Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Growing in Virtue

For a while now I am thinking about throwing something out regarding freedom and virtue. Then as it is Ash Wednesday today, and a suitable day to write something, I decided to finish this article with a twist towards the Gospel of Ash Wednesday.

Jesus in the Gospel is pointing out to us that we should not "sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites" (Mat 6:2 RSV) when we give alms, or when we fast or do acts of penance. The reason for fasting is not supposed to "be praised by men" (Mat 6:2 RSV). Instead the reason for fasting is to please God, and "your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mat 6:4 RSV)

But this reason for fasting and pleasing God thing is something I would like to look at. Lent is a time to grow in holiness, a time to grow in closeness to God. A time in the desert, a time of searching, sometimes a time of loneliness. But in this time we can find God. But how does this work? I would like to give my view on how St. Thomas, building on Aristotle, sees it. It is something close to my heart, this positive way we see our assent to God. St. Dominic was not called "Preacher of Grace" for nothing; he preached the beauty of encountering God.

St. Thomas Aquinas is very strong on the point of growing in virtue.Our journey on earth is not just a painful experience in which we have to obey rules and regulations in order to go to Heaven. That view would rather paint a loving God in a very negative picture. Instead, our time here on earth is time in which we can freely choose to do good, and every time when we do good, with the help of Gods grace, we grow in virtue.

A virtue is the habitual, lasting, disposition towards the good (as a vice is a habitual disposition towards evil). The important thing about a habit is that it is a lasting disposition. Once we make a habit out of something, it is not easy, although not impossible, to break this habit. If we make a habit out of doing something good, this become part of what we do and who we are, and so we become good (or better). The more we grow in virtue, a habit towards something good, the more automatically we do the right things. And the more we do the right things, the closer we are to God, who is the ultimate good, and the closer to the real person we are meant to be. This subsequently results is being in a "habitual" way happier as well, a deeper happiness (or maybe some describe as peace), which is not tied up with our emotions but a steady disposition in life.

With the help of God, when we grow in virtue, our nature is changed to conform more closely to the nature of God. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but through our sins (and original sin), our natures become, in a sense, disfigured. We are not the people we are meant to be, which we could be depending on our decisions. So through life we have a chance to grow in virtue, and to make our natures closer again to what we are meant to be. Then at the end of our lives, our nature is closer to the nature of God, and it will be possible for us to (much easily) enter Heaven.

Does the above (although very brief) not make sense in a way? Compare it to Plato's idea that once we attain knowledge of 'the Good', we don't really do evil any more, only the good. Or Aristotle's teaching on the ethics from which Aquinas draws a lot.Virtue sets you free and moves you towards God by free choice. The more you ascent to God, to the Good, the more you grow in virtue, the more you want to do good. Once participated in the Good (or God) you don't want anything else.

In The Republic, Plato initially proposes the reign of a philosopher king. The philosopher king would be a philosopher who has ascended to the knowledge of the forms, and of the ultimate form the Good, and can then perfectly rule the world as he has knowledge of the full truth. The philosopher kings would have no properties or money so they could not be tempted by those things and would not hunger for power.

However, Plato probably realised towards the end of his life that this is not attainable and too idealistic. Even the best philosopher can only in this world progress so far, and as he has not fully seen the Good will be tempted by power and money etc. Therefore he started to write a work called The Laws to give a more ordered structure to reality which is lacking by the failure of a philosopher king.

But this is the point I wanted to apply to our modern world. The Truth sets you free, and the closer you are to the Truth, the closer you are to God. The more virtuous life you live, the more inclined you are to live a good life, and subsequently the happier you are. But the farther away we fall from the Truth, from God, the less inclined we are to do good. Therefore, if society morally falls away from virtue, it seems a logical reflection on the above that we need more and more laws in order to regulate society. And I think we can see this around us, definitely in the Netherlands, where more and more things are regulated. I find it sometimes comical that a lot of things are done in the name of freedom, but that because of it so many laws need to be created to make sure society keeps running smoothly...

So now try to get back to Lent. When we live a virtuous life we more or less turn water into wine, our nature is transformed from ordinary to extraordinary, and our life is enhanced. This is the way towards true happiness. During this time of Lent, by evaluating in which ways we could improve ourselves, and maybe making some sacrifices in order to help to strengthen our will and determination, it can be a good idea to reflect on this idea of growing in virtue (and to try and do it). An example sometimes given is the playing of the piano (although not everybody agrees it is a good example). When we try to create a virtue it can be hard work, and can be difficult. It will involve sacrifices, but this is where learning to play the piano comes in. You need hours and hours and hours to practice before you can play any decent piece of music, and that maybe even without really being able to enjoy it. It is only after a very long time that you master the art enough so you can really enjoy playing the most complicated pieces of music. The same with the virtuous life, it can take a lot of sacrifices and endurance, but it is worth it in the end!

I really think this is the Good News. God has come down and visited us; He has shown us the way. God is actively involved in our lives and gives us grace so that our natures can become more like Him, so that we can become more and more again the image and likeness in which we are created....

So finally, "your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mat 6:4 RSV) The reason for us to undertake penance and self-sacrifice during Lent is not meant to show others how good we are, or to just do it of a habit or a feeling of obligation; The reason is to grow in virtue, and to grow closer to God. God is our final end, our aim for eternity, and all our action should in some way be directed towards Him.

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