Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Summer sermon notes: Cardinal Virtues

DISCLAIMER: I want to make one thing clear so there’s no confusion, and that is that we’re not talking about salvation here or “how to be saved.” We’re talking about sanctification, growth in holiness, Christian maturity, but not how to be redeemed, and it’s important to note the distinction because we do not and cannot redeem ourselves. We are redeemed by Jesus Christ. Salvation comes as an act of God—a free gift of God’s grace, received by faith in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and nourished by the Holy Eucharist. It is Christ’s work, not ours. We do not earn it; he merited it for us. We do not impress God by our virtue. Indeed, he loved us in spite of our lack of virtue.

St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople said, “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and his love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.”

We’ll be talking about what we are redeemed for—the end purpose of humanity, and that is to live a life of virtue—to become more and more Christlike, growing toward a life of eternal heavenly beatitude (happiness) lived in communion with God and in fellowship with his saints.

According to tradition, Adam and Eve were endowed by God with “preternatural gifts.” These were abilities beyond normal human nature—gifts we lost in the Fall. There were four gifts they had automatically:
1) Infused Knowledge (they didn’t have to learn, but just knew what they had to),
2) Immortality (before sin there was no death),
3) Integrity (that is, their appetites were subordinate to their intellect)
4) Original Righteousness (justitia) on account of the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace in their souls.

These four gifts correspond to the four Cardinal Virtues:
1) Prudence (relating to former knowledge and how to make use of it)
2) Fortitude (relating to our former immortality)
3) Temperance (relating to former integrity)
4) Justice (relating to original righteousness)

By our sinful rebellion in the garden, humanity lost those three preternatural gifts as well as the one supernatural gift and “fell” to a natural state. Man’s intellect thus became darkened, he became subject to disease and death, concupiscence or the “lust of the flesh” arose in man, and he exchanged original righteousness for sin.

While virtue alone cannot save us from sin, virtue is an essential part of our life in Christ. What exactly is a virtue? It’s a habit (in this case, a good habit, as opposed to a bad habit or vice). Most virtues are acquired by constant practice and exercise; the theological virtues are infused at baptism.

It is more than just a talent or a natural disposition (though we may have those). It is something we have worked at by exercising our will. And the more we employ a habit, the easier it becomes in the future.

ANALOGY: Think of the virtues as being like muscles in your body. The old adage about muscles in your body applies to the virtues: use it or lose it. The more you nourish it, the better use can be derived from it. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. The less it is used, the more it atrophies and the harder it is to use it when it is needed. That’s why when you ask God for patience (for example), he sends frustrating things your way. You need to employ the virtues in your daily life or they will never become truly strong.

DEFINITION: Cardinal is from the Latin word for “hinge” and it is used here because the medieval theologians saw how most of the other virtues flowed out of these four. So whether or not you were a virtuous person, “hinged” on how well you lived out these four virtues.

Ancient philosophers like Plato and later Cicero popularized these virtues. The Bible enumerates them in Wisdom 8:7 where Solomon says, “If any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.” And the Bible teaches us about each virtue. St. Ambrose was the first to use the “hinge” expression when he noted: “And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.”

The word virtue comes from the Latin virtus ("valor") and means a moral excellence. So to be virtuous (in the Latin expression) is to be manly, courageous, honorable in doing right, in not getting carried away by the passions and appetites, but making choices in accordance with reason and goodness.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said, “The only true riches are those that make us rich in virtue.”

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