Living a Virtuous Life
September 21, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Wisdom 2:12, 17-20) Reading II (James 3:16-4:3)
Gospel (St. Mark 9:30-37)
In the second reading this morning from the Letter of Saint James, Saint James begins by asking the question, Where do the jealousies and conflicts among you arise? And he talks about how it comes from selfishness, from ambition, from the passions. He contrasts that with wisdom, which is from above, and he tells us that it is pure, that it is peaceable, that it is consistent. That is the most important thing because what we want is to develop virtue, and virtue is something that is going to be the same regardless of the circumstances.
So if you look at what it is that you want to develop, whatever virtue it may be, let us just take honesty for instance, and you decide that you have a problem with dishonesty and that you want to work on being more honest, you are not going to have a virtue this afternoon. But what needs to happen is that you first need to develop a habit of honesty. Then after the habit is developed, eventually that will develop into a virtue. The opposite works as well. If we start giving into sinful inclinations, we develop a bad habit and eventually that will develop completely into a vice. It becomes something that overtakes us, almost an obsession, something that we cannot seem to break away from very easily. And I suspect if we just look at our confessional list, all of us would probably have to admit that we have at least a few of those sorts of things that are there. We have developed vices in our lives, and we need to learn how to turn that around and make it into a virtue.
Now, traditionally, one of the ways that is done is in mental prayer, that silent daily prayer that every single Catholic needs to have. It is not an optional kind of thing for anyone who is baptized to have that time alone with Jesus. It is best if you can sit before the Blessed Sacrament. It is not always possible, but then make sure you have a place in your home that is set aside specifically for prayer. Do not sit at the desk because you know you are going to start thinking about how much work you have to do. Do not sit at the kitchen table because you are probably going to start thinking about eating. Have a place that is specifically set aside for prayer if you cannot get to the Blessed Sacrament. That is, if you cannot get to the Blessed Sacrament. If you can get to the Blessed Sacrament, do so. The Lord is there everyday, 24 hours a day, and very few people ever come to see Him, which is pretty tragic. But this is something we need to begin to develop. We have lost even the virtue of prayer as Americans.
We really need to ask ourselves, “Who is the priority in my life? Is Jesus Christ my priority?” because if He is not, I can guarantee you who is – we are. If it’s not Him, it’s ourself. It is going to be one or the other. When we read down the rest of the list in Saint James, he talks about how all the things come right out of our passions, those are all the vices that we have got. The passions will provide desires within us, but a virtuous person is going to be able to say “no” to those things. The marketing people in our society tell us that we need to give into our passions. Jesus tells us that we need to reject them or to order them properly. They are there for a good reason. For instance, you can look at the desire to eat. It is a very good thing. If we did not eat we would die, so we need to eat. But in America, we eat and eat and eat and eat and it becomes gluttony. We give into the passion; we do not order it properly. And if we really took a serious inventory of our lives, we would find that this is going to be the case on a number of different levels, whatever it may be. It may be the passion of anger. It could be the passion of lust. It can be any selfish desire or selfish ambition that we place as the priority in our lives.
The problem is when that becomes the priority anything that gravitates against it becomes a complete irritant to us because it is taking away what we have decided that we want. So the saints tell us that if we are going to grow in virtue, if we are going to become holy, we will have to do violence to our own self. Now that is not saying that one begins to do stupid things to oneself like cutting oneself up or beating oneself or anything like that. That is not the point. Far, far more difficult than that is to say “no” to unruly passions that start screaming at the top of their little lungs letting us know that they want what we have been giving them and suddenly we are saying “no” to it and they do not like it. Saint Francis of Assisi, when he was assailed by some temptations against purity, stripped himself down and went out and jumped into a rosebush so that the thorns would scratch him up and that would take care of his desires. I am not suggesting that you do that; I am just simply pointing out the kind of violence with which the saints would actually inflict themselves so that they would not sin. If you read the saints, they will all tell you the exact same thing, and it is something so contrary to the way of thought of Americans that most of us would walk away shaking our heads. We all recognize the truth and the wisdom of it, but we really do not believe it is possible. But they all tell us the same thing: that you need to get to the point that you would rather die than to commit a mortal sin. How many of us can really say that is the case? That we love God so much that we would rather die physically than to die spiritually? That we would rather give up our lives on this earth than to give up our spiritual life, our life in God, by committing a mortal sin?
The American way is to lop off part of the little verse that tells us: “If there is not anything beyond this life, then eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!” We just forget the first part and say, “Eat, drink, and be merry!” That is not the Catholic way of life. It is not anything that the saints for 2,000 years have lived. It is not the way Jesus lived, and we are to live the life of Jesus Christ. Now there is a clear problem for anyone who wants to do this and it is made very clear in the first reading. It begins with the words, Let us beset the just one because he is obnoxious to us. If you have tried to live a life of virtue, even to the slightest degree in this society, you have found yourself to be an outsider – rejected, abandoned, pushed away, ridiculed, thought to be insane, whatever it is that they are going to say about you. This is the reason why many people give up their attempts at the prayer life and virtue because they cannot deal with the idea that other people do not want them around anymore. Well, thanks be to God! they don’t if they want to be doing sinful things and you are not. But what happens is we realize that we have not developed the virtue to the point that it is consistent. That is why God allows those things to happen to us.
It is a strange thing that happens in the mentality of most Christian people. That is, when we see people doing sinful things and then we look at our own selves and God does not give us a whole lot of wiggle room, we get angry. We get angry at God and we look at all these other people and we say, “Why is it that God allows them to do all of these awful things? I make one little mistake and He smacks me for it! It’s not fair! God hates me!” Just the opposite. Anyone who has teenage kids, all you need to do is ask yourself at what point would you suggest that you are really truly loving your kids and at what point have you given up: when you are disciplining them for what they are doing, or when you say, “You know what? I cannot deal with you anymore. Get out. Go and do whatever you’re going to do. Don’t come back”? Now which one is when a parent is truly loving the child? Obviously, when you are disciplining the child. God is our Father. If He is disciplining you that means He has taken you for His own child, that means He knows you are trying to live a virtuous life and He is trying to help you develop the virtue. You should be rejoicing that He does not give you a whole lot of leeway. And these others that are off doing whatever they want to do and He does not seem to do anything to them? The worst possible curse that could fall upon anyone is that God will finally just let you do whatever you want to do. Nothing worse can happen to a person, and we look at it and say, “It’s not fair. Why does God let them do all those things?” Look at it for what it is. There is nothing worse that God could do to those people than to let them just go because they refused to listen to Him. We need to praise God that He does not give us a whole lot of space to make mistakes. Well, the mistakes He is okay with; it is the willful things we do that He is not okay with, it is the sinfulness that we get into.
And so we think we have it coming from two different sides. If we are living a good life then the people around us think we are weird and they do not want anything to do with us and they push us around. And if we do give into anything then God gets on our case and He pushes us around and we think we are the rope in a tug-of-war and it is not fair, when in fact what the Lord is doing is allowing these people to treat us badly and He Himself is disciplining us so that we can develop virtue, which is what all of us must do.
If we want to develop virtue there are two things that have to happen. First, we need to spend the time in prayer considering that particular area of our life that we want to develop. The way the Sulpicians used to teach the seminarians was to pick a virtue, any virtue that you need to develop, and every single day when you come and do your mental prayer focus on that virtue, and you will begin to develop it. You begin to be more aware of it. You notice when you fall throughout the day and you start making correctives for yourself. So the prayer is the first part, and then really working at it is the second part. Remember that God in His providence, if you want to grow in holiness, will give you opportunities to practice it. Let us say you decide you want to develop the virtue of meekness, which is the opposite of anger. You start working on that and you find that you are getting pretty calm. What God will then do is place in your path all kinds of things that are going to be really, really irritating to you – you get stuck behind some guy going 40 mph on the freeway; or somebody in the grocery store is ramming your cart and you have got this, that, and the other thing going on; or nothing is going right and things are breaking and you are trying to do this and it just is not working, whatever it is – and then you find yourself once again getting angry. It is the Lord saying, “You are making good progress. You are not there yet. Let’s take it to a new level.” He wants virtue, which is consistent and peaceable and pure, and a habit is not yet there. That is what He is trying to do. Do not fight Him, but keep working at it.
So when the people ridicule you and push you away because you are obnoxious to them, praise God! He is giving you an opportunity to practice patience, charity, mercy, kindness, all kinds of things toward these people, forgiveness as well, of course. If you want to be like Jesus, you are going to have to be treated like Him. See how He dealt with it, and then we need to learn to do the same. That is what the Christian life is all about. But most of us are probably like the disciples in all too many ways. The Lord announces to them that He is going to have to be handed over and He is going to be killed and all they can talk about is “Which one of us is the greatest”! They were not focused on Jesus; they were focused on themselves. Even in our life of virtue we need to keep the focus right. We could look at ourselves and say, “Well, if I can develop these things people will think that I’m pretty good.” Wrong reason. It is not about the Lord; it is about the self again. The devil will try to get us any way that he can – and it is always to focus on the self. That is what we must reject. Keep the focus on Jesus. Get all the nonsense out.
If you want to see the foolishness of all the political correctness, just look at the Gospel today. Look at what they did to it. Have you noticed that the way they translated this is that everything is totally inclusive (as though people were not smart enough to figure out it was all inclusive anyway) except when there is something evil. Then it is only men. Women apparently never do anything evil so Jesus is going to be handed over to “evil men”. And that is consistent throughout. But far worse than that is what they did at the end of the reading. In order not to offend anybody they offended everybody and they made a child into an object. It says, “He took it and placed it in His presence.” The child is not an “it”. But this is what happens when we get caught up in foolish things.
Whether it is on that kind of level, trying to be politically correct, or on any other level, if we are going to live the life of Christ it is not going to be socially acceptable. We need to understand that. We need to accept it and rejoice in it. But then we need to accept and rejoice in what follows from it, and what follows from it will be the Cross. The Son of Man will be handed over and He will suffer and He will be put to death. What the Son of Man will do to us is to hand us over and the passions will be put to death within us, if we are willing to cooperate with Him. That is what He wants. The advertisers in America want us to give into the passions; Jesus wants us to die to the passions. The choice is ours. But read that second reading again. Where do wars and conflicts and all the problems, the jealousies, the envies, all the difficulties come from? From the passions, from the selfishness, from all of the people who want to think about themselves. So the choice is pretty obvious. The wisdom of the world leads to strife, conflict, anger, selfishness, all kinds of bitter jealousies and all the other stuff. We see it all around us. The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, merciful, gentle, consistent, and so on. I do not think any of us really needs to give much thought to which way we should be. So it is not a question of whether we know what we ought to do; it is a question of doing it – to make the choice to die to self and live for Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.