing. This looks like an interesting series you're doing!

    1. Thank you! Grading with groups is very difficult. Doing it reminded me of my own days as a student when I was almost always the one doing all the work.

  2. This is a great list! What a fabulous idea. Fortitude is one of my favorites.... :)

    1. Thank you! Fortitude is one of my favorites, too! :)

  3. Thanks for sharing, this is a great list. I am trying to live temperance in regards to food and shopping, which are my main vices. It's tough!

    Happy weekend!

    1. Happy weekend to you! Temperance with food is very difficult, I agree. I think I probably associate it more often with alcohol because I don't have as much difficulty in that area, so it reminds me less of my own vices. But there's no season like Lent for thinking about the areas where I really need to improve.