When you think of a virtuous person, what comes to mind?
Is it this?
Why I am more inclined to think of the nun than the mother, the preacher than the street goer? The daily church go-er has a certain prominence in my mind over the conversationalist on the street corner. I really don’t think I am alone in this. It seems to be a societal problem rather than a personal problem. The saint is seen as the person spending their hours harboring in the Church while the sinner is then the person on the street, us at the bars, and of course the infamous, everything but good millennials.
I don’t think the problem here is that every single person secretly aspires to be the celibate nun or priest. Rather, I think the very concept of virtue has been completely misunderstood. Virtue has more and more acquired a sense comparable to the little league baseball coach that takes the game too seriously and is continually yelling disciplinary actions at small children who are entirely incapable of following the instruction. A virtuous lifestyle is seen as the one that has been stripped of excitement and fun. It is seen as rigor and dedication and thus something that is probably altogether impossible. While in some sense the discipline aspect of the virtuous life is certainly necessary, the whole point is still being missed. At the center of virtuous life is one virtue itself. And this virtue is anything but our oppressive stereotype.
What causes virtue is that which
makes those butterflies appear in your stomach,
Inspires you to sacrifice at all costs,
And causes your imagination to soar to new heights.
It is charity.
One of my favorite definitions of charity is that of Thomas Aquinas. He says that charity is that virtue that allows us to love God for his own sake and our neighbors as ourselves (13). When I think about loving God for himself and our neighbors as ourselves, it really isn’t the nun that first pops into my head. It is the mother who stays up late into the night to rock her child. It is the nurse who is working her third twelve hour shift to hold her dying patient’s hand. It is the barista who, even on a Monday, smiled at me when she gave me my coffee. None of these actions are achieved by some formula or are just meeting some requirement. They are freely given and creatively done.
I think this is the kind of love that calls foreign missionaries to leave the comforts of their homes for the ends of the Earth, fathers to sacrifice for their children, and firefighters to risk their lives for strangers. It is undeniably clear how they are loving others as their self as they risk their life and lay down their life for others. These aren’t just things that people accidentally do. No one leaves their friends and families and travels to unsafe foreign countries to serve in a mission for the mere fun of it. No one labors 8 hours a day doing the most mundane tedious work for no reason. No one runs into a burning building without an intention.
It is completely nonsensical for those acts to be without a purpose. It is when they are done for the strangers, for the family, or for God Himself, it is then that we look at those actions and declare: This is love. It is what we are made to do, where we will find fulfillment, and how we will be able to give others the respect they deserve. And, it sure is not some straight-laced, abstract ideal. Nothing about it is clean cut. How lacking it would be if we tried to love in a way which resembles a formula?
What continues to make me wonder at this virtue of charity is how completely wild it is. It is entirely unpredictable. To love others like ourselves is not some premeditated idea I can organically arrive at. It has to be a free response in the moment. Something that we could not simply just think of by ourselves. The ability to exceed the capacity of human nature is what allows each person in those examples to complete the task described with admirable and even heroic virtue. According to Aquinas this is exactly what charity does (14). This ability to go beyond what we imagine possible, to achieve the unthinkable, is not something to be taken lightly.
And, now you can see why charity is seen as central to the virtuous life. It animates all other virtues. Without this virtue, none of the other virtues can be virtues in their fullest sense. When we begin and learn to love God for his own sake and your neighbor as yourself, we are inspired with other virtues such as courage and temperance. With charity, the virtuous life is possible and complete.
When charity animates our idea of virtue, it is impossible to see the virtuous life as anything but a completely wonderful adventure. I am not saying anything is wrong with the priest or nun (as long as they are charitable that is). But, the way we express and live charity does not have to exclude the street goers, pub crawlers, and the infamous “youth”. In every circumstance and way of life, there is opportunity for virtue. Charity can take on many shapes and ideas, and thus so can virtue. The virtuous life is not a set ideal life, but rather this messiness of life that abandons one’s self in the present, seeks the other, and is willing to sacrifice.
“To love God for his own sake.
And our neighbor as ourself.”
And, nothing about that is straight-laced or boring.
1. Image One.
2. Image Two.
3. Image Three.
4. Image Four.
5. Image Five.
6. Image Six.
7. Image Seven.
8. Image Eight.
9. Image Nine.
10. Image Ten.
11. Image Eleven.
12. Image Twelve.
13. Thomas Aquinas, “Disputed Questions on Virtue”, 109.
14. Ibid 101.