Last month, we talked about the bad news of the Seven Deadly Sins. This month, we will hear the good news: we parents are offered grace and help from God through Jesus Christ to live a truly good and happy life by practicing the Seven Virtues.
The Seven Virtues are the four Cardinal Virtues of
and the three Theological Virtues of
The Cardinal Virtues (which have nothing to with birds, St. Louis ball clubs or Roman curia) take their name from the Latin word for the hinge of a door–which is to say they are “pivotal”. They are the natural virtues that everybody–not just Christians–recognizes as essential. The Theological Virtues are supernatural virtues which are, by and large, only known to Christians and are only possible with the help of God.
Prudence is the virtue of common sense in day-to-day life. Prudent parents stop and think about what they are doing and what will probably happen because of it. They ask obvious questions about a given course of action like “Is this good? Is this possible? Can we afford this? Is this any of our business?” Such questions may seem too plain to need pointing out, but the reality is many imprudent parents (especially very “spiritual” or sophisticated ones) never ask them. Instead they ask nonsense questions like “Is this where history is going? Is this what feels good to me at the moment whether we can afford it or not? What will get the kids off my back? Is this what the handsome man on TV thinks I should do?” Prudence makes sure the tires have air, somebody knows where junior is, and everybody is on the same page when it comes to racking up credit card bills for her new golf set and his new Pentium in the same month.
Temperance is moderation in the use of the world’s goods. Most people think it means abstinence from alcohol, but this is not so. Really it refers to knowing when enough is enough with anything from cards to food to TV to surfing the Web. The temperate parent does not sacrifice his daughter’s happiness to worship at the altar of Monday Night Football when she is singing in the school choir that night. Temperate spouses not only don’t absorb themselves with booze, they don’t ignore their relationship to spend excessive time sewing, fishing, or building model railroads in the garage. They wish the boss good evening and go home, no matter how important a career may seem. They know that, at the end of life, people seldom lament “If only I had spent more time at the office!”
Justice is more than legal rectitude. It refers to fairness, give and take, and honesty. One classical definition of Justice is “treating equals equally and unequals unequally” a reality many parents experience when the five year old complains that she is not allowed to go with her ten year old sister to the movies. It is, in fact, just for a parent to permit certain privileges and responsibilities to older kids which are denied to younger ones. Justice also has a great deal to do with how husbands and wives order their finances, work out who gets the car today, and arbitrate sibling disputes over the bathroom. Some parents may have moments when Solomon’s recommendation to cut children in two with a sword seems momentarily appealing but, here too, justice tends to counsel against this.
As the above suggests, being a parent and spouse is no cake walk. It sometimes takes sheer guts to do what God expects of us despite our fears and/or temptations. “Guts” is what traditional Catholic moral theology calls Fortitude, which is particularly given to us through the sacrament of confirmation. It is the will to persist in the right despite the unpleasantness of doing so. It is seen in extremis in parents who say “No” to their teenager’s foolish demands even when the little darling is screaming, “I hate you!” in some embarrassing public setting. It is seen still more in their persistent forgiveness of such a child. Parents who practice Fortitude, however, do not reserve it only for high level crises. They develop this muscle by exercising it in the small ways Therese of Lisieux pioneered: little acts of self-denial like thanking God for one’s spouse unexpectedly working late (again), or offering praise to Jesus when the neighbor’s dog leaves yet another treasure in the yard.
The exercise of all these natural virtues is the foundation for the supernatural virtues. The first of these is Faith or the confident belief, not only that God exists, but that the God revealed in Jesus Christ exists and that he rewards those who diligently serve him. In other words, it is a living trust in a particular and personal God who loves us and calls us to himself, not the mere intellectual acceptance of an abstract First Cause. In Catholic understanding, the most practical outworking of Faith (particularly in a society that constantly encourages us to regard all social relationships and especially family and church commitments as “confining”) is this: Faith means “you stay”. You stay with Christ. You stay with your wife or husband. You stay with the Church. You stay with your children. You stay with your responsibilities.
To have the joy necessary for this, we need Hope. Hope is not a vague wish like “hoping” the weather will be nice. It is, in Catholic understanding, rooted in relationship with an utterly reliable God and is therefore a “sure and certain” Hope that, in the words of Julian of Norwich “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.” Yet it is not certitude, as though no matter what we do, God somehow owes it to us to “make our dreams come true.” This is not Hope, but presumption and it is as opposed to Hope as despair is. The point of Hope is to fix our minds on the goodness of God, not the certainty of the future.
And that Hope is most fully and perfectly expressed in what Paul calls the greatest virtue: Love. Love is, in Christian understanding, not so much a feeling as a choice. It means to will and act for the good of the other, whether that other is our lover or our enemy. Love in Catholic marriage includes, particularly, the recognition that our spouse is, quite literally, a sacrament to us and that we are a sacrament to them, offering our bodies just as Christ offered his for the salvation of the world and for the gift of new life. Such self-giving is at the heart of the Christian home and calls us to be the first to clean the gutters and the last to commandeer the TV remote, the first to forgive and the last to hold a grudge, the first to pray for the other and the last to brag about ourselves.
Of such “small” acts of virtue does the Kingdom of Heaven sprout like a mustard seed. You’ll be surprised at how big it gets!