Thursday, September 24, 2009
Rocky Soil, Virtues and Sin
This last summer when I went out to Connecticut to visit a religious community or two, I fell in love with the countryside we passed through. The roads of that New England state have no shoulders and stone walls were everywhere.
It actually made me want to get on a horse and see how many stone walls we could leap, but I digress. (And I neither have a horse nor have ever formally learned to jump. Informally, though... heh heh...)
Although of course I'd seen many pictures of our Eastern states throughout my life and recall from early elementary school a discussion on the rocky soil that contributed to the hard life of the pilgrims, I admit I never really gave any thought as to how the land itself ends up forming the "character" of certain places. Sure, it should be obvious, so I'll admit to my shallowness here and now.
A few days ago a co-worker and I were discussing the characteristics of the narrow roads and stone walls, and she told her own stories arising from having lived there for some years.
She described how each spring they would go into the garden (or fields, for some!) and "pick rocks". The previous fall when the harvest was in, the soil would be spotless, but for the remnants of plants, stalks, anything. She always thought, "Oh, that's so nice, next spring we'll just have to till it and plant!"
Then spring came around, and where only a few months before there had been nothing but soft, welcoming soil, now there would be a huge boulder! Many huge boulders, in fact!
And so they would heave-ho right back to work, picking barrels and barrels of rocks from the fields, once again. This, she said, is why there are so many stone walls; they will continue to be built as long as the earth continues to heave up the rocks she contains. It's simply a part of life out there, for if they do not set to work to eradicate the rocks on a regular basis, the growing season would be wasted, the fertility of the ground useless without the requisite labor to make it fruitful.
Virtues and Vice
This semester we are studying Moral Theology, which, of course, involves a close study of the Virtues. (So far we haven't discussed Vice...thank God. I don't think I can handle that yet!).
Virtues have to be cultivated. We can't just rest on maybe what we've done before, thinking, "Oh, I'm more patient now than I was six months ago, so now I have that virtue."
We can never rest. As soon as we work to obtain a virtue, we find that all the habits we've developed over time block us. Maybe we have a habit of impatience, or intemperence, or something else. When we put the spotlight on a particular virtue, we so often realize that we don't have it because we haven't worked on it, or perhaps we've directly worked against it!
To use the metaphor of the rocky fields, we find that, each time we try to refocus anew on growing in holiness, in obtaining virtues, we have an awful lot of rocks to heave out of the way! It's hard labor, not an easy process, for it involves doing something contrary to the habits we've cultivated, perhaps over years.
Oh, and some of those habits might require a backhoe and a team of neighbors to completely unearth!
Growing in Holiness Involves Massive Labor
The road is rocky, the soil seems to be nothing but boulders. But below that, if we work diligently, and with fortitude (another virtue!), and persevere (!), we will finally reach that fertile soil and may find a few other things coming together as well. All of the virtues are linked in some way, so if we focus on one, it affects the others. And the more we grow in virtue, the fewer BIG sins we seem to find, although with them out of the way we can more easily spot the smaller ones which also inhibit growth.
This, though is where the metaphor departs, for just as one can't rest on one's laurels when one facet of the job is done, well, there's always more toil awaiting.
We can see, in a garden, the results of our labors. We can watch plants grow, we can observe the flowers budding and bursting forth. We can pick the raspberries, the tomatoes, dig the potatoes, etc. We can SEE results and enjoy them. Although it still involves a certain labor of love to water the garden and pull up weeds, we are encouraged to continue this because of what we observe arising from the ground; the fruits of our toil.
It is not so with virtues; the more we grow in holiness, the more we grow in attention to detail to our true spiritual state. We don't "see" our own progress in quite the same way, and the very moment we think we can say we have a particular virtue, we can be certain that, in fact, we do not.
That is not to say we can't notice that maybe we've progressed some; I mean this only as a caution. For example, if I were to announce that I've acquired the virtue of humility, finally, at long last...well...Oh, I can hear ALL my readers laughing at that one! To make such an announcement would be the antithesis of humility! Agreed?
And so, my friends, I don't know about you, but I've got a HUGE field of rocks in front of me, and if I don't start picking, I'll never be able to plant, and God will have nothing to harvest when He calls. I just have to figure out where to start, which Virtue to choose....and I think I'll go get rid of that big boulder right....there.
FYI: The other day Fr. S. at Clerical Reform posted on this general topic and included, in answer to a request, an Examination of Conscience based on the Theological Virtues. I found it to be very helpful when I went to Confession yesterday morning, especially in that it includes some great advice from St. Ignatius of Loyola.
I hope it will be helpful for you, too.