The Nature of Virtue
(First of a Series of Eight Pages on Virtue)
by Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
Before we consider individual Virtues, we must consider the Nature of
Virtue itself. Each of us has been trained to call certain Acts
"Virtuous", so we understand instinctively what Virtue
is, and - if asked - could reply Truthfully that Virtue is a Good Habit.
This is a good answer, and we need not try to improve upon it. No amount of study will change it. However, if we delve a little deeper, we
can discover that our Good Acts are built upon a Rich and Beautiful Theological Foundation.
Understanding what lies behind our Good Acts gives us additional reason for striving to perform more, and
better, Acts, as well as additional reason to Love God, Who is
the source of all Goodness.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, reflecting Saint Augustine, calls Virtue
"A Good Habit of the Mind, by which we live Righteously, of which no one can make Bad Use, which God works
in us...." (ST I-II, 55.4)
We shall consider each of these Elements in turn.
A Good Habit
The word "Habit" comes from the Latin word Habere,
which means "to have". Our Theology teaches us that Habits are Dispositions, Tendencies
within us by which we are moved to Act. God has given us the Freedom to Choose from among many
Options; when we consistently use our Freedom to Choose Good, we find
Good easier and easier to Choose, and Good Actions easier and easier to perform.
As we Cultivate this Disposition to Choose Good, it becomes more and more a part of who we are.
Habit comes from the word that means "to have", so when we speak of Habits, we describe
something a person "has", namely, a Disposition to Act in a certain-way.
A Habit of the Mind
(Resides in the Essence of the Soul)
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Sanctifying Grace/Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Our Bodies Act either from Nature or from some Impulse of the Soul.
Although an Act such as breathing appears to be Habitual, because we do it continually, our Bodies have no
Power over the Act of Breathing. Freedom and Choice are essential components in Habits, so Habits are qualities of our
Mind or Soul - the part of us that makes Choices and Commands our
Bodies to perform particular Acts in particular ways.
A Righteous Life
The relation of Virtue to living Righteously should be self-evident. If we describe
Bad Habits, the Dispositions that impel us to perform the
Evil Acts we call Sin, we are not speaking of the Dispositions that encourage us to do Good.
Saint Paul teaches
Whatever is True, whatever is Honorable, whatever is Just, whatever is Pure, whatever is Lovely,
whatever is Gracious, if there is any Excellence, if there is anything worthy of Praise, think about these things
The qualities Saint Paul enumerates are the Choices we refer to when we speak of the Habit of living
No Bad Use
Once again, our definition confronts us with the self evident. If Virtues are the Habitual Choices
by which we live Righteously, they cannot be directed toward Evil.
God At Work In Us
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early Church Fathers
(A.D. 335 - 395), "The Goal of a Virtuous Life is to become like God".
God works in our lives in various ways. He can enable us to
perform some Heroic Act for which we are altogether unprepared, and for which we have no Natural Aptitude. We call this
Infused Virtue, and we will discuss it more thoroughly when we consider the
In our everyday lives, Godís Activity is far more Subtle, prompting us to Choose the
Good which lies before us, and to Reject what will lead us to Sin.
Saint Thomas observes, "...He works in every Will and in every Creature"
(ST I-II, 55, ad 6). These words describe the Immensity of
Godís Desire for our Good, but they also describe our
Awesome Responsibility in relation to God. When we say, "God works in
every Will", we acknowledge not only Godís Power in our lives, but the
Power of our Human Freedom to Cooperate with God, or to
God can work in our lives without any Action on our part, as when
He Inspires Martyrs to face Threats far beyond normal
Human Courage. However, God does nothing in our lives without our
consent. Godís Will does not replace our Will; it Perfects
our Aptitude and Power to do Good.
Virtue and Freedom
The Catechism teaches, "The Virtuous Man is he who Freely practices the Good"
(1804). Godís Word, revealed through the Scripture and the
Authority of the Church, provides direction for our Actions. When we exercise our Freedom to Act
according to Godís Word, we not only Choose to do a Good Deed,
we discover what is most God-Like - that is, what is the best - in ourselves.
Virtue and Prayer
Prayer enables us to embrace the Truth of
Godís Word and, thus, to "have" it Ė as a Habitual part
of our Interior Life. Prayer is one of the ways by which we Form our
Conscience and learn to make the Choices that will manifest Godís Will and make
His Love visible to our World.
Virtue and Practice
Anyone who has mastered a Complex Skill understands the Virtue
of Practice. Whether we strive to excel in a physical sport, learn a foreign language, or play a musical instrument, our success increases
in direct relation to the time we devote to repeating the same tasks over and over. Once a Skill becomes Habitual we call it
"Second Nature". This term describes the ease with which we do something, and the
Grace with which we Act. We may devote years to developing the ability to swim well, or to
perfecting a golf stroke, but once we master the skill, we no longer have to think about its component parts, we simply
The same is true of our Lives of Virtue. The Catechism teaches "A
Virtue is a Habitual and Firm Disposition to do the Good" (1803). It continues
Human Virtues are Firm Attitudes ... Perfections of Intellect and Will that Govern our Actions, Order
our Passions, and guide our Conduct according to Reason and Faith (1804).
These Dispositions do not become either Habitual or Firm overnight; they are something we achieve by performing
Virtuous Acts repeatedly. These Acts may be as obvious as contributing to a Favorite Charity, or as subtle as
"letting go" of a Grudge, but if they are to
become a part of our Personal Treasury, we must pursue them regularly.
The Reward of Virtue
When speaking of Virtues, the Catechism remarks, "They make
possible Ease, Self-Mastery, and Joy in leading a Morally Good Life" (1804). The
appearance of Joy in this List is significant. Our Theology teaches that
Joy is the Satisfaction that comes from possessing some Good Thing or from doing some Good Deed.
Joy is often linked with Peace, which is a
State of Tranquility, in which the Soul simply rests.
In his 'Confessions', Saint Augustine cries out to God, "Our
Souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee". Augustine is obviously speaking of the
Everlasting Life - and Eternal Rest - we look forward to sharing
with God in Heaven. However, we must not overlook the application of
these words to the here-and-now reality of our everyday existence. Common sense and Human experience tell us that the
Peace and Joy of Godís Kingdom
may prove to be very Elusive Goals in our daily lives, but a Life of Virtue is nonetheless a
Sign, however Imperfect, of Godís Kingdom. Joy and
Peace most definitely have Social - even Global - consequences, but they begin as our very
Personal Awareness of having Acted Well.
Virtue and Truth
Truth is the correspondence between some Created Thing and the Image of that Thing in the
Mind of its Creator. Our Faith
tells us we are created in Godís Image and Likeness. This means that our Actions bear witness to the
Truth of Godís Image in us. At least they should. A Life of
Virtue reveals more and more clearly - more and more truly - Godís
Image in us. We earlier quoted Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who said "The goal of a Virtuous Life is to
become like God". This is not an invitation to Pride; even the greatest
Saints do not approach Godís Infinite Goodness. Nevertheless, our efforts to live
Virtuously enable each of us to be for the Church - and for one
another - the same Source-of-Inspiration that God is.
Virtue and the Virgin Mary
No one who has read 'Light and Life' for any time at all will be surprised if we introduce Godís
Mother as the Supreme Example of a Virtuous Human Life. To say
this in no way diminishes the Honor due Maryís Son,
Our Lord. However, Mary, like us,
One (1) of Godís Creatures, faced the Challenge of
showing the World the True Image of God.
We earlier observed that God may occasionally work in our lives without any Deliberate Action on
our part. However, God does not Act without our consent. Our First
encounter with Mary in the Gospel shows us the example of her
consent, which gives Flesh and Blood, a Human Face and Human Hands,
to Godís Word. Whenever we find her in the Gospel Account
her Actions demonstrate this same, Fruitful Consent.
Obviously, this Consent could not have been always easy to give. A look at the Choices God asks us
to consent-to tells us that Maryís Consent must sometimes have been a
Wrenching experience. Who of us can face the Death of someone we
Love without Regret? The many Artistic Representations of
Mary at the Foot of the Cross - our Sorrowful
Mother - show the Grief and
Anguish that were the Price of her Consent. But at
the same time, these Images depict Mary surrounded with the quiet and calm that are the characteristics
of Peace. Hard as her Choices
were - Hard as ours are - Mary shows us the
Peace that Crowns a Life of Virtue.
Mary shows us, too, that True Joy is something different from
the Exhilarating Happiness we may feel in the face of some Pleasant Event. Such Feelings, however
delightful, are a small part of the Theological Joy that Rewards a Life of
Virtue. The Old Testament figure of Job shows us the Fragility and Impermanence of many of the things that delight our
Senses. True Joy is the Satisfaction of having done some Good Deed,
or possessing some Good Thing. It lasts far beyond the Intoxication of Passion or the Thrill of a
well-deserved victory. If Theological Joy pales in comparison to the
Feelings we experience in the presence of loved ones, or in the face of some Good Fortune, it is, perhaps, because
True Joy - the Reward of Virtue - is not subject to the
Peaks and Valleys of our Emotional lives.
The Litany of Loreto addresses Mary as, "Cause of our
Joy" and "Queen of Peace". If we consider that
Virtue is, as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas teach, "a Good Habit of the Mind
by which we live Righteously", we may begin to understand a New Richness to these Titles we attribute to
Mary. Mary is Cause of our Joy,
of course, because she gave us her
Divine Son, Who promises:
If you keep My Commandments, you will abide in My Love just as I have kept My Fatherís Commandments
and abide in His Love. These things I have spoken to you, that My Joy may be in you, and that your Joy may be complete
Jesusí Words are nothing less than an invitation to a Life of
Virtue, lived according to His Commandments and Example.
His Promise of Joy that is complete, i.e., Full, Unthreatened, Everlasting, is at once
a Challenge and a Promise. A Challenge to be Alter Christus - another
Christ - for the World. And a Promise that the God Who is careful enough to keep
Track-of-Sparrows, will not fail to Applaud our efforts to show His Love to the World.
Audio Clip on the
by Father Jordan Aumann, O.P.
Institute of Spirituality at the Pontifical University
of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome