February 2012 - Vol. 57

Freedom and Virtue
by Thomas Dubay

Most people conceive liberty to be an absence of law, regulation, and discipline. They possess a kernel of partial truth, but the kernel is secondary at best. Virtue, of course, implies a lessening of need for outer regulation, but that lessening derives from what is primary. At root freedom is first of all power, the power to be and to do. A medical doctor is free to perform surgery only to the extent of his knowledge and skills. Lacking these competencies, he may mutilate, but he is not free to heal. So also we are free to cook a meal, teach a course, play a game of chess precisely to the extent that we possess the requisite aptitudes and capacities, indeed the enabling powers and gifts – usually acquired by hard work. Virtue, coming from the Latin virtus, means power and, thus, goodness. 

The virtues free a person to be fully human and to reach complete personal potential. Scripture is right on target when it defines freedom as capacities and goodnesses given by the Holy Spirit: love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, trustfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5: 22). This is why Jesus declared that his word sets us free: it is an empowering word. So, too, he pointed out that anyone who sins is a slave: to avarice, lust, arrogance, vanity, intemperance. Only if the Son sets us free are we free indeed (John 8: 31-36). Sinners are slaves; saints are sovereignly liberated.

…Newman once observed, while teaching at Oxford University, that worldly people commonly make the fatal error of assuming that they have the capacity and right to judge religious truth without a preparation of their hearts by virtuous living. This is like a tone-deaf critic claiming to pass judgment on a Mozart concerto or symphony. Part of their subjective darkness is that they do not see the night in which they live.

Mother Teresa's burning love for Jesus Christ fueled her compassion for  
orphans and the homeless, and for the dying outcasts of India's poor 

Few people seem inclined to connect vivacity to virtue, but those with experience know well that men and women of profound integrity not only live on a deeper level but also live life to the hilt. Just as highly talented ballet dancers and concert violinists are more fully artists and musicians than those with lesser skills, so people who burn with love and are profoundly humble, magnanimous, strong, and gentle are much more vibrantly alive and fully human. Mediocre people excel in nothing and barely live, even though convention requires them to put on a smiling face. Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, captured the idea in his celebrated remark that “a man fully alive is the glory of God” – and, we might add, a joy to the human race.

Jesus went out of his way to say that he is life itself and that he has come to give his own a new life, a life far beyond mere biological well-being. Indeed, his aim is to give life to overflowing, in an abundance. To put this point a bit differently, we may say that each of the virtues, and especially all of them together, rid us of our self-encasements, our egocentrism. 

We ourselves are completed in our own beings as we give ourselves to others and help them to mature – all while both we and they grow in delight and fulfillment. Most of all, when we practice the theological virtues [faith, hope, and love], we find completion and supreme joy in the fountain who slakes every thirst in an entire quenching. When we drink at this fountain, our very heart and flesh sing in delight (Psalm 84: 2). This is the vivacity God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cointhians 2: 9). No one but the Lord would dream of making these promises. And, best of all, he keeps them both in this life and in its consummation in the next. Truth is indeed symphonic.

Which suggests our final reflection: in each of our human actions, even the smallest and the least noticeable, we are fashioning our eternity. One of the glories of human freedom, a fearsome glory, no doubt, is that by our free choices we decide what we shall be forever. We daily make decisions that have eternal consequences. Day by day in each of our willed actions and omissions we are making ourselves lovable or hateful: in our major decisions – to choose the real God or to choose an idol – we are choosing eternal ecstasy or eternal disaster. Jesus on his torturing Cross is the picture of how unspeakably God loves the sinner, begging, but not forcing, him to repent. In him, risen victor King, the saints are the world’s ultimate winners, wearing wreaths that can never fade.

This article is excerpted from The Evidential Power of Beauty, Chapter 13, The Beauty of Sanctity, by Thomas Dubay, S.M., copyright © 1999 Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission..

[Fr. Thomas Dubay (1921-2010) was a well-known Catholic spiritual director and retreat master who traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada. He wrote 20 books and was a member of the Marist Fathers and Brothers religious order.] 

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