The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

It has been a very stressful week for my family and me with multiple health scares and the ever present agony of waiting for news. I did want to start a brief series on the cardinal virtues based on a term paper I wrote for grad school. This first part is from that paper. We will consider this the introduction and next week I will begin on prudence. I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

The cardinal virtues are essential to the moral life. Each human being is made for happiness and truth, which can only be found in God. In order to discover and live this happiness each individual must foster proper habits through the cardinal virtues. In the Christian life the assumption is that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the movement of grace, are all at work within the individual as he or she works towards the ultimate truth of God. While the focus here is on the cardinal virtues, the supernatural virtues are always at work in each Christian’s life. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are virtues which order behavior to the pursuit and habitual response to goodness and truth. An individual cannot hope to live a moral life fixed on objective truth without the constant pursuit of these virtues in daily living. It is within the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living where the bigger moral questions are grounded. If an individual lives their private life virtuously, then those habits will spill over into public life and the moral orders of family, community, and country.

In examining virtue and calling others to its pursuit there is often a stumbling block tied to freedom. Individuals may see the virtues as a limitation of freedom and an imposition from external forces against the desires of that particular person; therefore, freedom must be rightly understood first in order to prevent this impediment. Since human beings are spiritual and bodily creatures, there is a natural order within each person at the ontological level. At the very level of being human beings are made for goodness and truth. This goodness cannot be completely blotted out by sin and concupiscence.[1] Far from limiting personal freedom, the virtues order and give direction to life. Servais Pinckaers states, “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them.”[2] This means human beings are free when they conform their lives to their natural inclinations for goodness and truth. Freedom is grounded in the human desire for good, “The natural root of freedom develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness.”[3] Freedom itself must not be seen as the ability to do whatever one wants, but as the perfection and pursuit of goodness so that each person may be fully alive.

Since freedom is grounded in goodness, there must be an examination of how best to achieve this goodness. As stated before, the supernatural virtues play their essential role, but the cardinal virtues are the habits needed in daily living. The process of acquiring virtue is life-long and a slow process requiring discipline. It is to make small choices in conformity to truth each day, so that truth is the ever present reality for the individual. Pinckaers uses the virtue of courage to explain this process, “The development of courage is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault.”[4] This development of habit applies to all of the cardinal virtues, but there is a hierarchical nature to the cardinal virtues. They develop, deepen, and are grounded in one another.

[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Third Edition, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 358.

[2] Ibid, 358.

[3] Ibid, 357.

[4] Ibid, 356.

What is Conscience?

In the United States it is a presidential election year, which means the word conscience will be thrown around in Catholic circles and in the culture. At times the use will be correct and other times it will be wrong as individuals fall victim to a desire for the subjective and an abandonment of objective truth. Conscience is an ontological reality for human beings, which means that conscience is part of our experience and nature. God has given us an intellect and a will. Our conscience gets information and processes it through the intellect and then decides on a course of action, which is the will. It’s important for us to understand precisely what conscience is and is not, our responsibilities in conscience, and our conscience as it relates to God and the Magisterium. I do not have time to give a thorough account, many books have been written on the subject and the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the topic, but I want to briefly explain this much maligned word and aspect of our nature.

The West has fallen prey to a “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls it. Conscience has become a catch-phrase and excuse for all sorts of behavior including intrinsic evil. It is up to the individual to set truth according to the clarion call of relativism. The problem, besides the obvious moral chaos that ensues, is that this subjectivism ignores the ontological reality of mankind. God made human beings for goodness and truth. Internally within the very depths of our being, we are ordered to love God, choose goodness, and live in truth. That truth is set by God as the Creator of the universe and of all human beings. He has placed that truth within us, even as we battle concupiscence.

In his book, Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed a series of essays on the state of the world. He devotes an entire section to the topic of conscience which has taken a prime of place in moral theology. He explains and clarifies what conscience means and what it does not because he sees a great danger of relativism even within the Church. He gives a stunning and beautiful portrayal of the two levels of conscience. He refers to them as: anamnesis and conscientia. Anamnesis is the ontological level of conscience, Benedict XVI writes:

Accordingly, the first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon “conscience” means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is constitutively in keeping with God, is not a knowledge of articulated concepts, a treasure store of retrievable contents. It is an inner space, a capacity for recognition, in such a way that the one addressed recognizes himself an echo of what is said to him. If he does not hide from his own self, he comes to the insight: this is the goal toward which my whole being tends, this is where I want to go.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 92.

Since we were made by and for God, there dwells deep within us the desire to live our lives in conformity to the good which is God. We are able to recognize what is from God and our own eschatological goal of Heaven. This of course can become blinded by sin, confusion, error, and our own will, but this interior reality is always present and the consequences are grave when we ignore this part of ourselves.

Conscientia is the act in response to a judgment in relation to the desire for good within us. According to St. Thomas Aquinas this act occurs in three stages: recognition (recognoscere), bearing witness (testificari), and judgment (iudicare). It is possible for an individual to not recognize a moral decision and to block their own will to the truth. The risks of doing this are great, as is evidenced by a history full of debauchery, violence, blood, and war. At times it is ignorance or disorder that leads a person to error and this can be corrected through a proper formation of their conscience and a realigning to God. A mistake in judgment is much easier to resolve than a person who has deadened themselves to their own ontological orientation to goodness.

What is the Church’s role in conscience?

Since human beings already have the natural capacity to do good within themselves, Jesus Christ the Logos, came to further clarify the truth which can be disordered within us by sin. As material and spiritual beings, we needed God to reach down on our level to fully teach us and guide us to Him. The danger of error is an ever present reality for mankind. We easily deceive ourselves and it is through Christ and His Church that we are given the clarity we need, so that we can always be pointed towards our eschatological end and our ontological desire for goodness. The conscience itself must find truth and dwell in goodness in order to retain its dignity. The Church guides us in the proper formation of our conscience. Truth is freedom.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

When Painful Anniversaries Come and Go

I should probably learn to be more aware of dates. It would help me to better understand why certain days seem to be harder than others. Yesterday was one of those days. It didn’t dawn on me until this morning why yesterday had more weight to it. Yesterday was the 3 year anniversary of my last miscarriage.

I know many moms who hold onto those anniversaries and many have told me I should do something special on that day. I haven’t, though. I am not sure I am strong enough to relive it every year: February 17, March 23, and a date I can’t remember in early December. The only anniversary I keep is 9/11 because of my relief work. That has healed in its own way and time.

I already live with the reality of my miscarriages every month when my husband has to give me 4 shots for my hormone problems. I remember it when my daughter is lonely or announces to a crowded restaurant that we don’t know if mommy will have anymore babies. The answer to my daughter’s statement is closer to “no” for a whole host of reasons. Three and a half years of debilitating post-partum and releasing tons of hormones into my body are the primary reasons. There is no certainty of more children even if my husband and I decided to risk it, but post-partum depression and debilitating anxiety would be waiting in the wings for me and I just got out of it. God asks Crosses of us we never imagined on our wedding day. I don’t have graves to visit because there were never funerals or bodies to bury.

The ache is in every part of me as I learn to give all of these losses back to God. As I learn to move past the added trauma of my last miscarriage and the pain of having no more children. Masses have been said for all three of my babies and I remember them throughout November. Sometimes God’s will is the harder road and for some of us, God says no more children, or even no children. The path to holiness is different for each family.

Words tend to fail me on anniversaries. I am struggling to type now. It seems a time of tears and an aching heart leaves me speechless. All I can do is sit before the Tabernacle and ask for the grace and strength to bear this Cross well. I don’t always bear it well, which is why I also have to pray for an end to anger and frustration at the same time. I am a work in progress, as are we all, and it is in suffering we learn to reach out even more to Christ. It is when we are laid bare with our chests cut open and our hearts broken that Our Lord binds us and helps us back to our feet. And so it is today, as I hold back tears and release tears, all I can do is rest in Him and beg for the grace to persevere to the end. So I forgot the anniversary yesterday, but I never forget the pain. It only eases as Our Lord and Our Lady pick  me back up and point me home.

 

 

Pursuing Virtue, Falling on Christ, and the Battle with Being Overweight

Temperance is a struggle in our culture. We struggle to rightly order food, possessions, sex, money, etc. This is very true with food as is evidenced by the obesity epidemic, of which I am a part. The struggle with food usually has many root causes and is agitated by health issues or medications. For people with thyroid issues, diabetes, other diseases, or who are on medications that cause weight gain, this becomes an ever constant problem. I have found, however, that I use these things as an excuse for doing nothing and not moving towards temperance and a healthier lifestyle for myself and my family.

Three years ago I suffered my third miscarriage. It was a traumatic miscarriage and required emergency surgery. The post-partum depression that had been raging in me since I had my daughter, which was exacerbated by each miscarriage, switched into high gear. I developed debilitating anxiety and could barely function. I was running regularly at the time and training for a 5K, however, after the race I gave up completely. I had to go on an SSRI which was notorious for causing weight gain, as I learned when I was treated for service connected PTSD 10 years ago. This knowledge about the side effects let me off the hook as the numbers on the scale grew and the self-hatred deepened.

The reality of the situation is that I took the agonizing grief I felt at the loss of three babies and used food as a form of punishment. I am a Veteran, exercise and healthy eating used to be a part of my job description. I then found out that it was my extremely low hormones that caused the miscarriages and I began to hate my body even more. I could not figure out how to give this pain, anger, and frustration back to God. My husband would tell me over and over again to give it back. Those babies were always His and we can’t help how my body is designed or that post-partum depression is too great of a risk to play Russian roulette with my health. I know I am not the only person out there who is suffering great pain and has taken it out on their bodies. That is why I am writing this piece; to let you know that you are not alone.

Growing in virtue is a difficult process that requires fostering good habits while also relying on the grace and strength only Christ can provide. It means that in order for us to grow in temperance we must fall on prayer at every single temptation. It also means delving into the pain that is causing such vehement self-hatred to manifest into gluttony. This isn’t psychological self-help, it is to enter into the dark night of both the senses and the soul. It is a pruning process in which we come out able to bear and produce much fruit. In my own experience, I have had to confront the pain I feel at the loss of three babies and the reality that I will probably only have one biological child. I also have to learn to be thankful for the broken body that God has given me, which has born one child and which is serving His mission through unification with my soul. This is a process in which we cling to the Cross.

How do we live in temperance?

Prayer

We cannot accomplish anything without prayer. We can go to the gym, hire a personal trainer, and a nutritionist, but if we do not ask Christ for strength we are bound to give up on those people by March. He is where our strength begins and He uses people like trainers to help us on the journey, but we begin with Him. Prayer is essential for moments of temptation. Learning to eat in a temperate manner comes with practice. It must become habitual and it is even more difficult if we face cravings from medications. Prayer helps us to focus on Christ, so that He can show us the beauty and joy of living in the virtues, even with the great struggles we face. Pray always.

What We Do with Our Bodies Matters

Human beings are “embodied spirits”, to borrow from St. Thomas Aquinas. We are not just spirit. That is heresy. We are the unification of the material and the immaterial, body and soul. That means what we do with our bodies matters, especially on our journey to conform to the Blessed Trinity. That is the journey we began at our Baptism. It is through our bodies that we receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. We ingest Christ physically and our spirits receive an outpouring of grace. God reaches us in our material and immaterial existence, as He made us. We cannot give into the lie of our culture, which really is an ancient heresy seen in Gnosticism, that the body doesn’t matter. We will be resurrected with our bodies on the last day, albeit glorified bodies, but our bodies nonetheless. Now is the time we learn to take care of them by living the virtue of temperance.

Seek Spiritual and Psychological Help for Unresolved Suffering

This life comes with great pain and suffering. We lose ones we love, horrors abound, and illness, physical and mental, take their toll on us. It is important if we struggle with being overweight that we figure out if there is something deeper adding to the problem. For me it was grief and hatred over a body with a hormone and neurotransmitter disorder. Find a spiritual director, a trusted and orthodox person, usually a priest, to help you through your pain and suffering. If it has manifested into mental illness or you need someone neutral to talk to, then look for a psychologist as well to guide you in the process. Be careful in selecting a psychologist and make sure they will not work to contradict your Catholic faith.

Frequent Confession

Confession is where God gives us His unending mercy and binds our wounds. He teaches us our limitations and failures, so that He can give us the strength to grow in holiness. We will continue to fall as we battle concupiscence, but we are strengthened by frequent Confession. My husband and I found bi-weekly Confession has strengthened our marriage and shown us where we struggle most. We have been going for nearly 5 years now. It’s a place where we not only place our sins, but our burdens. The first thing I did after my last miscarriage was go to Confession. I sobbed the whole time, but Christ reached out to me and comforted me in that grief. You can never get too much grace.

Begin to Make Changes

In working on temperance, it’s important to will a change through action and begin. Make a plan that works best for you and begin. You don’t have to be a marathon runner at the end, but focus on the power of temperance and of taking care of the temple of the body that He gave you and me. Remember that this is a life-long process and will not happen overnight. In moments of discouragement, fall back on prayer and continue again. Remember, this too shall pass.

Have a Support Network

Whether it is your spouse, children, parents, or friends we must make sure that we have people in our lives who are cheering us on and who understand the great value of temperance. These are people we can call when we have a tough day or we make a mistake. They are the ones to remind us to get back up and keep going. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We were not made to go it alone.

I write this 1.5 months into my own journey. I am off the SSRI which exacerbated the problem and I have lost 20lbs. I started while I was still on it, because it was my unwillingness to try that was the real problem. I now feel like I have established better habits. The beginning was tough and I still have 45lbs to my goal weight. I did not select my goal in relation to my pant size. I chose the maximum healthy weight for my height and frame. I am more concerned about health and virtue than my jean size. I am not a success story, yet. I am trudging along on the way to temperance and a healthier life. I am still clinging to the Cross as waves of grief collide against me at unexpected moments. I am learning not to hate this body that God gave me that I may do good for His glory. The point is to begin. We cannot grow in virtue if we never start the habits needed. Most of us will make small steps at moments throughout the day. We won’t even notice it at first, but eventually they become habits which is the fountain of the virtues. For those of you who struggle with temperance as I do, let’s begin so that we may grow in virtue, holiness, and healing. St. Sebastian, ora pro nobis.

Sinful Anger: Confronting the Beast Within

In my most recent article for Catholic Exchange I discuss the beginning of my own Lenten journey and life-long journey to confront sinful anger, which I have battled since childhood.

For this Lenten season, I finally decided to confront one of the deadly sins that has beguiled me since childhood: sinful anger. Over the years my anger has waxed and waned, but it has been an ever present struggle and a constant sin for me to Confess. The reasons for why this anger developed doesn’t matter so much as how I learn to deal with it now. Lent is a time to reach deeper into holiness and that means confronting our deepest vices, so that we can live in conformity with the virtues. For me to go deeper into Christ I must learn to abandon sinful anger.

Anger can come about for many reasons: the state of the world, past hurts, childhood, chronic pain or illness (this may very well be mitigated depending), hormone issues, habit, and a variety of other reasons. The common denominator is that we are the only ones with the power to banish sinful anger from our lives. It is very difficult to parse righteous anger from sinful anger within ourselves because the passions have such an integral part to play in our responses. I have often claimed righteous anger when it was clearly sinful anger that occurred within me. In order to help me on my Lenten journey and the journey I will walk for the rest of my days on this earth, I picked up a copy of Fr. T.G. Morrow’s wonderful book, Overcoming Sinful Anger. He cuts right to the chase with the title and he doesn’t mince words in the book either. He provides the fraternal correction far too many of us need, even though it is difficult to confront this ugliness within ourselves. The pain, humiliation, and struggle are necessary, but will be rewarded.

What is Sinful Anger?

Chapter One of Morrow’s book begins with a couple of clear definitions of sinful anger. Anger in itself is a feeling of “displeasure” typically. Feelings are neutral, it is how we respond to them that matters. Anger in the beginning is an emotional response and not sinful in itself. Quoting Henry Fairlie in his book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, the first definition of sinful anger is:

Anger as a deadly sin is ‘a disorderly outburst of emotion connected with the inordinate desire for revenge’…It is likely to be accompanied by surliness of heart, by malice aforethought, and above all by the determination to take vengeance.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Blogging Again: Good Practice and Open Forum

A few months ago I gave up blogging. It was getting to be a bit of a burden to me and I didn’t care for the direction my writing was taking as a blogger. I decided to step back for a while and focus on my other writing projects and my journey as a freelance writer. I continue to write regularly for Catholic Exchange which has been a great blessing in launching me into freelance writing. I believe in their mission and purpose as a Catholic website.

I also took some time to submit a few pieces here and there on topics of importance to me. I learned a few things along the way. Being a writer is difficult. There are editors who will immediately see potential or like your work and there are others who will not. That is reality and an understandable one at that. Rejection is a part of any art and that includes writing. I also discovered, however, that as Catholic writers we can become entangled or stuck in ruts on topics. There can only be so many articles on abortion or “gay marriage” before we start to sound like a one note trumpet. I see this as a real danger for many Catholic sites. We must be well rounded and willing to vary the discussion.

I found in a topic that is of importance to me, which is the disconnect between the treatment of miscarriage and the Church’s call to a Culture of Life, to be met with some level of apathy. I sent pieces to multiple groups, one of them I understand was not the right approach. It is difficult to get forcefulness through in writing without it coming off as anger and I realized that I need a new approach to garner any interest on that topic. I need a virtuous approach in order to help people see the necessity of the discussion. How can we call people to pray at abortion clinics while ignoring families suffering and grieving miscarriages in the pews? I must temper my own pain and frustration with the Church in this area in order for anything to get done or else I will just stand beating a brick wall.

Since I see that certain topics aren’t going to get a lot of air time right now, I decided to practice and work through them on my blog. I won’t write for publications which tow the line in orthodoxy, as was recommended in one instance. I also did something very few writers see themselves doing this day-in-age and I got rid of my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Social media is seen as a staple in writing and I see the point, but I found social media to be too much of a distraction and full of noise. In fact, it was cacophonous. There is so much fighting these days and very little thought out discourse. I easily became ensnared in disagreements and discovered they had become a major time-waster for me. In other words, Facebook and Twitter were not helping me on my path to holiness, so I pruned them out.

In giving up social media, my husband and I developed a keener sense of being in the present and able to move towards God in a quieter manner that was not there before. I no longer think in terms of “This should go on Facebook” or “How do I get this article to go on Twitter?” I do use Pinterest to save recipes and articles, but that’s it. Now I stay in moments and only take pictures when I truly want to remember a moment. I missed social media at first, but now I don’t want to go back. Social media is a good, but for some of us it is a hindrance in the way we use it. Yes, social media is how most writers find work or make connections, but I am trusting that God will use the connections he has already given me to serve Him as a writer. He has already blessed me with an almost weekly contribution over at Catholic Exchange. As a full-time graduate student and homeschooling mom, my current pace as a freelance writer is right where it needs to be until I graduate next year. The most unexpected development that has occurred recently are the multiple radio interviews I have been asked to give on Teresa Tomeo’s radio show Catholic Connections. I was stunned and grateful for those opportunities.

I am not sure how often I will write here. I hope to write about three times per week and focus on quality over quantity. I still struggle with haste and imprudence, so I want to focus on pieces which will aid people in the journey, while also confronting the realities of the world and the Church. I am working on a term paper on the cardinal virtues for my Moral Theology class, so perhaps I will begin with a series on the cardinal virtues. I briefly covered the topic on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas over at Catholic Exchange which you can read here. I have learned an entirely different approach to Ethics this semester which focuses on beatitude and virtue over a legalism. It is the Scholastic view of morality. It has been a real blessing and aided me in my journey. I’ve already begun to apply what I have learned about temperance in how I treat my body.

Thank you very much for reading. I will be praying for all of you. Pax Christi.