Virtues At Work
by Jeff Montgomery
One of the things that I love about being Catholic is that our beliefs are rooted in Jesus' original mission. Over the centuries, our knowledge of the faith has been increased by revelations to us through the Magisterium, and from that many of our Holy Traditions have evolved. I take great comfort in that history, as it seems to me that we have a wealth of resources available to help us in living a holy life.
A tremendous guide to living the holy life exists in the theological and cardinal (or human) virtues. If you'll remember, the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity, and the human (or cardinal) virtues are temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude. Living these virtues helps us in all aspects of our life, but I'd like to focus in on how they can help us be holy at work.
I think that work provides us with many challenges in living a holy life. The modern workplace is a constantly changing environment, to the point where there is an entire industry dedicated to helping us learn how to deal with change. (I have several books on my bookshelf about change.) We also must deal with a variety of people during our workday, some of who don't share our beliefs or even our own ideas of what ethical behavior is.
To be sure, most of us are fortunate to work with at least some people with whom we share common beliefs, and some of us work for companies or organizations that foster a good working environment. The point is that the workplace often throws us a curve or two that can test our ability to act according to the virtues.
Let's look at the theological virtues first. Charity, or love as it is sometimes defined, is probably the easiest to understand. We are taught by Jesus to love one another as He loves us. This doesn't necessarily mean we always get along, or that difficulties don't arise from time to time, but if we are living the love of Christ, we will pass that love on to the people we work with. Patience and understanding would be two fruits of this virtue.
Hope, as it is defined in the Catechism, means that we Christians look forward to eternal life in heaven with God. No matter what circumstances come along in our lives, we know that in the end, we will be in paradise. Think of the various workplace situations that could cause us to lose hope - layoffs; a workaholic boss who expects the same; petty and gossipy co-workers; the list goes on. If we have the virtue of hope we know that these stressful situations are only temporary. The ultimate reward awaits us in heaven.
Faith ties in with hope in the sense that it is our basic knowledge of and acceptance of God and what He teaches us. Hope follows very closely if we have faith. Having faith means that we believe in God, and that we believe in our Church. Having faith in God and Church gives us hope in eternal life. So maintaining our faith while we're at work - whether through moments of prayer throughout the day, or by having reminders of our faith around us - keeps us focused on God.
The cardinal, or human virtues are probably the most difficult to keep strong in our working lives, because they are maintained through our own efforts. They are activated, if you will, by choices made of our own free will.
Prudence requires of us that we discern the best possible route to achieving our goal. Whether that be a promotion, or finishing a project on time, or completing a lesson plan for the school year, prudence is the filter through which all of our decisions must pass. St. Thomas Aquinas calls prudence 'right reason in action.' It means making good, reasoned decisions about how to achieve true good in any circumstance.
As an example, if you have a project to complete, prudence would lead you to make good decisions about developing a good plan. It will help you in not cutting corners by leaving out steps for the sake of speed. Prudence will keep you on track by making good, reasoned decisions about how to adjust the plan as you work your way through it.
Justice means treating everyone fairly and equitably in all that we do. We should work to promote equity with our coworkers so as to foster an atmosphere of cooperation. By working toward that end, we improve the environment for all. This means not engaging in petty squabbles, or engaging in office gossip. It means not being closed minded about the ideas of others. Justice reminds us that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Fortitude, to me, is probably the virtue on which we have to work the hardest. It means persevering toward that goal of common goodness in spite of the obstacles we may encounter. It means sticking up for what we believe to be right even in the face of opposition. Fortitude is an inner strength to continue doing what's right even when it might be easier to take an easier route.
Fortitude takes a lot of work. Here's a personal example of where fortitude provides great strength: I have a project that I'm working on that was supposed to have been finished six months ago. Through a variety of circumstances, the project is now scheduled to end next April. There have been many trying experiences throughout the last 8 months, but the project team has to keep moving forward and putting on a brave face. In this situation, fostering the virtue of fortitude helps you to stay focused on what is right - continuing to provide a high level of service, doing the job correctly - rather than slacking off and allowing a bad attitude to enter into the picture.
I like to think of temperance as the virtue that keeps us in line. It keeps us from indulging our baser instincts. A very simple example would be resisting the urge to 'borrow' office supplies to use at home. Another example would be resisting the urge to overindulge at the office Christmas party. If travel is a part of your job, temperance keeps you from hanging out at the hotel bar after hours (which could lead to even greater temptations!).
Very often situations present themselves to us that confuse us as far as how to respond. Allowing the Holy Spirit to reside in us and strengthen these virtues gives us the power to live a truly godly life, and allows the light of Christ to shine out from our lives. Let us all invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.
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