Food for the Soul
A bi-weekly blog on the virtuous life. Written not by a master, but by a student, but one at least who knows whence sound teaching is found.
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home--
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
- Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
"Although the Divinely infused light of faith is more powerful than the natural light of reason, nevertheless in our present state we only imperfectly participate in it; and hence it comes to pass that it does not beget in us real vision of those things which it is meant to teach us; such visionbelongs to our eternal home, where we shall perfectly participate in that light, where, in the end, in God's light we shall see light' (Ps. xxxv, 10)." - St. Thomas Aquinas De Veritate
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." - John, Chapter 20
The first of the virtues that I want to write about is faith. It is one of the virtues that is called "theological" because of its origin and object, which is God himself. What this means is that faith comes from God; it is a grace to have faith. It also means that the object with which faith deals is God in himself, and other things only insofar as they are related to God. That faith is a virtue means that faith changes our psychological power of the intellect to firmly and stably act well in relation to believing what God reveals. The reason that the virtue of faith can do this is because with the infusion of faith into our souls by God's grace we are given a supernatural capacity to relate to God who reveals himself to us in Divine Revelation. The only reason we need faith is because God has spoken to us. But what he has spoken to us through both deeds and words exceeds the capacity of human language to describe perfectly, as well as our natural reason to grasp and hold as it as true. If we are going to deal with God himself, and not just his created effects, there needs to be some proportionality between us and God. This is what is meant by the light of faith. The light of faith surpasses the light of reason as the illuminating capacity of our intellect to grasp an object of knowledge.
Cardinal Newman's moving poetic description of being led by faith beyond what we can immediately see is a good reminder to us that the light of faith doesn't remove all obscurity or need for human trust in life. Rather, faith is shown to be most active precisely when we are led through the obscurity of life with a certainty that does not rest on our own psychological or emotional steam. I've found this to be deeply consoling in my own life, and deeply important at the moments in which believing God and following God in the practical things in life are most closely connected. The light of faith is rather comfortable, or even curious as a concept; it is the only thing you have to hold on to when you are deciding whether or not the Creator of the universe is personally calling you to live your life in a certain way, such as becoming a priest! And yet there is light in the darkness; certainty amidst reasonable doubt. All of this is true because the light of faith is a real supernatural habit of mind, and not just a human attitude.
In a very practical way, the episode described in John's gospel between Christ after the Resurrection and the apostle Thomas is instructive to us all. We should expect God to work in ways that are both interior and exterior in our lives. Can the God who has given us our intellect not provide another illumination of that intellect beyond that of natural reason? Can the God who has given us our wills not move them freely from within, so that by his grace we become truly free? What the apostle Thomas saw in the Resurrected Christ is not divinity itself. He did not see the essence of God as we will see God "face to face" in heaven. But in seeing and touching the glorified humanity of Christ, he was given a reason to believe what he could not see or touch. Faith made up the difference. So for those of us who have not seen the risen Christ, God comes to us through the witness of the Church who proclaims the scriptures and celebrates the Sacraments; in the process he turns the lights on from the inside, so to speak, through offering us the gift of faith as a response to the external reasons to believe. Truly blessed are those who have not seen and believe, because our assent of faith rests more solidly on our docility to the Holy Spirit illuminating our minds and moving our wills... but it is not without foundation.
This kindly light of God's grace active in faith provides a bedrock for our lives. In the first place because we easily and without error hold what is true when we hold what God reveals. Our understanding of it all requires the use of our minds to seek understanding. We all know that people of faith can misunderstand the implications of what they believe through a faulty use of their reason, and as St. Thomas explains this is also due to the fact that we only imperfectly participate in the light which illumines God to our minds. Yet, despite our imperfect vision of God through the light of faith, it nevertheless provides a compass to point us to the eternal homeland for which we are created. Like pilgrims traveling at night through a foreign land, even the dimmest of lights is a welcome help for in the serious task of finding our position and heading on the map so that we may direct our steps toward our true destination.
In summary the virtue of faith is...
a grace: it comes from God as an act of his favor to us;
a human act: we must cooperate with the grace of God given in us to cling to the truths that he has revealed to us; when we believe, it is truly an act that we do in cooperation with the interior help of the Holy Spirit;
ordered to understanding: "What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe 'because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.' So 'that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit." The the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability "are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all;
certain: It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God;
completely at peace with science: Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth;
free: man's response to God by faith must be free; we are capable of choosing him or denying him;
necessary for attaining heaven: According to the Letter to the Hebrews it is impossible to please God without faith.
I hope these points help you to understand the basic structure and importance of the first of the theological virtues, faith. The next virtue that I will cover is the second of the theological virtues, hope.
St. Thomas Aquinas surrounded by Aristotle and Plato.
•“And in some of the people in the town and the community surrounding it, one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century was making its way: the suspicion that they would be greatly improved if they were someplace else.” – Wendell Berry.
•Abba Anthony said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.” - cf. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers
•Human virtues 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. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. - Catechism of the Catholic Church
As we begin our endeavor to make the virtuous life central to our approach to formation and education the natural starting point is with a definition of terms. What is meant by virtue? In truth, the word virtue, coming from virtus in Latin, has its roots in the word for man (vir), and thus connotes manliness. So from rather simple etymological insight, it becomes easy to see that when Josef Pieper said that virtue is the "utmost of what a man can be", he was simply expounding upon the root meaning of the word.
I'm convinced that a return to virtue, beginning with a return to the perspective that virtue theory holds, is the best way for us to approach the great human project that is trying to not just live, but live well. In a way that is the unique characteristic of being human, we aren't just after survival, but flourishing. Virtue shows the way to this flourishing, because is corresponds to utmost of what a man can be.
So how do virtues accomplish this rather bold claim to be the be all and end all of human action? Quite simply by stabilizing our psyche and emotions in such a way that they readily act how they are supposed to act. In the words of the Catechism, they are "firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions (think emotions), and guide our conduct according to reason and faith." This is why I thought Wendell Berry's remarks were worth including in this post. At the end of the day, where we live doesn't determine whether or not we can be good. Sure, sometimes it can help our hinder our progress. I certainly believe that environment is important in moral formation. (That is why we need to work together to make the school environment great!) But the outside world is not me. It doesn't cause me to act or not to act in a certain way...if I have attained the level of freedom that virtue produces. So many people that I know today, seek to leave their problems by leaving their neighborhood, when in reality the problem is that they don't have the capacity to deal with their neighbors because of a lack of virtue. Changing addresses won't change your character.
The Desert Fathers of the third century are a unique bunch of folks. I encourage you to read some of their stories for practical wisdom and a good laugh. They left the cities of the Roman empire in order to seek God through simple lives of virtue. In a certain way, St. Benedict, the unwitting father of Christian Europe, was the western version of the Desert Fathers, albeit in a more moderate form. Abba Anthony's prophetic statement about insanity taking over society to the point that those who see things clearly are proclaimed to be mad is strikingly similar to our times. The reason, I believe, is because we have lost touch with our very humanity. We have lost touch with understanding what precisely human flourishing consists in and how to achieve it. The virtues as understood teach us what it means to be human, the virtues lived actually make us more fully human. Similarly, the vices obscure humanity and keep us from the human flourishing for which God created us.
The subsequent posts will be a systematic look at the individual virtues for which we should strive in life.
In conclusion, I'm linking a video of a lecture given by my old professor Fr. Giertych, O.P. It is worth your time. Even if you don't understand everything that he says, you will be richer for understanding anything that he says. I certainly was.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Jadyn Nelson