Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Disciplined Desire: Living God's Virtues in a Stress-Filled World

Notes from a Retreat for Laypersons Part I

Father John J. Lombardi

"The goal of a virtuous person is to become like God."

Virtue enjoys a bad reputation today but it is, really, the Disciplined Desire to Develop Disciples into Divine Likeness. But, we modern Catholics have an option: either dumb down discipleship (lukewarmness) or become saints. Which will you choose? Disciplines and desire go together. When we don't have the desire or emotion, the "heart to do it," to be holy, our virtue and discipline will hopefully "kick in" to follow Jesus, precisely because we have practiced following Him before, and it has become habitual, in a holy way. St Paul says: "If anyone is in Christ, behold, he is a new creation. The old is passed, the new has come" (II Cor. 5:17). Become new by shirking the old-vices and sinful attachments-and thereby living the virtues. As you may know, there are three main ways to practice our faith today.

Three saints show how us how to be victorious by living the virtues: "Menial Life" -daily spirituality--"minimal mysticism" as GK Chesterton called it-amidst the pots and pans. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a poor, Parisian Carmelite, was a cook, sandal repairer, and kind of bumpkin-brother without expert knowledge of theology, yet he knew the secret of holiness and virtue, summed up in the title of his letters and book: "Practice the Presence of God." He countered the vice of distractedness by practicing moment-by-moment attentiveness-to-God within the shrine of his soul-whether in Church or the marketplace.

Therefore: we busy moderns should Practice the Presence of God! Virtues make you victorious--that is, with grace-God's literal Life within you, and also with hard work and love. A friend recently said: "It's so easy to be peaceful in the chapel during adoration; it's hard to translate it into daily life." You're now beginning a new phase of your life with a retreat-a virtuous practice. Remember: we all need them-yearly! Point: translate and extend the peace and graces you receive from this retreat into your daily world: You can take it with you! Metaphysical Life--encompasses our spiritual-theological life and practices.

St Thomas Aquinas, known both as "Dumb Ox" and "Angelic Doctor," meditated upon the Divine attributes of God for inspiration-and so can we. Many think this would be boring and too brainy for daily disciples. Nonsense! For instance, God's utter simplicity (aseity) can help us focus amidst our multi-tasking world, be single minded about getting to Heaven with so many options, and simply be present to Him who is always present to us. His Divine Beauty can help us be beautiful (in the soul) and seek true beauty in His creation. His Trinitarian relations (called circumincession-the Three Divine Persons interpenetrating) can help us relate to others in love while still being our unique selves. So: Don't just do something, sit there! And meditate upon God Himself.

Practice the virtue of mediation and become like God: remember-you become what you love. Our business is Divine Is-ness-God's Love. Think of Him, partake of Him. Love and be loved by Him. You can love only what you know, so know Him more. Meditation, form the Latin word, meditare, means to "chew"- within-a word, image or Bible verse. Within, think about, thank Him. Five words, one reality, deeper love… Moral Life (living the Commandments): St Margaret of Cortona (+1297), who lived in sin--with an unlawful husband, against her church's and parents' wishes, eventually repented and converted from her ways and sinful desires, and lived morally, spiritually, a life of penance and contemplation, the sacraments and thereby attracting others to her and way of life.

She became a saint…When we repent, examine our lives and consciences we floss our souls-all virtuous practice for heroic holiness. And when we live in accord with God's Way, and a free and faithful conscience, we will be more peaceful, less stressful. One person recently said it was stressful not to lead a holy life, echoing St Paul: "I do not do the good I should but the evil I should not" (Rm. 7:19). Okay, point: All holy people exemplify living the virtues--"holy habits"-- not only to become full human beings, but become like God. "The glory of God is man fully alive. " (St Irenaeus). Engenderment or Endangerment: Will you choose to cultivate Virtues or endanger yourself with Vices in Life?

What is a virtue? It is a holy habit by which grace and practice, becomes a disposition and power to do good. St. Paul counsels: "Whatever is true, noble, just, pure…think on these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received…" (Phil. 4:8-9). We can become more peaceful, and less stressful, when we "keep on doing" and practice prayer, meditation and contemplation (the highest form of prayer-God within us). One time I asked a man who was shoveling snow at the Grotto, "What does it mean to pray unceasingly?" And he replied, instantly: "When you're shoveling snow, pray while you're doing it." His holiness led to a habit which became habitual-"second nature"-"Pray unceasingly" (I The. 5:17).

But it is difficult to live virtuously in a hectic, trial-filled world. How can we? Fr Bob Zylla, professor of theology at Mount St Mary's, said: "The virtue most helpful in a stress-filled world probably would be patience and perseverance in most cases. These are subdivisions, as it were, of the virtue of fortitude and courage. When a person feels that there is much stress in any given situation, or in life altogether, they are experiencing life as difficult. So the easy answers or remedies don't seem to work.

That's what St. Thomas means when he refers to the "irascible" passions. When the situations are enough out of the ordinary, something extraordinary is required to cope. When it comes to the passions these extraordinary or "irascible" passions often kick in automatically. But when it comes to the rational level, a person may have to shift gears for himself, instead of expecting our human nature to do it. This is almost always the situation when we are speaking of the virtue of fortitude."

Virtue, from the Latin, vir, is a power to do good--repeated, lovingly. Habits and virtues must be formed, lovingly repeated (a contemporary saying: "It works if you work it"), because we do not always want to do good, and even, sometimes, find it more gratifying to do evil. For instance, Irishman Matt Talbott liked alcohol but couldn't control it, learned he was really a slave to it, but later became freed and holy by frequenting Mass (even twice a day), saying the Rosary and serving others! Pope John Paul declared him a "venerable," a step to sainthood. St Augustine enjoyed sensual pleasures, but then realized his alliance with the devil, paganism and sensualism, and cultivated the virtues of studying the Catholic Truth, and chastity for sake of Kingdom, and was freed, re-made whole and holy!

As humans, though, we need avoid the Polar Extremes in the spiritual life of legalism (habits without love) and pollyannaism (love without discipline). We will all probably make these mistakes--we are all extremists…Therefore we must be Christ-centered, -and model ourselves "Thru Him, with Him, in Him." Thru the virtue of frequently hearing these words in the Mass--we cultivate a Christ-like mindset of praise to the Heavenly Father, integrating divine grace and human initiative. Though we cannot embody the hypostatic union as Jesus did (as you know we are only human, not divine!), we can imitate this dynamic Union of Jesus to the best of our ability, as did the saints! "Whoever is joined to the Lord is one with Him" (I Cor 7:17-read that again.)

As Catholics we are blessed to have so many opportunities for virtue, and thus, holiness of life. A way to practice a Life of Virtue is the "Five S's of the Spiritual Life.": Sacraments-help us conform to Christ in His Grace, given especially at Mass and in Confession. Silence in prayer (at least twice daily) helps us communicate with God: No Communion without communication. Scripture and spiritual reading help us keep a "diet" of soul and love: "Ignorance of the Scripture is ignorance of Christ"-St Jerome. Serving others helps us find Christ in the world: "I was hungry and you gave Me food"-Mt. 25:35. Studying the Saints helps us become like them: St Paul says, "I became your father in Christ, therefore, I urge you: be imitators of me"-I Cor.4:15-16). …Question: Will you make these virtuous practices a regular of your spiritual life, as did the saints?

I gave a talk at a drug treatment center to-mostly, non-Catholics-- and spoke about the virtues (and disciplines) in the spiritual life, stressing that they should unify with desire (the heart), and help us to become holy- even saints- if we are heroic about it. In my Roman Collar in front of the crowd I drew on a chalkboard, talked about he "Five S's" of the spiritual life, spoke directly, discussed evil, quoted the Bible, etc. At the end, I asked: "Any questions?" A lady piped and said: "Are you a saint?" While it seems there are formulas, holiness cannot be formulaic. Is Christ the center and King of your heart? Do you really love Him and want to lead a holy life? Thing is: even when we don't' want to love Him, disciplines will help us, at least, stay rooted near him. Here are some key Bible verses for our retreat and virtuous discipline, to guide us: "I place before you blessing and a curse-choose life therefore…" (Dt. 11:26).

We must make an act of will-a conscience choice-to be holy, to receive grace, to let go of stress and pressure, and embrace God's Way, not ours. This requires virtue, a disposition. Dr Bernard Nathanson killed thousands of babies thru abortion. He then realized the fetuses were actually babies, life. He then repented and became a Catholic and now defends babies and Life! Make a concrete, virtuous choice for life, peace, holiness. The psalmist says: "Your Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet" (Ps. 119:105). St Jerome sat in a cave and meditated upon the Lord's Scriptures-and translated them, and became a saint by his holy practice. Become virtuous by the holy habit of frequent Bible reading. We need objective knowledge to live holy lives-esp. thru the Bible and orthodox spiritual reading … Jesus says: "If anyone wants to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk. 9:23) The Apostles and martyrs followed Christ, will you by virtuous living, denial of self and embracing crosses? Dr. Gianna Molla gave up her own life when, asked by doctors to procure an abortion, she chose her baby and life instead, denying herself. She died, but lives: Pope John Paul declared her a saint! Live the Virtues!

Hey, look: we don't become holy in a vacuum, and neither did the saints. There is resistance, even enemies, to our heaven-bound pilgrimage--"principalities and evil powers" (Eph. 6:12) and, of course, stress. What is stress? The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as "a mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences and capable of affecting physical health…" This word has not regularly been used in Christian spiritual jargon over the millennia, but is used frequently today: Everyone's stressed. So, another biblical, traditional word, for it might be: anxiety. St Paul counsels: "Be not anxious about anything…" (Phil. 4:6). We also hear in the Mass-"Protect us from all anxiety…"

God is reminding us-Surrender to Win. Peace-shalom is the interior balance and harmony of trusting in, surrendering to God's Fatherly care for us. Jesus says: "Come to Me all you who are weary and I will refresh you" (Mt. 11.28-memorize that verse and keep in your soul). St Teresa of Avila famously prayed: "Be not frightened. Do not be troubled. . All things are passing. God alone is changeless. He who is patient gains all things. He who has God wants for nothing. God alone suffices." St Paul said: "I can do all things thru Christ who strengthens me" . Alternatively, anxiety is the strangulating within, of the soul's power to become holy, godlike, peaceful-it's like a mental sticker bush: painful and ensnaring. It occurs from three sources: self, sensuality of the world and Satan. Classic Stressors today include: Multi-tasking busyness and "busybodyism"… "Materialism"… "Lukewarmism"…"Traffic and commuting."

Relationships (esp. with difficult people); job-occupation; life's transitions, joblessness; Family relations, welfare and strife. Ever-present- communicating devices. Doctrinal deviancy (lowering standards, choosing what to believe), money, sexuality; and one of the most reported stressors-not enough time spent with spouse or family members. When walking thru the Grotto recently I asked a sociologist what the most troubling thing in America today is: he immediately said-- "Families and couples need to spend more time together." What virtue does that "big answer" fall under? Love, the greatest virtue, and sacrifice-an outcome of heroic love…To any problem and stressor of life, ask: Where is my practice of Virtue as an antidote?--along with Grace of God! St Paul said: "I can do all things thru Christ who strengthens me" . We will investigate the sources of stress and vices, and also their antidotes. Remember; there is nothing new under the sun! Solutions are often under your spiritual nose! Julian of Norwich counsels: "Grace transforms our failings, full of dread into abundant endless comfort. Grace transforms our failings, full of shame, into a noble glorious rising. Grace transforms our dying, full of sorrow into a holy blissful life."

Read Part 2, 3, 4

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi