Catholic Virtues in Modern Life
Long before having children, I included in my husbands’ and my vacation itineraries and at-home-weekend-agendas visiting places and events like zoos, Science Museums, carousels, Christmas parades, and a whole host of other activities geared towards children and families. What can I say? I enjoy these sorts of outings and I wasn’t going to put experiencing them on hold until we had school-aged kids in our crew. Besides, the world is so teeming with opportunities for learning and delight; I knew we wouldn’t get to even a fraction of them within the window that we’d eventually — God willing — have five to fifteen year-olds living with us, so why not get started early and relish the experiences ourselves?
For the most part, this philosophy of embracing family-centric inputs didn’t make its way into the rest of my life throughout my childless twenties (Raffi playlists waited until I had toddlers requesting them!), but I can give you one more notable example of a way in which it did.
The moment I came across the book Rise Up, a virtues devotional for kids, I wanted to get my hands on it immediately. I knew that I needed a copy for my future — again, God willing — children, and I was worried that it would go out of print before they eventually came to an age where this book would be of interest. And also, well, I just wanted to read the book myself!
I’ve always been drawn to the concept of virtue — what the Catechism has defined as “habitual and firm disposition to do good” (1833) — and the idea that I can pray and work to increase my virtue so that I am inclined to do what is moral in my everyday life. Put very simply, I want to be a good person, and virtue provides a framework for thinking about cultivating goodness.
Rise Up grabbed my action because, while virtue is simple in essence, I’ve found that the writings about it can be overly complicated and sometimes difficult to digest for a non-philosophically trained reader. As a Director of Faith Formation who has taught Confirmation classes for years, I’ve discovered that often the first step to me understanding difficult theological concepts is understanding them at a child’s or teen’s level. For instance, being able to say, “Saints are people who loved God, followed Jesus, and used their gifts to make the world a better place” does me almost as much good in understanding the ins and outs of the canonization process.
It turned out that I wasn’t wrong in my impulse to immediately buy myself a copy of Rise Up, and even as I look forward to sharing the book with the children that I now have when they are a bit older, I’m glad to be learning from it myself in the meantime. The devotional includes fifteen chapters, each focusing on one of the virtues inspired by Saint Thomas Aquinas’ writings on virtues in his influential work, Summa Theologiae (faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, gratitude, generosity, obedience, fortitude, perseverance, patience/mercy, temperance, humility, studiousness, honesty). I love considering how I can nurture and grow the virtues in my life as I learn about their Scriptural foundations and attributes.
Here are a few thoughts I’ve had while reading about what three Catholic virtues look like in modern life.
GenerosityI tend to think of generosity in terms of the giving of finite resources — money, time, or energy, to name a few. But recently I’ve been considering what it means to be “generous in spirit.” Someone who is generous in spirit gives others the benefit of the doubt; she looks for the best in the people around her and works to shine a light on that “best.” Being generous in spirit requires a hearty degree of acceptance (both acceptance of the imperfections of others, as well as self-acceptance, as it’s hard to look for the good in others without possessing a certain amount of self-confidence yourself). Generosity of spirit is a tremendous gift to give, and while it may not come naturally, it can be practiced.
ObedienceI read the most lovely description of obedience by the novelist Ann Patchett recently. In an essay about Sister Nena, a Sister of Mercy who used to be her teacher and now is her friend, Patchett describes moving the elderly nun from one home to another. She writes of Sr. Nena’s vows, “Obedience is another way of saying that you don’t complain when your order decides to sell the place you live. You don’t get a vote in the matter.” Obedience is trust (in those who make decisions on your behalf, and in God) without complaint. Now, I haven’t taken vows of obedience, but there are a lot of people in whom I trust, towards whom I would do well to complain less, and, well, trust more.
HumilityHumility is one of the virtues to which my mind goes back again and again. It is, in essence, a modest view of one’s own importance, and I often consider it as not thinking too highly of ourselves, or, in the words of my late grandma, not being “too big for our britches.” But I think we’re missing something if we only consider humility as a thought pattern; it’s not just about how we look at ourselves, it’s also about our expectations of others and the world around us. In this sense, humility is the opposite of entitlement. When the virtue of humility is strong within us, we don’t have a sense of deserving special treatment, attention, or reward. We accept that sometimes we have to wait a long time in line, that sometimes our doctors and dentists will be running half and hour (or more!) late, that our friends or extended family members will forget particular details of our lives and serve us a chicken dinner even though we’ve been a vegetarian for a decade.
Virtues exist in us through God’s grace, but we are invited to respond to God’s grace by making choices that nurture these holy qualities within our lives. Generosity, obedience and humility are three virtues on my mind and heart as we enter a new year. How about you?
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