Practicing Virtue This Lent

03-10-2019Weekly ReflectionJen Arnold, MA Theology & Catechetics

Most of us are likely aware that Lent is a time for increased fasting, praying, and almsgiving as we imitate Jesus in preparation for the saving work completed through his Passion and Crucifixion. In order to prepare himself for what was to come, at the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus went out into the desert for 40 days. He fasted and endured relentless temptations by Satan who promised Him all sorts of worldly delights if He would simply give in to him (Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 4:1-11). In denying Himself gratification during this period of temptation, Jesus was spiritually strengthened and fortified. Recognizing these same benefits for us, the Church prescribes us an annual Lenten journey to spiritually fortify us and allow us to participate in our own redemption as we continue on this pathway towards salvation.

Of course, Lent is an opportunity to strengthen ourselves through the self-sacrifice we experience in fasting and denying ourselves certain specific worldly comforts. However, it is also an opportunity to dive deeper into the deserts of our minds and our hearts as we reflect on our personal temptations to sin and work to root them out at the heart. The Church teaches that there are seven deadly (or Capital) sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] #1866). It is within these seven areas that every sin you and I commit will find its root. Because we are individuals, with our own strengths and weaknesses, we will find that each of us struggles with every one of these seven sins in varying degrees compared to our neighbor. Think about the sins you struggle with most and see if you can identify their root within the seven deadly sins. This exercise will reveal where you are weak and need to intentionally and actively fortify yourself. Be assured, Satan knows these chinks in your armor very well and he is relentless in attacking you where you are weakest.

When we are trying to root out sin, it is not enough for us to just decide we don’t want to commit that sin anymore and try to activate our human will to simply avoid a behavior. In order to successfully root out a sin, we must fill the black void that exists there in our heart with something that is delightful and pleasing to God; we need to fill it with the opposing virtue. Virtue is defined by the Church as “an habitual act and firm disposition to do the good.” They are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith,” (CCC #1803-1804).

Let’s break this definition down a little bit. A virtue is a habit of doing good. In other words, we need to practice it again and again in order to make it a habitual part of our life. Virtue also engages our intellect and our will so that our actions and passions are actually under our human control rather than merely reactions to a situation. So, in order to become truly virtuous in our behavior, we need to be intentional about our actions and responses to situations and willfully choose to do the good. As we practice this, the habitual nature of our virtue increases and, as a result, it becomes easier for us to do.

Many saints tell us that virtues are as numerous as any actions you can fathom. Anything that is good and pleasing to God can be considered virtuous and there are too many to name. However, just as sin falls under certain greater categories, our virtuous acts do as well. The four cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, justice, and courage and the three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity (CCC 1805, 1813). These virtues are then helped and sustained by the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity (CCC #1831-1832). So, as we can see, there are a great number of holy and godly dispositions with which we can fill-in the voids of our heart caused by sin.

Let’s go back to the previous exercise where we examined the capital sin(s) with which we most struggle. Can we identify its opposing virtue? It is this virtue, or virtues, that we must seek to actively cultivate and make into a habit. This does not happen by accident or simply because we say that we don’t want to do that particular sin anymore. It takes actual work and willful participation on our part.

Before we dive into how we go about actively cultivating the virtues in which we are weak, we must talk about the role prayer plays in these activities. We are human and we cannot do this without our Almighty God’s help. If we could, we would not be in the mess in the first place. We need God’s grace to achieve any real and positive change in our moral life. Therefore, we should not undertake any activity to grow without both imploring His divine help and acknowledging that, only through His grace, is anything possible. Incorporating prayer into our activity will give us the grace needed for simple virtuous acts to become habits and dispositions. The Catechism is worth quoting in full on this point:

It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil. (CCC #1811)

You see, because we are fallen, it is actually impossible for us to control our passions without the grace of God and we need to ask Him to help us at every turn.

Now that we have the necessary understanding of sin and its antidote, along with the required ingredients, how do we go about making the necessary changes in our lives and our hearts? I think the first step is to not be afraid because it can be very frightening to let go of our old ways and challenge ourselves with things that take us well out of our comfort zone. Remember what we are promised – eternal salvation – if we seek to do His will. People like to joke that you shouldn’t pray for patience because God will find every opportunity to test it. I’m going to challenge you to do the opposite. Contemplate the sins that are strong in your life. Contemplate their opposing virtues. This Lent, pray and ask God to present opportunities to you in your life where you can practice strengthening those virtues and then humbly accept them in all of the discomfort they bring to you. You are human and you will fall, but keep asking and keep seeking. His grace is sufficient and you will begin to find that you struggle with these sins less and less, while simultaneously growing in virtue more and more.

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