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Saturday, December 06, 2008

The One-Virtue Challenge

A couple years ago, I attended a series of Advent talks given by a Priest at my parish. I'm afraid I don't remember a lot of what he said, but he made one point that continues to stick with me, because it's still a problem. It was then, it is now, and perhaps it shall ever be so.

Virtue Pitfall #1:

The good Father pointed out that many people, when trying to overcome vices, try to work on all of them all at once. Sometimes it's a matter of improper focus; as on the vice instead of the virtue, which is truly what is desired. For example, if we are impatient, certainly we need to recognize we are impatient, but then our focus should not be on the negative word, but on the virtue we desire to obtain.

In other words, our prayer should not be "Lord, help me not to be impatient today," but rather, "Lord, grant me the grace to be more patient with my family."

It's hard to get rid of the elephant in the room if we're constantly addressing it by name.

His suggestion, then, was firs to focus on the goal, that being the virtue we desire.

Virtue Pitfall #2:

His second suggestion: Don't work on ALL the virtues at once! If you try that, you're setting yourself up for failure!

I admit I kinda shrunk down in my pew at that statement. Guilty! I have this terrible habit of seeing how awful I am from all the standpoints. In doing an examination of conscience, naturally it came to my attention that I had no fortitude, selective prudence, no patience, selective obedience, humility - fogeddabodit!, and temperance - ha! Right!

So of course, I'd go to Confession, confess all my shortcomings and a week later I'd be back, having completely failed in ALL of them. Maybe I'd be ok for a day or so. But then would come the crash.

I knew Father was right, in that it made more sense to focus on only one thing instead of all things. Although I was impatient (see?) to obtain these virtues, in my hurry, I was like the proverbial guy with the overloaded camel; always stopping to pick up the mess.

The Remedy?

Pick a period of time. As this is once again Advent, this is a perfect time to follow his good advice. Choose one virtue, and offer it as a gift to Our Lord at Christmas. God has so many gifts and blessings for us, but we also have this wonderful ongoing opportunity to offer gifts back to Him. Could there be anything more beautiful than coming to Mass at Christmas and offering our attempts at holiness? For even in our failures, God is glorified, for we are motivated by love so as to love Him more.

I'm still struggling at picking just ONE. It's like holiness is a bag of chips...if I like one Virtue, for some reason, I like them all and I can't stop with just one! (Hmmm...maybe Temperance should be my choice this Advent!)

A funny thing happened this semester, though, because of course, I discovered more theology that supports Father's advice, but it goes further back than I ever realized.

According to the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, revelations from the Eternal Father (as this translation refers to God the Father) give us some amazing insight:

Wherefore, learn, that, in many cases I give one virtue, to be as it were the chief of the one I will give principally love, to another justice, to another humility, to one a lively faith, to another prudence or temperance, or patience, to another fortitude. These, and many other virtues, I place, indifferently, in the happens, therefore, that the particular one so placed in the soul becomes the principal object of its virtue; the soul disposing herself, for her chief conversation, to this rather than to the other virtues, and by the effect of this virtue, the soul draws to herself all the other virtues, which...are all bound together in the affection of love.

I have not placed them all in one soul, in order that man should, perforce, have material for love of his fellow.

Firstly, realize that first quote is, in fact, one sentence and actually goes on. But what a LOADED sentence it is! And the second sentence draws us to the Great of God is love of neighbor.

Ultimately, it makes perfect sense that we choose one virtue and work on it, one at a time. Through that ONE virtue, the others are united, and, all are joined through the fire of charity. St. Catherine uses the imagery of the virtues as paving-stones, and the mortar is love; the message to all of us is clear:

Keep your eyes on Christ, embrace the Cross you have been given, and focus on one of the virtues in your life with which you struggle to obtain. In this way, we all walk towards holiness, one paving-stone at a time.


Mark said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. The idea of concentrating (a) on virtues rather than on vices and (b) on one virtue at a time rather than on a whole range of virtues all at once, makes a lot of sense. And the quotation from St Catherine of Siena gives it some serious theological underpinning.

Catherine Lucia said...

Excellent post, Adoro :-)

Here's my personal experience--I am starting with purity, because I find it easier to focus on God when He is the only one I want to focus on. If God is my chief love then all else will follow, I figure. So I decided to focus on purity first.

I also looked to Mary as the example of human perfection (besides Jesus of course). I thought, what was the first thing she did? (Tomorrow being the Immaculate Conception this is perfect!) I thought, well, the first thing she did is be purely God's--conceived without sin.

But that's just me. :-)

Catherine Lucia said...

I also think humility would be a good start.

Adoro said...

Mark ~ I think St. Catherine of Siena made it make the most perfect sense for me.

CL ~ The problem is that they ALL would be a good start! I could never start by working on humility, though. Because it's so elusive, and it's the foundation of so much. By cultivating one virtue, humility will make its appearance, especially in recognizing our failure in acheiving a virtue. If that makes sense.

And funny thing about humility: if we think we have it....we don't.

* sigh *

Catherine Lucia said...

That is true--in fact, if we think about what virtues we have too often, we likely don't have many at all :(

However you are right, humility is a big foundation. I build upwards. :-) But actually what I meant by humility as a start is not trying to perfect humility, then move on to the next one--what I mean is, seeing your life through God's eyes, seeing that we have nothing that we have not been given, etc. What do we know that we haven't learned? Things like that--constant thanksgiving and repentance. It's not perfect humility--it's a start, just as I intended it to be.

I wish I was there. I'm so not.