Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Temptation of Virtue

We are all acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, the roots of sinfulness that characterize our actions when our hearts are turned away from God: arrogance; envy; anger; sloth; greed; gluttony; lust. Each of us, of course, has a personal 'favorite,' and each of them is animated likewise by pride (which is distinct from arrogance, I think: arrogance is a particular kind of pride, but so is anger, so is sloth, so is gluttony). Pride is simply the assumption that we have the right to direct our lives and that God does not.

A few weeks ago, however, I was having a conversation with a devout friend of mine over some fried shrimp and Yuengling, when a thought took clear form that I have been ruminating over half-consciously for a while. I have been thinking for some time that we can, in one sense, be tempted to virtue just as we can be tempted to vice.

I don't mean hypocrisy; that, true, is a very horrible corruption of the spiritual life, and open to anyone who wants to dabble in it, however far they may have advanced thus far. I mean temptation to what, from a natural perspective, is good, natural virtue: truthfulness, wisdom, generosity, self-control. These can exist apart from specifically saving grace (though they cannot exist in mere human beings, since the Fall, without common grace, i.e. the grace that God grants to all people, that which maketh the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust). The virtuous pagan, while rare in our own day -- I suspect that, for some reason, it is harder for pagan virtue to coexist with Christianity than with pagan vice -- does exist, and has existed in the past. One reason that the Church drew so heavily upon antiquity in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was that antiquity was, though not without flaws, chock-full of virtuous pagans, like Virgil (whom Dante chose as his symbolic guide through Hell and Purgatory).

The reason I speak of temptation to virtue is that I have been realizing of late that, while few men have any shortage of vices, one's makeup may easily be chiefly oriented toward natural virtue. This might be a boast, except that being oriented toward natural virtue is not only a gift of common grace, so that one might just as well be proud of the color of one's hair; but that it really does nothing to further one's salvation.

For the essence of salvation is to be supernatural. It is something that comes from without, something that breaks into our interior universe, suffusing us with something that we not only could not deserve, but could not even imagine on our own resources.

In consequence, though we certainly have to strive after virtue -- it is one of the elements of soteria, which in Greek means not only salvation but healing -- there is a sense in which it is quite beside the point. After all, the Cross itself is not the point of our being, but a means to an end, that end being a restored and fulfilled relationship with God: what the Church calls the Beatific Vision.

I think we can know we are being tempted to virtue, rather than wooed by the Holy Spirit, when our success makes us contemptuous of others -- when the thought, I can do it, why can't they? emerges in ours minds. This is perhaps my biggest sin; and contempt is an extremely serious sin, however hard it may be to resist. The thing that makes the temptation to virtue so dangerous is precisely that the thing we are being drawn toward is not only good in itself -- after all, every sin has some good element, on which it relies for its existence -- but may even be something to which the only alternative is objectively sinful. It is then that the Devil will press upon us most, for no direct evasion is possible. It is then, too, that purity of heart as such is being demanded of us -- and that, though daunting, is a comfort, for God will never refuse us the grace to do what he asks us to do.

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