Emmitsburg Council of Churches

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

Holiness and Theological Virtues

Father John J. Lombardi

(Read Part 1)

Review from Part 1: We need virtues to reasonably and spiritually respond to situations and stress, not just haphazardly. What is a Virtue? -It is a deliberate action to do well, which becomes a disposition within, to help us love God and neighbor. The more we practice these good actions; they become a kind of second nature, connatural to us. The virtues help discipline our desire-and also direct our heart's passion's. We need, then, both Discipline and Desire-head and heart-to love God.

A wise priest, Fr Bayer, once taught me a wise saying and practice: -"Repititio est mater studoiorum: Repetition is the mother of learning." He said it's a good habit, especially for those who get distracted at Mass, to repeat the words of the priest, lector or cantor, within your heart, as you hear them spoken during Mass. That way we internalize the message and avoid diverting to distractions. Another example: When we meet a new person, it's a good habit to repeat the name (internally) right away to im-press it within our memory. Oppositely, there are a lot of activities we don't need to repeat so consciously-like brushing teeth, riding a bike, driving the car. They have become connautrual, second nature to us-for better or worse! But the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love, we need to practice consciously and continually. Why? Because we are fallen sinners with a darkened intellect (we can't always think straight!-esp re. God); we have a weakened will (we don't always want what God wants), and we have faulty memories (they sometimes re-present wrongful things to us), and, besides, the world and Devil don't want us to become holy. Amidst all this--the disciplined training of the faculties (cf.Hebr.5:14)-- it is good to remember: the purpose of virtues is not repetitive roboticism-but the "Goal of a virtuous person is to become like God" (St Gregory of Nyssa). The virtues, then, help amend and commend our wiley interior life to God and holy order. Without the virtues we would be like a runaway chariot controlled by chaotic horses (the passions).

In life we often live out two scenarios regarding the virtues and action: 1) Too much Heart or passion: We may often know with the head or intellect the good we should do, but our quixotic emotions may overwhelm us to do wrong things anyway, that which brings more gratification-i.e., excessive drink, speeding, sensual gratification, etc (cf. Rm 7). In such cases we need to use our "will power" and practice of virtues-to overcome "tidal waves of sensuality and chaoticness". The virtue of temperance can help overcome excessive drink; the virtue of chastity can sublimate sensual drives. Regarding virtues there are always at least three important elements needed: Love, Knowledge and Persistence. We must love holiness, God and our salvation-and continually practice this love in so many different ways throughout the day, that it becomes second nature, a habit. We also need knowledge of how to practice virtues and avoid vices. St Hildegard of Bingen (+1097) once wrote a pre-opera, musical drama called "Sciavias-Know the Ways"-depicting how the virtues can overcome the devil and self. If we do not actually know the ways of virtue we may have much love and effort, but keep "knocking our heads up" against the proverbial wall. Lastly we need persistence: we must practice and impress the virtues within consistently, over time.

2) Too much Head: We may sometimes do well without heart and feeling,--"robotically"-without desire. We might become like a "Pinhead"- type or Pharisee. We embody no love, which is an essential ingredient of the virtues, and simply repeat actions. Our job here is to get the head to sync with the heart, into spiritual harmony. While on vacation with a family, the oldest child Elise was reading, for the third time (!) Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables". This classic, of course, concentrates partially on Inspector Javert, who "worshipped the law" without any heart toward others. When his opponent-the noble Jean Valjean--who kept forgiving Javert, saved him from death, Javert couldn't accept it, so, beleaguered, he killed himself.

We need, then, always combing head and heart, virtues and love so that we build up healthy habits to become constitutive dimensions of our life. Do you have teeth? Huh? Remember your dad telling you to brush your teeth-esp. when you didn't want to, but he knew better? I witnessed on vacation a mom teaching her son, regarding Mass: "it seems long now but you'll understand more later." She was instilling in him a love for Jesus through virtuous life. A virtue is a holy habit and religious repetition to love God and your soul. You brush your teeth to promote health and a clean smile. Frequently attending Mass brings cleanliness, whiteness to your soul. One habit (brushing teeth) is a natural, or moral, virtue; the other is a supernatural virtue (Mass). We need both kinds!

St Thomas Aquinas says that spiritual perfection is not acquired by a mere quantity or multiplication of deeds, but by a more perfect and more effective possession of virtue. That means loving habits. The Catechism teaches- Virtues: "are firm attitudes-stable dispositions…habitual perfections of intellect and will to…govern our actions…order passions…guide conduct" (#1804). Can you say this about your life and practice of virtues? Are charity and piety dispositions within you-second nature? How are you cultivating them? Thru what actions? Are your passions ordered by your intellect and mind? Do you need to add more soul and passion to a somewhat cold heart?

The Supernatural Virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. These virtues are infused by God into the soul and directly "glue us to God". They have God as their beginning and direct end, whereas the moral virtues, more natural, deal with human relations and character, and don't necessarily lead us to God.

We may remember the Virtue of Faith by the following alliteration and aspiration: Faith feeds upon, and feels for, our Divine Friend-God. Faith as a disposition is fed by God, His graces and truths; it is also holy feelings, though not reducible to emotions. The Catechism tells us Faith is: The virtue which we believe in God and what He has taught us (#1814). St Paul defines further-" Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1) It is the intellect and will, head and heart, holistically feeding upon God and His Truths, his Doctrines, so that we become holy, sturdy in our beliefs. How do we nourish our Faith as a virtue? We may regularly, lovingly meditate upon the Attributes of God (His Infinitude, Compassion, Simplicity, Beauty, etc). Meditate means: Within- Seek and Savor Him (memorize, and then practice, that definition). We may make Acts of Faith-prayerfully recite small prayers, like: "Lord I believe in you…I believe all Your Church teaches…Jesus: I believe you love me and died for my sins." Etc. We should make these "Acts" to build up our disposition and virtue of Faith-to "glue us" to God. We also stimulate Faith by reading the Bible, the lives of the saints and Catholic Doctrine, to help us not only believe but also experience God and His truths. Recently an engaged couple made a retreat one week before their marriage here at Mary's Mountain. Instead of stressing away in the manicness of marriage preparation, they stole away to be with Jesus and Mary, to cultivate and prepare their souls. This didn't happen "all of a sudden": they were students of Mt St Mary's and regularly practiced this devotion in Eucharistic Adoration for four years. Will you?

Some "stressors" towards our Faith today, which we need be aware of, include: atheism (people who believe there is no God-gaining in numbers-and power); agnosticism (denial of knowledge about God), the removal of Ten Commandments in the "Public Square"; scientism as a type of dogmatic knowledge; and, of course, our own doubts within. All these attack or infringe on the virtue of Faith. We therefore need to make Acts of Faith

and reinforce in daily life our love of God so stressors don't undermine us. Practice Virtuous Faith!

Hope: The Catechism teaches us this is the Desire for Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal life-the virtue which keeps us from discouragement, and sustains trust in Christ's promises and graces of the Holy Spirit… Hope may be summarized by the aspiration: Trust in Trials. With Hope we do not, then, give into doubts or despair when the going gets rough, but continue to trust in Jesus and His grace. St Monica- the mother of St Augustine kindled hope within her heart which helped her get thru toughness of life with her husband and son who was rambunctious, pagan and sensually active. She persevered and trusted in trials and eventually both husband and son-St Augustine "came around". Hope is not mushy nostalgia or pollyannaism, but rather a disposition, firm and unwavering, acknowledging darkness while focusing on, and trusting the "light at end of tunnel"-God is faithful. Frank Sheed, Catholic publisher, once said, regarding troubling times: "There is no reason for optimism, but every reason for hope." We may make Acts of Hope, as in the Divine Mercy devotion: "Jesus, I trust in You!" Our job is to make it a continual prayer-and heartfelt sentiment, head and heart harmonically combining. Doubt is never good (see Jas 1:8) and often challenges Hope and Faith. Don't entertain doubts but, rather, turn to St Thomas, who was a doubter-then-disciple, who said: "My Lord and my God" (Jn. 20:28).

Charity= is the virtue by which we love God above all and neighbor as well…Our aspiration is: Love links us to the Beloved. I once asked a young parishioner, "Michael, how much do you love God?" He answered straightaway: "More than my mom and dad." That's God-centered love-- heroic. Our love of God will help us to love others …Saddam Hussein's niece was asked if she still loved her uncle, even though he murdered so many, including her own family member. She said: "Yes, I still love him." That's heroic. How do you practice love of God and neighbor so that it becomes a disposition, "second nature"? Some stressors to Love include: a cruel world; cutthroat capitalism and materialism; denigration of the dignity of personhood (pornography); the Culture of Death, etc. Heroic Love simply does not give in to darkness, does not despair, but always chooses God's Way because, when charity becomes "second nature," there is no alternative. Even when dealing with drug addict sons, thieving relatives or gossiping friends, manifesting tough love is the only way. Imitating the Master Jesus-combining compassion and challenge into virtuous life is our goal.

We need to form the Supernatural Virtues within us -so we can always act with Charity, Hope and Faith, to become God-Like. The choice is simple: Virtuism of saints or victimhood to the world.

Read Part 3, 4

Briefly Noted

On Prayer and Distractions…

St. Bernard held his eyes downcast as he prayed and passed thru the beautiful French countryside with a farmer. The Farmer asked him why he hid his eyes. St Bernard replied: "To focus on God and prevent distractions." The farmer said: "Well, I can pray without distractions while enjoying God's creation." St Bernard then made a wager with this man: "If you can say one 'Our Father' without distraction, then you can have this mule I am riding on." The Farmer began, "Our Father, Who art in heaven," then interrupted: "Does that include the saddle?"

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi