Aiming High - How to Grow in Virtue
by Edward P. Sri
I was nervous about pulling the trigger. I had never used a shotgun before, but my friend took me shooting skeet-clay discs that are thrown into the air as moving targets. My friend, who was a good marksman, shot the first several rounds and then asked if I wanted to try. Bang! On my very first shot, I knocked it down.
Someone watching me at that moment might have been very impressed. "Wow, he hit it on the first try! He must be a lot better than that first guy!" However, one good shot does not make a good marksman. A good marksman possesses the ability to use a shotgun well and hit his target consistently and easily. I, on the other hand, barely knew what I was doing. My next 25 shots made that evident: They were all embarrassing misses, widely off the mark.
If we are aiming to live virtuously in our marriages, families, and friendships, we need much more than sporadic good deeds or occasional acts of kindness when we happen to be in a good mood. In this reflection, we will consider three key characteristics of virtue that are crucial for living our relationships on target, the way God intended for us. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the virtuous man does what is good consistently, easily, and joyfully.
Three Characteristics of Virtue
- Consistency. First, the Catechism defines virtue as "an habitual and firm disposition to do the good" (no. 1803). This tells us that virtue requires much more than performing good deeds every once in a while. After all, it is easy to be generous, patient, and kind to others when things are going well in our life: when weíre feeling good and enjoying the people weíre with. But will we be generous, patient, and kind to the person who happens to be frustrating us right now? Will we be virtuous with our spouse when weíre tired? Will we be virtuous with our children when weíre experiencing stress at work or feeling overwhelmed in life? The virtuous man is someone you can count on to give the best of himself consistently, no matter what the circumstances may be.
- Ease. Virtue also enables a man to perform good acts easily (Catechism, no. 1804). He does what is good promptly, as if it is second nature for him. Justas a professional basketball player drives to the basket and sinks a lay-up without having to think much about it, so too the virtuous man performs good acts easily without extraordinary effort, deliberation, or internal struggle. Doing what is good is so deeply ingrained in him that his virtuous deeds seem automatic. On the other hand, to the extent that a man struggles in being cheerful, humble, or pure, for example, to that extent he is lacking in virtue.
- Joy. Finally, the virtuous man does not just do what is right. He does it joyfully (Catechism, no. 1804). He takes delight in the good, even if it is difficult to achieve or causes him suffering. The virtuous man does not complain or feel sorry for himself when he does what is right. He finds a deeper joy in living the way God made him to live, which is to do the good no matter what the cost.
Let us consider an analogy from sports. A professional golfer such as Tiger Woods possesses a high degree of skill that makes him an excellent golfer. He knows which club to use, has a great swing, and has good judgment about how to hit the ball. Therefore, he can hit the ball straight down the fairway with ease. He also hits the ball consistently right where he wants it, and he finds joy in playing the game well.
I, on the other hand, am not a good golfer. I rarely play, and when I do, it is abundantly clear that I do not possess the skills of golfing. It is not easy for me to golf well. Even if I do occasionally hit the ball where I want it, I am far from consistent in doing so. And since I am so poor at this sport, there usually is not much joy when I play!
Personal Virtue Assessment
With this background, we are now prepared to ask ourselves, "To what degree am I really living the virtues?"
For example, do I have the virtue of generosity? The man who puts a$1,000 check into the collection basket one Sunday may be performing a good and noble act, but that alone would not necessarily mean he possesses the virtue of generosity. Some people can give money to a charitable organization, but fail to give personal time, attention, and care to the people right in their own lives. The truly generous man, however, gives of himself-not just when it is convenient for him, but consistently. He also gives promptly, easily, and joyfully, without having to calculate the cost or wrestle with his selfishness. For a generous man, giving of himself is second nature to him.
Similarly, do I have the virtue of patience? The patient mother, for example, can remain calm with her children not only when they are behaving well and the day is moving along smoothly, but even when the kids are having a breakdown and the schedule for the day has been turned completely upside down. Though she may experience stress and sorrow over the way things are going (which would be quite natural!), she does not allow that sadness to take over. Her patience enables her to maintain a certain interior peace and carry out her responsibilities as a mother well, despite the chaos around her.
The standards of virtue are high. The more we learn about the virtues, the more we realize how far off the mark we are. But this should not discourage us. The Church offers much wisdom on practical ways we can grow in virtue, increasing the capacity within us to do the good with consistency, ease, and joy.
How to Grow in Virtue
First, we must examine our lives and discern the main weaknesses keeping us from living our relationships with excellence. These weaknesses are called vices-the bad habits formed through repeated sin.
A helpful exercise is to consider your most important relationships and ask yourself, "Which vices are keeping me from loving these people more?" Are you selfish with your spouse, tending to think more about yourself than serving his or her needs? Do you lose your patience often with your children? Are you "too busy" to give God your time in prayer each day?
The best way to conquer vice in our lives is not merely to try to avoid sin, but to try to put into practice the particular virtue that opposes the vice weíre trying to conquer. For example, if I often say critical things about other people, I should make it a point to honor others each day. If I tend to procrastinate, I should start certain projects at work earlier than necessary in order to combat my procrastination.
If I tend to be self-centered and want to have my own way in my home, I should purposely find out what my spouseís and childrenís needs and preferences are and pursue those instead of my own. By positively practicing the virtues that oppose my vices, I can begin to overcome the weaknesses that prevent me from giving the best of myself in my relationships.
Practice Makes Perfect?
Such a program of virtue training, however, will not be easy. As the Catechism explains, "The removal of the ingrained disposition to sin . . . requires much effort and self-denial, until the contrary virtue is acquired." Therefore, we should not be discouraged if we do not notice immediate results. Growing in virtue is like strengthening our bodiesí muscles. When an out-of-shape40-year-old man first starts jogging, he probably will not find running three miles a day to be easy. In the beginning, it will be quite painful. But over time, the jogger who consistently runs several times a week builds up his muscles and stamina. With much practice, a three-mile run eventually becomes a lot easier.
Similarly, strengthening our moral muscles-the virtues-takes time and effort. We might experience tremendous difficulty and failure when we first start battling against our vices. The unchaste man will struggle against impurity for a long time. But if he perseveres in the struggle, chaste living eventually will get easier for him as his moral muscles strengthen. The man who suddenly decides to start praying every day most likely is not going to find it easy to do. But if he practices daily prayer for many weeks and months, prayer will gradually become more natural for him.
The key here is perseverance. If the beginning jogger quits after two weeks because it is too difficult, he will never be able to make a three-mile run easily. Similarly, if we give up the battle for virtue because it is too hard, we will only remain enslaved in our vices and never be able to give the best of ourselves to our God, spouse, children, and friends.
Nevertheless, no matter how much we pursue virtue, we will still run up against our own limitations. Most of us have weaknesses that have plagued us for many years, no matter how hard we have tried to overcome them. Given our fallen human nature, we will always struggle with an inclination toward sin. This is why we need to reach out to a power outside of us that can enable us to live the virtues in a way we could never do on our own. That power is found in Jesus Christ. As the Catechism explains, "Christís gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues"(no. 1811).
Sanctifying grace is Christís divine life in us, transforming our selfish hearts with the supernatural love of Christ Himself. The more we grow in Christís grace, the more we are able to love supernaturally-above and beyond what our weak human nature could ever do on its own.
This is why it is essential to seek grace in prayer and the sacraments. With Christís divine life dwelling in us, our natural virtues are elevated to participate in Christís life. With grace, we can begin to be patient with Christís patience. We can begin to be humble with Christís humility. And we can begin to love with Christís divine love working through us. When grace starts to transform our lives, we can begin to say with St. Paul that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me"(Gal. 2:20).
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Edward P. Sri is a professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute
in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of or contributor to several Emmaus Road books, including his latest book, Queen Mother
, which is based on his doctoral dissertation. This article published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.