Last night was the first meeting of our new Adult Faith Formation class, 7 Deadly Sins – 7 Lively Virtues, provided by Word on Fire Ministries. I won’t repeat the general idea and outline of the course material; you can read that in my previous blog post.
Today, however, I’d just like to give a quick report on the people side of the story and to highlight the discussions we had on the Introduction questions. Since the intent of this class is personal reflection in preparation of Lent and Easter, we limit the actual in-class session to about an hour in length. As facilitator, I select a subset of the questions contained in the student workbooks, and we discuss those in class to help guide the individual’s home study and reinforce the main take-away points.
In the Introduction video, Bishop Barron made an interesting remark when he said that “God does not need me(us).” There were various reactions to this statement that ranged from comfort to confusion. A few people shared that it was comforting in the sense that it is God’s will and power that saves us from our own fallen nature and eventually leads us to heaven. No disagreement there at all. But as we discussed it further, it seemed that Bishop Barron was making a different point and that had to do with who and what we are as humans. On a number of occasions he stated that we were “loved into existence.” We’ll return to what love is a little later but for now, it’s enough to remember that we were created in the image and likeness of God as the Bible clearly reveals in Gen 1:27. As we will discover, love has everything to do with who and what we are, and where we need to go.
Since the title of this class includes 7 deadly sins, and 7 deadly virtues, I thought it good to discuss two questions that essentially ask for the definition of sin and virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) offers a fantastic definition of sin in paragraph 1849 stating that: “Sin…is the failure to love God and neighbor due to a perverse attachment to certain goods.” Most people tend to define sins as doing something ‘bad’ such as stealing. But now it’s interesting to hear a definition of sin in the context of love. It seems that sin is better understood as either not loving at all, or loving the wrong things. Here again is that idea of love that Bishop Barron opened with.
We then moved to the second definition and that is of virtue. This one is a little less intuitive and we had to struggle a bit coming up with a simple answer. A few responses included the idea of doing good such as feeding the hungry. Yes, feeding the hungry is a virtuous act, but in and of itself is not exactly a virtue. Notice the similarity with our earlier definition of sin as doing bad. Certainly sin is often seen as doing bad, and virtue is often seen as doing good, but the truth is just a little deeper. To find this truth we turned to the CCC’s definition of virtue in Par. 1803: “ A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to the good.” I then asked the group to explain what is meant by ‘habitually.’ One gentleman gave the perfect answer when he said that habitually is to ‘do something naturally.’ He was absolutely correct in defining a virtue that is part of our nature. In other words, a virtue is not something that we do, it is something that we are. A virtue is a gift from the Holy Spirit that changes our nature. This changed nature results in us doing good.
When Bishop Barron opened the class with the idea that we were loved into existence, he was getting back to the basic fact that we were created in the image and likeness of God. In this likeness, our nature was to love as only God can love. Due to original sin and the fall, our nature changed as we lost certain attributes of God in our soul. We lost the ability to love.
As I promised earlier, we return to face the most profound yet simple question of what love really means. St. Thomas Aquinas defines love as “willing the good of the other as other.” To unpack the meaning, I asked the group what the word ‘willing’ really meant. Why was it important that ‘willing’ be part of the definition of love? Happily, the immediate group response included the idea that love was a choice. Contrary to the modern nonsense that love is a fluttering of the heart, sweep me off my feet emotion, the truth is that love is a choice. And choice implies free will. When God created the universe, only man(kind) was created with a free will because only mankind was created in His image to love. Without a free will, there can be no love.
But wait, there’s more… Take another look at the definition where it says “willing the good of the other.” St. Thomas clearly understood that love is that choice that puts another’s good ahead of our own. Love is sacrifice for the good of the other. I asked the class for any examples of this type of love. Mother Teresa came up immediately. Yes, that’s why the Church considers some people saints, because their lives are testaments to love. Their lives so clearly imitate Christ that we can use them as examples to follow. I asked for any other examples of love and then the perfect answer was softly spoken – Jesus.
Absolutely correct. Hanging on the wall was a crucifix that we all turned to see. For all of us in the class, I think the crucifix now has a slightly different meaning. Next time we look at our Lord on the cross, instead of seeing an instrument of Roman torture and execution, or just a substitution of pain for our sins, we see the crucifix for what it really is: the instrument of perfect love.