The Acquisition of Virtues

The Desert Father, John the Dwarf once said:
I will invent a man composed of all the virtues.  He would rise at dawn every morning, take up the beginning of each virtue, and keep God’s commandments; He would live in great patience, fear, in long-suffering, in the love of God; with a firm purpose of soul and body in deep humility, in patience, in trouble of heart and earnestness of practice.  He would pray often, with sorrow of heart, keeping his speech pure, his eyes controlled.  He would suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, no looking out for the faults of others, nor puffing himself up, meekly subject to every creature, renouncing material property and everything of the flesh.  He would live as though crucified, in struggle, in lowliness of spirit, in good will and spiritual abstinence.  In fasting, in penitence, in weeping.  He would fight against evil, be wise and discreet in judgment and chaste in mind.  He would receive good treatment with tranquility, working with his own hands, watching at night, enduring hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness and labor.  He would live as though buried in a tomb and already dead, everyday feeling death to be near h

Although this may be the ideal and virtuous man, the prefect icon or image of Christ as revealed in Scripture and Holy Tradition, creating such an individual is far more difficult than simply wishing him into existence.  If a Christian desires to acquire virtue, whether in the desert or in the world, he or she must “…constantly strive to improve himself [body as well as soul] (from the Christian point of view), that is strive towards moral perfection” according to Igumen Philaret in the Law of God.

Moral perfection is Christian virtue. St. Athanasius the Great writes,  “Do not fear when you hear of virtue, nor let this word seem strange to you, because it is found neither far from us nor outside of us, but is realized within us and is an easy matter.  It is enough for us just to will it.” 

Willing virtue, to paraphrase Proverbs 4 is “not swerv[ing] to the right or the left, but travel[ing] on the royal road.”  Where does this road lead us?  It returns us back to God, for in Him is moral excellence and the very definition of the greatest character traits.  St. Paul writing to the Galatians qualifies these Divine attributes as the nine-fold fruits of the Spirit, that is fruit of the Holy Spirit:  love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. As Origen correctly observes, man’s soul does not generate these good things but is instead receptive of this fruit.  “It does not “generate” but “bears” virtue as a bride of Christ who is the only sower of good things.” Hence, the fruits of the spirit are bore by the Christian as he or she is better grafted into the One True Vine.

• Love is the greatest of Christian virtues.  We love God and we love our neighbor.  As the Lord Himself explains, love is the fulfillment of the Law and the expression of every act of kindness and charity.  
• Joy isn’t a human-based happiness.  It’s origin is in God.  Remarkably, this divine joy is experienced and often perfected in affliction by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. 
• Peace is an inner calm and quiet that is experienced as the soul draws close to God in prayer, confession and repentance.    
• Long-suffering imitates the long-suffering of God. The Christian patiently endures, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
• Kindness is doing something and not expecting anything in return. It far exceeds our understanding of being nice; kindness is acting for the good of people regardless of what they do. 
• Goodness derives from kindness. Whereas kindness is more a disposition of the soul, “goodness” is the energizing of kindness—it is kindness in action.
• Faithfulness is not wandering from the truth and remaining obedient as a faithful steward of God
• Meekness is not weakness, but power and strength to pardon injuries and correct faults in love without judgment.
• Self-control is dispassion, not getting angry.  It is moderation in food, drink, sleep and other desires. 

Which of the virtues should we then acquire? The Desert Father Poemen, also called the Shepherd, explains: “When a man prepares to build a house, he gathers together all he needs to be able to construct it, and he collects different sorts of materials.  So it is with us; let us acquire a little of each of the virtues.”

Thankfully, each of these gifts is found in humanity since we were created in “…the likeness and image of God.”  George Mantzaridis reminds us “In contrast with the passions which are combined with conditions contrary to nature, virtue corresponds to man’s natural condition.”  In the words of St. Gregory Palamas, every kind of virtue “is produced in us when God acts in us; when God is not active in us, “everything that proceeds from us is sin.” 
As we struggle to acquire the Spirit so as to manifest the virtues that are truly natural to our personhood, I close with the words of St. John of Kronstadt: “I am nothing without the Lord.  I really have not one true thought or good feeling, and I can do no good work; without the Lord I cannot drive away from me any sinful thought, or any sinful feeling, or any inclination to vice.  It is the Lord who accomplishes every good thing that I think, feel and do.  How boundless is the grace of the Lord acting in me.”  Amen.