Tag Archives: self

25 September: The Virtue of Fortitude, II, What is it?

 

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Saint Maximilian Kolbe showed great fortitude in standing against Nazism and in giving his life for another.

The notion of fortitude takes a bit of explaining. Like prudence, it seems an old-fashioned word, not used very much in ordinary conversation. When, in fact, was the last time you heard someone use the term? Perhaps the answer is Never. And yet, fortitude is an important concept, and if you possess it as a virtue, you have something very valuable indeed. Why? Because fortitude is about having strength on the level of our deepest self. You might say that fortitude is about being the person you really want to be.

Paradoxically, however, fortitude presupposes human weakness, presupposes that we are liable to be wounded. A stone cannot have fortitude because it has no mind or soul or feelings (as we would understand them). Nor can an angel have fortitude, because an angel is immortal. Fortitude belongs to thinking and feelings beings that are mortal, that can be hurt, and even killed – and that’s us. We can be wounded on so many levels, emotionally, spiritually, physically. Fortitude is that virtue by which we are able to be brave in the face of threats to our emotional, spiritual or physical well-being. Josef Pieper spells it out: ‘...[E]very violation of our inner peace; everything that happens to us or is done with us against our will; everything in any way negative, everything painful and harmful, everything frightening and oppressive’, this is what fortitude is for. And he goes on, ‘The ultimate injury, the deepest injury, is death.’

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

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August 7: Francis Thompson VI. THE HOUND OF HEAVEN: V

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My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again;
But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
With grooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
Be dunged with rotten death?
Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

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June 19: Shared Table II, the Dignity of the Child.

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Maria Montessori was one of the greatest Italians of modern times. Young Abel makes me think of this passage from The Child in The Family. Montessori tells how a baby wants to be at table with the family.

If we are at dinner and the child is in another room and he weeps because he is left out, we have withheld the respect we would have given to an adult. We ought to be pleased by his presence and keep him near us. Do not worry about food hurting him – ignoring him is an offence.                             p52.

We could also read this paragraph:

Those who do not care brutally shove the spoon into the child’s mouth – but observe and the child will try to help himself. One must simply sacrifice cleanliness to the justifiable impulse to act. The child will perfect the movements in time. When he has satisfied the need to help himself he will let the adult help.                  p124-5.

Young Abel was so keen to help himself on the occasion of this photo that he had spoon in one hand, fork in the other, and also a special spoon for the helpful adult. (Al fresco dining meant pickings for Robin and Mrs Tittlemouse, eager to clear up Abel’s mess.)

So why does the Church refuse to give the Eucharist to baptised babies? What message does that give them; and the rest of us? Are we not withholding respect? Abel’s mother as a baby used to extend her hand when carried up to the altar, and when I was little, one parent would often stay with the little ones in the bench and await the other’s return before  receiving the Sacrament themselves.

Beware of counter-signs; often they are so established that we never see them; disrespect of children runs deep in Church and Society.

MMB

 

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June 7. Justice III: Justice and the Other

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Photo: L’Arche.

A theme underlying the Catechism’s teaching on the virtue of justice, but which could easily be missed, is that justice is a virtue by which we focus on others’ rights and claims.

We are perhaps encouraged by our culture to be aware of justice or injustice in the political sphere. But apart from that, our culture today teaches us to be most aware of injustices done to ourselves. We are taught to ask “what about me?” rather constantly. Granted, in a world where we can easily be victimised by entire systems of injustice, this is an important and necessary question to ask. The virtue of justice does not require us to be victims. On the contrary, this virtue is about opposing injustice wherever we find it. But, it is possible to go overboard here. It is the justice of the nursery, of the two-year-old, and of the ghetto, that regards everyone as a potential robber and enemy. It is important to grasp that in the virtue of justice, its principal act is to honour the legitimate rights and claims of others.

So then, St. Thomas Acquinas tells us in his Summa Theologica (II.II, Q.58:1): ‘It is proper to justice, as compared with the other virtues, to direct man in his relations with others.’ The other virtues – prudence, courage and temperance – are formed within the mind and emotions of the individual. They may involve other people, but they may not. Justice, on the other hand, exists in relation to others. It works to maintain a certain equity between a need and the fulfilment of that need. The obvious example is in the payment of a just wage for a service rendered. But there are deeper and more subtle considerations relative to justice, which we shall explore in the coming posts.

SJC

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19 March: 3rd Sunday in Lent, Jesus and the Woman at Jacob’s Well.

 

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We were bowled over by the beauties of the Baptistry of the Abbey of Saint Maurice in the Swiss town of that name. It is worth a detour, or spending a couple of hours between trains to make a journey into a pilgrimage.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 4, Jesus was returning to Galilee from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when he sat down by Jacob’s Well and asked a Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water. The well, of course, was there before the Jews and Samaritans went their separate ways: ‘Our fathers adored on this mountain, and you say, that at Jerusalem is the place where men must adore,’ said the woman.

Instead of getting into an argument with her, Jesus tells her:

 The hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. God is a spirit; and they that adore him, must adore him in spirit and in truth.

This text is used for one of the Scrutinies – special prayers within the Sunday Mass for those preparing for Baptism at Easter. We can pray these words for ourselves, too:

God of power, you sent your Son to be our Saviour. Grant that these men and women, who, like the woman of Samaria, thirst for living water, may turn to the Lord as they hear his word and acknowledge the sins and weaknesses that weigh them down. Protect them from vain reliance on self and defend them from the power of Satan. Free them from the spirit of deceit, so that, admitting the wrong they have done, they may attain purity of heart and advance on the way to salvation. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Let us pray, too for the grace to treat as sisters and brothers all the baptised, of whatever Church.

Let us pray for the freedom of everyone to adore  God, in church, mosque, synagogue or temple.

 

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9 March, Human Will: V Clarification of Terms

 

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In our reflections so far, we have been considering the will as a faculty of the soul, which, when guided by our reason, moves us in making choices that align with what is truly good, with what is directed to God and to others in charity.  In this sense, the will itself is something good, something vital for the functioning of our spiritual life.  It is the locus of the true self.  By its work, our emotions become integrated and our decisions and actions gradually align with what is good and true.  We need to know that our will is there – and appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, the will has also received some rather bad press.  ‘Oh, my little Jimmy is so wilful,’ an exhausted mother of a two-year-old might say.  Used in this way, the notion of the will can seem to be something problematic, stubbornly chained to the disordered cravings of our emotions and allied to our selfishness.  Is our will something good or something bad, then?

In a superb book, Will and Spirit, written in 1982 by the psychologist Gerald May, an important distinction is made between being wilful and willing.  This distinction focuses on the will not only as a faculty of the soul, but as an operation.  According to May,

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.  In contrast, wilfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.  More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment.  Wilfulness is saying no….

     Willingness and wilfulness…reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself.  Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it.  Wilfulness forgets it, ignores it or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it [Will and Spirit, Harper Collins, 1982, Ch. 1].   

Perhaps, simply put, when we are talking about the will in terms of wilfulness, then, we are speaking of an aspect of our interior life that is self-involved, determined on its own agenda, closed to God.  When we are speaking of the will as a faculty of the soul, then we are usually speaking of it in terms of willingness, as Gerald May describes.  And more, we mean the will as an ally of our reason, giving us an ability to make wise decisions and choices, as well as motivating us to carry them out.

SJC

 

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8 March, Human Will IV: The Will and Virtue

 

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In the Church’s anthropology, our will is one.  We have ‘free will.’  Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, wrote that the human person is ‘master over his acts’ precisely because of his free will.  We are therefore responsible for our decisions and actions.  Those decisions and actions of which we are ashamed cannot be panned off on some other sort of ‘will’ present within us.

At the same time, we know that our will’s capacity to respond to the promptings of our conscience is not always immediate or consistent.  Although Augustine thought our emotions and our will can and should work as one, the fact is that sometimes the will is under the sway of our emotions.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this important observation:

Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts [no. 1734]. 

Let us pause over this sentence and savour it a bit.  It means that if we want our will to function properly with ‘mastery’ over our acts, it needs some help.  First, as the Catechism indicates, help is needed on the level of virtue.  The Church defines virtue as ‘an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.  Virtue allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself’ [Catechism, no. 1803].[1]

What is important to note here is the encouraging news that we can grow in virtue.  Each time we do something truly good, the will is strengthened by that action, and we grow in our ability to continue to do good.  We grow not only in terms of the ease with which we act in a good way, but we grow in our understanding of what we are doing and why: we grow in spiritual depth.  We thereby make real progress in virtue, and strengthen the power of our will.

The next idea in the sentence we are considering is that our will’s mastery is strengthened by our progress in ‘knowledge of the good.’  Perhaps you are someone who has been a Christian all your life, or perhaps you are someone who is just discovering God, Jesus, Christianity.  But, wherever we may be on the Christian timeline, we all need to grow in our ‘knowledge of the good.’

We do not live in a society that accepts that ‘the good’ exists in a way that makes requirements on all people.  Much of what Christianity declares to be truly good in an unchanging and universal sense, our society simply writes off as mere opinion – not binding on anyone except those who hold such opinions.  This can be confusing, both for long-term Christians, and new Christians.  To really know ‘the good’, it is necessary to turn to the teaching of the Church, to pray for understanding, and to be courageous enough to reject some counterfeit notions of goodness that are the currency of our culture.  The Church has always been counter-cultural and Christians must simply expect that the ethical and moral teachings of the Church will be a challenge to many of our society’s popular notions of morality.   As we gradually come to understand what is truly good, and live in accordance with our knowledge, our will is strengthened, and its mastery over our acts is enhanced.  We become more alive, more joyful, on a very deep level.

And lastly, our phrase from the Catechism uses the word ‘ascesis.’  What is that?  Perhaps we can call it the ability to set limits on our pleasures.  Living for mere pleasure can quickly degenerate into addiction.  And it is well known that addiction’s pleasures operate by the law of diminishing returns.  This is not to suggest that a Christian should have no pleasure, but that pleasure is the by-product of joy, and joy comes when our will, guided by our reason and informed by faith, exercises mastery over our acts.  Perhaps it is easiest to understand ascesis as self-discipline that functions for the purpose of enabling us to be free of dependences in order to live fully for God.  St. Augustine’s prayer, published at the beginning of these posts, affirms God helps us on the level of our will.  He is the strength of the will that serves him.

 

[1] This is not the place to give a detailed treatment of all the virtues, but those wishing to understand more about this subject may refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1804 – 1829.

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7 March, Human Will III: The Will and the Emotions.

 

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Let’s explore St. Augustine’s ideas a bit more.  We are trying to understand the will.  In the late fourth and early fifth century, when Augustine lived, the issue at stake with regard to the understanding of the human person would have been a question about the locus of the true self.  Is the true self in the mind, the intellect, the soul’s rational power?  At that time, the answer to this question would probably have been yes.  The self that knows, believes, speculates, reasons would have been considered the self’s core.  But, we have Augustine to thank for shifting this emphasis.  With Augustine, it becomes the morally responsible ‘I’, who loves, fears, struggles and chooses – in other words, the will – that is the centre of the personality and the true self.*  This means that for Augustine, the emotional life is an aspect of the will.

The emotions, however, must be rightly ordered, and not running away with us, helter-skelter, all over the place.  What do I mean?  Perhaps a two-year-old is the best example of emotions that run all over the place.  Whatever the two-year-old wants is what she intends to get, even if it means grabbing a toy from her playmate one minute, with a fierce, ‘Mine!  Gimme!’, and throwing it down the next moment in disgust, ‘Don’t want it!’ and proceeding to an operatic-style tantrum the next moment, and so on.  Although adults usually acquire social skills that cover such emotional chaos, we can often become aware that our emotional life has only become more sophisticated with time, but its two-year-old tendencies are still alive and well within us.

For Augustine, the good news is that the will and the emotions can work not in opposition to each other, but as one.  But there is a requirement here: St. Augustine saw that the will is not able to be healthy, choose rightly or be strong without God.  On the first day of these postings I quoted a prayer attributed to St. Augustine.  In this prayer, he testifies that God is the strength of our will, and the unifier of our emotional life.  If our will is able to be strong, if our emotional life is able to be rightly ordered, it is because we have allowed God into our life – indeed, into our very soul.

*These ideas are explored in a beautiful article by Bonnie Kent, ‘Augustine’s Ethics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

SJC

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February 13: Favela!

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As well as fantasy, the BOing! Festival at the University of Kent tried to provide a contrasting awareness of the hurtful and distressing reality of severe overcrowding. This installation in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre was called ‘Favela’ which is the name for large concentrations of slum dwellings in shanty town conditions around the cities of South America. The impression of thousands of families barely housed at all, piled on top of one another, given here for the teenagers and pre-teens to wonder at, was very striking. Poverty, even when represented in a cardboard imitation, is overwhelming.

The Brazilian Catholic Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff writes about the way in which Francis of Assisi “brought great liberation to the poor,” even without the advantages of a social services structure. “That which makes poverty inhuman is not solely (though it is principally) the non-satisfaction of basic life needs. It is the denigration, exclusion from human community, the introjections into the poor of a negative image of themselves, an image produced by the dominating classes. The poor person begins to believe he is low and despicable.”

In St. Francis, “the ferment of the Gospel breaks forth in all its questioning, challenging reality. We realize how lazy we are, how strong the old man still remains within us. [Francis] is more than an ideal; he is a way of being, an experience of identification with all that is simplest, fraternization with all that is lowliest, enabling the emergence of the best that is hidden within each human being.” [From L. Boff & W. Buehlmann eds., Build Up my Church.]

CD, January 2017

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5 February: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. Let it shine!

 

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Today, God is teaching me that an effective way to deal with the causes of sin in myself is to do good.

If I turn towards others and set about serving their needs instead of punishing or controlling them:

‘Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.’                                                                                                                    (Isaiah 58:8)

What is negative in me will be shone away without my having to focus on it, as light naturally dispels darkness:

‘your light will rise in the darkness and your shadows become like noon.’                                                                                                                                                                       (Isaiah 58:10)

As St. Bonaventure taught, ‘Goodness diffuses itself’.  In other words, it is the nature of goodness to spread itself around.  The Book of Genesis, Chapter One tells us that everything God created is good, including humans.  This means it is our nature to share with the rest of creation all that we are and have by divine gift.  Jesus’ illustrates this truth with the examples of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).  It is the nature of light to illuminate the space around it and the nature of salt to flavour the food to which it is added.  Light which is completely covered over and salt which is tasteless are useless, absurd and unnatural. So am I, when I am self-centred and lacking generosity.  But whenever I act with love, God’s light dispels my shadows.

And here is a link to an ideal soundtrack for this Sunday’s Gospel reading and blog post. 

FMSL

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