Archive for the ‘Virtue’ Category

Have Hope

Looking ahead, at the next few months (or years), what do you hope for?

If I asked what would you wish for, would your answer change at all?

Although we often use the words hope and wish interchangeably, there’s a huge difference.  Both are future oriented—for things we want to happen.

When we wish for something we want to happen, we do so in a passive way: wanting something to happen to us without any effort on our part.

I wish we would win the lottery.

 When we hope for something we want to happen, we actively participate in bringing it about.

I hope my children grow up to be good, generous, loving people.

 So then, when we consider that hope is a theological virtue, what we’re saying is that we are actively participating with God.

 The theological virtue of hope can be defined as trusting in the promises for the Kingdom of God and cooperating with God’s grace to make the future happen.

Participating with God involves trust.

  • I trust that I am doing my best, taking personal, proactive responsibility.
  • I trust God to do the rest.

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Balancing the two – personal responsibility and trust in God – is a challenge.  Most of us struggle with one of the two extremes:

Too Much God, Not Enough Me

–OR–

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

 Too Much God, Not Enough Me

You know the story of the man and the flood?

A man who lived by the river heard a radio report predicting severe flooding.  Heavy rains were going to cause the river to rush up and flood the town, so all the residents were told to evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, “Hey, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What are you doing here?”

When our reliance on God comes at the neglect of human action, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Instead, we practice some wish-based “Cheap-Hope” where God will provide becomes equivalent to saying God will do it all for me.

Jesus invites us to participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God.  (Read more about participation in my post about The Good Shepherd and Sacraments.)

Sometimes, all we can do to help a situation is pray.  And we should always pray.  But when we can do something more–and it falls within our realm of responsibility–we should do so.

God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and bestowed upon us gifts and talents that he expects us to use (recall the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30).  We need to take these seriously as we practice the virtue of hope.

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

Then, there are those of us who take it to the other extreme: relying on human action alone and excluding God.

We recognize that the person in despair lacks hope.  But too often this isn’t an inability to practice the virtue of hope.  Rather, despair–hopelessness–is a sign of a serious depression.  Help is available for those who need it.

Who struggles with the practicing the virtue of hope?

  • The Type-A who obsesses about every little detail
  • The Control Freak who cannot let go
  • The Worrier who is filled with anxiety
  • The Complainer who loses perspective

When we think that everything is up to us, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Here, the lack of hope involves the failure to trust God.

When Maureen was asked to be the Spiritual Director for the next Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) retreat, she was overwhelmed.  “I can’t do this; I’m not qualified.”  The Continuation Committee recognized her gifts and talents, but Maureen was filled with anxiety.  “This is an enormous responsibility.  I cannot possibly lead and guide these women on their journey.”  In prayer and conversation with her loved ones, Maureen came to see that she was assuming that she alone was responsible for the direction of the retreat.  Rather than envision her leadership as participating with God, she feared it was all up to her.  Once she grounded herself in the virtue of hope, she was able to accept.  Throughout the process of formation, Maureen had to constantly remind herself that she was not in this alone. Rather, she was working with God: doing her best and trusting God to work in, with, and through her.

Whether it’s our parenting, our professional career, or our relationships, practicing the virtue of hope means that we are participating with God.  Moreover, we are inviting God to participate with us in every nook and cranny of our lives.

Practicing the virtue of hope also means participating with others.  We need to allow and encourage others to participate to the best of their abilities.  That means putting down our “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself” banners.  The social justice principle of subsidiarity means that we let each person do for themselves what they can.  There is goodness in that.  It’s how Jesus did things, too.

Like any virtue, practicing hope is something that we can get better at doing.  As a teen, I often prayed the Serenity Prayer.

serenity-prayer

As an adult, I find that the Prayer of Oscar Romero speaks to the depths of my heart as I struggle to become better at practicing the virtue of hope.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. Romero 3

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Somewhere Along the Line

I met Peter through a friend of a friend at a party, before heading out to see some bands play at South By Southwest.  I was attracted to the trifecta of cute, smart, and funny that he had going on.  As we got to know each other, I was shocked to find out that a month before we met, he had run a marathon and completed a 50 mile bike race, and was about to do a triathlon.  He had an average-guy build–a little bit of a beer belly–and didn’t look like an athlete; I could not fathom how he could possibly do those things.

More than my unhelpful preconceived notions of what an athlete looks like, I had sized up the end-result of all his training efforts as impossible: there is no way I could run 26.2 miles, no less swim 1/2 mile, then bike 12 miles, then run 3 miles.  Just no.

I saw athleticism as haves-and-havenots (and I was a havenot).  Like a light switch: it was either on or off, but no in-between.

But Peter didn’t see what I saw.  He saw a training schedule.  He saw daily steps along a path.  He saw incremental progress building up until he could confidently complete something amazing.  Peter’s  way of seeing things inspired me.  He was a regular guy that did a marathon and a triathlon; if he could do it, I could do it.  So I did.

tri

The following year, I completed my first Danskin Triathlon – an all-women’s series that cultivates an environment of encouragement.  The swim went okay–though I’m a strong swimmer, I was ill-prepared for fifteen pairs of feet in my face.  Towards the end of the 12 mile bike ride, I faced what felt like the largest hill I had ever seen.  I wasn’t even halfway up, and I was ready to dismount and walk to the top.  But in front of me were two plump, middle-aged women, ever-so-slowly biking up-up-up, and encouraging every single person around them.  Not only were they not giving up, but they weren’t letting anyone else give up either.  “You go girl!  You got this!”  Once their words of support and love reached me, I firmed my resolve to just keep pedaling.  Tears welled as I shouted to these women “You two are amazing!  Thank you!  YOU GO!!”  And I was off, finishing the bike and then the run.

The back of the medal that each woman receives upon crossing the finish line sums up my experience with profound truth: The woman who starts the race is not the same woman who finishes the race.

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What are some of the areas in your life that you might have unhelpful preconceived notions?

Virtue 

As ignorant as I was about fitness and training, I am very familiar with how damaging unhelpful preconceived notions can be in the world of religious education, particularly the haves and havenots mentality when it comes to the topic of virtue.  If you google the definition of virtue, you can see why many people approach it as a light switch, either on or off, but no in-between.

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Emily lamented in a Facebook post about how unhelpful this preconceived notion can be.

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I don’t necessarily think Google got the definition wrong, but I do think there’s a much more helpful way of thinking about virtue.

Virtue is like a good habit that we can become better at doing.  It’s less about haves and havenots and more like a muscle that gets stronger (or weaker).  Developing virtue is like training for a race; it’s about practicing these good habits over the course of time.  When we want to form a good habit–or break a bad habit–we take incremental steps towards a goal.

When you think of virtue, imagine a gradation or a continuum of stronger-to-weaker.  See a training schedule.  See daily steps along a path.  See incremental progress building up until you can confidently complete something amazing.  Think of saints and the lives of people who inspire you.

Virtue Arrows

Recall a time when you were making a change–or trying to improve at something.  What helped you practice good habits?  How did you overcome bad habits?

The Virtue of Faith

Traditionally, a discussion of virtue touches upon the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love).  Of these seven virtues, faith seems to be the one people have the most unhelpful preconceived notions about.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)

Too often, we misunderstand the idea that faith is a gift, and perpetuate the have-havenot or light-switch attitude.  

Yes, faith is a gift: God invites us to know, love, and serve him.  The gift is the invitation.  Practicing the virtue of faith is our response.

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The virtue of faith is concerned with strengthening three areas:

  1. Belief – the intellectual understanding of and assent to what we believe
  2. Spirituality – the emotional trust in and relationship with God      
  3. Discipleship – living one’s faith out in life, following through with moral actions and a commitment to justice  

Sometimes these three dimensions are referred to as the head (belief), heart (spirituality), and hands (discipleship).

Head Heart Hands

A person can be stronger or weaker in any one of the three areas.  Developing the virtue of faith means that we are called to work on strengthening each of these three areas in our lives.

At 16, Becca admitted that she was struggling with her faith.  But when she began thinking of this virtue as having three areas, she saw that her life was already aligned with God’s will in many ways.  Her struggles were mostly in the area of belief.  Her relationship with God actually began to heal once she was able to see herself as having one of the dimensions of faith.  

Consider your own practice of the virtue of faith.  

  • For each of the three dimensions of faith, where on the continuum of stronger–weaker would you place yourself?
  • What is one thing you could do to work on strengthening each area?

When it comes to strengthening our practice of virtue, truly: The woman who starts the race is not the same woman who finishes the race.

All Good Things In Moderation

Even though I’m not a huge TV watcher, there are definitely some shows I really enjoy.  One night a few years ago, we were watching a really good episode of Grey’s Anatomy on the DVR.  Some sports game had run long and pushed the start time back by 10 or 15 minutes, but the DVR was only set to record an extra 3 minutes.  The show cut off in the middle of the climax.

Me: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Peter (in typical stoic-engineer-voice):  “That’s disappointing.”

Me: <yells and curses at TV, sporting event, and all people, places, and things involved>

Peter (in typical stoic-engineer-voice):  “You really need to calm down.  It’s just a television show.  It’s not the end of the world.”

There was absolutely no defense I could muster for my reaction.  Of course I got annoyed with Peter for blowing me off, but loathe as I was to admit it, he was right.  Instead of being disappointed, I was more along the lines of devastated.  Over a TV show.

The incident clued me in to some obsessive behavior that I was neither aware of (I’m not addicted to TV; I only watch a few shows) nor proud of.

Call it addiction, attachment, a compulsion, a fixation, an obsession, dependence, or a need… The over-the-top reaction to some desired thing is an issue.

Darling, I don’t know why I go to extremes.”  – Billy Joel (Storm Front, 1989)

Philosophers and theologians have written about it – from Plato’s Republic (360 BCE), to Sacred Scripture, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to contemporary spiritual writers such as Anthony De Mello.

What we’re talking about here is the virtue of Temperance.

Temperance, prudence (wisdom), fortitude (courage), and justice are the four cardinal virtues.  The word cardinal comes from the Latin word for “hinge.” These four virtues are hinges upon which the door of the moral life swings.

Temperance is moderation in one’s actions, thoughts, or feelings.  It’s the practice of self-control and restraint.  The virtue of temperance is focused on moving us beyond an all-or-nothing approach to a place of balance.

The thing I love about reflecting on practicing the virtue of temperance is that each person has their own successes and struggles with it – everyone has their thing.  Consider the following topics and feel free to add your own:

  • Money
  • Power
  • Technology: Cell phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, txt msg, internet…
  • Media: TV shows, movies, news, celebrity gossip, video games, books, magazines…
  • Consumption: food, sweets, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, smoking…
  • Sports: sports teams (spectator or athlete), exercise, fitness…
  • Interpersonal: sex, dating, relationships, wedding planning…
  • Shopping: clothes, shoes, purses, cars, toys…
  • Beauty: hair, nails, makeup…
  • Perfection: perfect diet, perfect mom, perfect dad, perfect house, perfect organization, perfect decisions…

When it comes to the virtue of temperance, own your areas of success:

I enjoy and have a healthy appreciation of  __________  without becoming overly attached to it.

When it comes to the virtue of temperance, recognize your areas of weakness.

I struggle with moderation when it comes to ________.

Shortly after my Grey’s tirade, I made a conscious decision to develop a better practice of temperance with regards to television.  As my attitudes shifted to healthy appreciation, I noticed that I found more freedom.  I didn’t have to watch anything.

My trivial example of the TV show was easy for me to recall, mock with self-deprecating humor, and resolve.  That’s definitely not to say I’ve got the virtue of temperance down pat.

The area I am actively working on is my own perfectionism.  I’m an “everything has its place” sort of girl.  Focusing on temperance has helped me realize that while clean and straightened is good, it’s not nearly as important as being fully present to my children.  Organization has its place in helping my life function.  But it cannot take center stage over-and-above quality time with my family.  Likewise, it wouldn’t be helpful to anyone if I just threw all cleaning and organization out the window.

The better solution is to throw my addiction to perfection out the window and live a more balanced life.

There are other areas of “attachment” with which I struggle.  Yet my “awareness” is as far as I go; I’m not actively working on them. These include (but are not limited to): my iPhone, email, Facebook, and caffeinated tea.

Lest I be accused of knocking four things I adore, notice:  It’s never the thing itself that’s the problem.  It’s our attachment to the thing.  When we practice the virtue of temperance, our attitude towards things shifts to one of detachment.  The goal is to go from addiction to appreciation.

When we jokingly say that we can’t live without ___, we’re speaking the truth of our struggle with the virtue of temperance.

How do we get from obsession to temperance?  

The Christian tradition has a strong history in the practice of asceticism, which is the disciplined practice of abstaining from worldly pleasures. (Be sure not to confuse asceticism with the similar sounding term “aesthetics,” which is the branch of philosophy dealing with art and beauty.)

The practice of self-denial in asceticism isn’t virtuous in and of itself.  Rather, it is a time-tested way to remove all distractions from one’s life so as to focus more fully and completely on the Way, the Truth, and the Light that is God.

For example, take the practice of “giving something up” for Lent.  And for the sake of argument, let’s say that “something” was candy.  Candy is not evil.  Nor is avoiding candy virtuous.  But if your attitude towards candy goes beyond “healthy appreciation…” If you have a hard time practicing self-control around an open bowl of candy… If your desire for candy is over-the-top… You might consider the ascetic practice of self-denial to break the dependency on candy.

Break the attachment to whatever it is that you give an undue amount of focus, attention, and energy to.

Because again, it’s not about the thing.  It’s about the place and position of power we are giving that thing in our lives.  It’s in this way that practicing the virtue of temperance (and engaging in the practice of asceticism) helps us to honor the First Commandment.

I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods besides me.

Few of us have golden calves that we are tempted to worship.  But we do have iPhones and Crackberries.  It’s the things we put in the #1 position in our life, the things we give undue amounts of our energy and attention to.  It’s the things we struggle with practicing the virtue of temperance that become stumbling blocks for the First Commandment.

So as you consider your own successes and struggles… as you consider what commitment you might want to make to break free of attachment… I leave you with this parable from Anthony de Mello’s Song of the Bird (New York: Doubleday, 1982).

The Diamond

The sannyasi had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”

“What stone?” asked the sannyasi.

“Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “And told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”

The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”

The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head.

He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. Next day at the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”

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