BALANCE OF THE VIRTUES
by Griff Ruby
There are seven cardinal virtues spoken of in the Church, but there are also the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, some of which are clearly the same as these cardinal virtues, and some of which are portions or logical consequences of the seven cardinal virtues. The seven cardinal virtues are Faith, Hope, Love, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity.
It might sound odd to talk of balancing the virtues, and in fact what a saint really does is actually far more interesting than that. A balance often implies a compromise, two opposing concepts being weakened just enough for there to be some unhappy medium between them. To me, the balance is merely the start.
Saintliness consists of taking after God, so let us start with a supreme example of what I am talking about in the actions of God with respect to His virtues: Justice, and Mercy. In the human course of events, these two concepts are generally opposed to each other. Justice requires that the criminal must pay for his crime. Mercy absolves the criminal of any obligation to pay for his crime.
As humans, in our limited abilities and imperfections, our nature will incline some of us to be harsh and justice-demanding while others will be by nature merciful. A human judge of the first nature will tend to sentence the convicted criminal to the fullest extent of the law, but a judge of the second nature will let the convicted criminal off very easy, perhaps with nothing more than a warning.
Worldly jurisprudence generally calls for a compromise between these two extremes. The murderer doesnít get the death sentence, but neither is he just let go, charges dropped. In this country he might typically serve a "life" sentence of about seven years. That is a compromise.
God on the other hand makes no compromises. Before Him is the sinning soul, any one of us. In perfect justice, any one of us truly deserves to go to Hell and burn there forever. In perfect mercy, every sin we have committed can be forgiven and we ourselves admitted to a Heaven we donít deserve. A human being would say that a compromise would be the way to go, that God should just let the soul go to some intermediate state between Heaven and Hell.
God is so completely above our limitations that He is not forced to choose Justice or Mercy or compromise. By dying on the cross Himself for our sins, He satisfies Justice absolutely, and at the same time by not imposing the punishment on us He satisfies Mercy completely as well. It is in this combining of such seemingly opposite virtues that the true saint is distinguished from the merely good person. It is therefore proper to speak, not of the balance of the virtues, but of the interconnectedness of the virtues. Of this, the great theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange taught:
"The interconnection of the virtues, particularly of the dissimilar and apparently opposing virtues, constitutes an excellent criterion for judging the heroic degree of the true virtues held, and thus of the sanctity of a person. When the intensity of a virtue proceeds not from human effort sustained by Grace, but from the natural disposition, one will not find, at the same time and in an eminent degree, the virtue which, in a certain sense, is opposed to it, because this natural disposition is only oriented towards one particular virtue (ad unum). He who, by nature, is inclined toward fortitude will not, by temperament, also be inclined toward mildness, and vice-versa. Hence, if we encounter these "opposing" virtues in a soul, we will have to admit that there is, in that soul, a special intervention of God and of His Grace. In effect, God alone, in His absolute simplicity, possesses the "dissimilar" perfections. He possesses, for example, in a supremely excellent mode and in a marvelous unity, both infinite justice and infinite mercy, and that is why He can unite them in the soul of the just. If on the other hand, the "dissimilar" virtues such as fortitude and mildness, do not appear fused and united but, instead, isolated and apart, then, in that case, we donít have the triumph of grace and true sanctity, but rather the triumph of human nature, that is to say of a single virtue without the counterweight of the one which is its apparent opposite."
One sees in this the true path of saintliness. Anyone can be either kind or firm. Who can be both, at best, simultaneously? It is easy to see what this does for parents who need to be kind and loving so that the children will know that they are loved, and at the same time firm in their rules and discipline. The parent who isnít kind and loving to his or her children will have nothing to give them and their children will not be capable of love or of getting along with other people. The parent who isnít firm and strong in discipline will have spoiled and undisciplined children who also cannot function in life.
In the Middle Ages, at the height of Western, Christian, civilization, there was well known the quality of Chivalry. So often we nowadays confuse Chivalry with gentlemanly behavior in the presence of women. Behind that placid and uninteresting modern myth is hidden a fabulously powerful and profound principle which is essential to the functioning of any civilization.
Chivalry, in its original conception and as known to the medievalists, was the same ideal as the interconnection of the virtues of which Garrigou-Lagrange taught. One finds it so beautifully described in Maloryís Morte Darthur, where it is said of Sir Lancelot, "Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest."
The quality of Chivalry places a double demand on human nature. The truly chivalrous knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy (or unhappy) mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the uttermost degree and meek to the uttermost degree.
The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valor of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.
In so doing, the Middle Ages fixed on the one hope of the world. It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Lancelotís character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine.
If we cannot produce Lancelots, humanity falls into two sections - - those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be "meek in hall", and those who are "meek in hall" but useless in battle - - for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not be discussed. When this disassociation of the two halves of Lancelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. The ancient history of the Near East is like that. Hardy barbarians swarm down from the highlands and obliterate a civilization. Then they become civilized themselves and go soft. Then a new wave of barbarians comes down and obliterates them. Then the cycle begins over again. Modern machinery will not change this cycle; it will only enable the same thing to happen on a larger scale. Indeed, nothing much else can ever happen if the "stern" and the "meek" fall into two mutually exclusive classes. And never forget that this is their natural condition. The man who combines both characters - - the knight - - is a work not of nature, but of Godís Grace.
That is why it has long been taught by the Church that Christianity is the main civilizing force in all of world history. The nation which draws its laws from Godís laws is a strong nation with a bright future, but the nation that forgets God is doomed to destruction. It isnít, however, merely the ideas, ideals, or even laws of God or the Church which created civilizations fit to put men on the moon, but her saints who excelled in all seemingly contrary virtues.
The ideal embodied in Lancelot is the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable. There was, to be sure, a rumor that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process, but that is proving to be a myth. There remains even to this day the "liberal" or "enlightened" mind-set which regards the combative side of manís nature as a pure atavistic evil, and scouts the chivalrous sentiment as part of the "false glamour" of war. And there is also a neo-heroic mind-set which sees the kindly and understanding gentleness of the refined side of manís nature as a weak and wimpy worthlessness, and which scouts the chivalrous sentiment as a weak sentimentality.
One can readily see both of these stereotypes being described in the current opinion and lore of the worldly people. For the one side, the neo-heroic side which craves battle and violence, there are for our moviegoing audiences such characters as the Terminator, Rambo, Robocop, and other such "tough guys" who the little boys are taught to adore. For the other side, the "liberal" or "enlightened" side which is always kindly and nice to everyone, there are no memorable characters, but there does exist the stereotype the world has for what they think a saint is, how very different from what the Church calls a saint! Let us see how Ernest Hello describes this model:
"Try to picture a saint who would not hate sin! - - The very idea of such a saint is ridiculous. And nevertheless that is the way the world pictures the Christian that it should canonize. The true saint has charity, but it is a terrible charity which burns and devours, a charity which detests evil because it wishes to heal. The saint which the world fancies would have a sweet charity, which would bless anyone and anything, in no matter what circumstance. The saint that the world pictures would smile at everyone, smile at everything. He would be without indignation, without profundity, without eminence, without regard for the unfathomable mysteries. He would be benign, benevolent, overly mawkish to the sick and indulgent of the sickness. If you want to be this saint, the world will love you, and it will say that you make Christianity loved. The world, which has the instincts of the enemy, never asks that abandon the thing that you believe; it only asks that you compromise with that which is opposed to it. And then it declares that you make it love the Religion, which is to say that you become acceptable to it by ceasing to be a reproach to it.
It affirms then that you resemble Jesus Christ, who pardoned sinners. Among all the confusion that the world cherishes, here is the one it most greatly cherishes: it confuses pardon with approbation. Because Jesus Christ pardoned many sinners, the world wants to infer that Jesus Christ did not greatly detest sin."
To that I would add that such a pathetic milk-and-water saint might indeed be much loved by the world, but he will also be quickly forgotten by the world which realizes what a pale, featureless, and boring person such a saint would be. Witness the absence of any such counterparts to such "heroes" as the Terminator.
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