There is a “true you,” the ultimate version of yourself that God wants you to realize in your life.
This is the promise of Jesus Christ. By what he has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection, by the grace he continues to offer, we can become the people that our Father created us to be.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus calls to us.
This is a command, we must do it, but it is also the thrilling possibility of the Christian life. We can be perfect, we can become holy as God is holy. St. Paul said this is God’s will, what he wants for each one of our lives, that we be sanctified, that we be made holy.
This call to holiness and perfection should give our life its direction and purpose. But what does the holy person, the true Christian, look like?
There is no cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all Christianity. The Christian personality is beautiful in its diversity — think of all the endless variety of personalities in the communion of saints.
Because each of us is created personally by God, a unique character that cannot be repeated or replaced, Christian holiness will look different in you than it does in me. We will each be a Christian in the manner that is suited to our own particular gifts and talents, our own temperament and vocation in life.
But as different as we are, there are certain virtues that will identify us as Christians. There are seven to be exact. There are the three supernatural or theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. These motivate and orient us to seek our happiness in relationship with God.
There are also four moral or cardinal virtues that guide us in loving God and our neighbor and seeking his will. These are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Virtue means “excellence.” And it is interesting that the word comes from the Latin “virtus,” meaning “manliness,” but not in any sense of chauvinism or machismo. The virtues are those qualities that make us truly human, the habits that make it possible for men and women to live as children of God, sons and daughters made in his image and likeness.
Again, how the virtues are lived in your life will look different from how they look in my life. What we need to know is that the holiness and perfection we are called to is defined according to these seven virtues.
Unfortunately, we have lost this sense of the virtues in our times. Even in the Church, we rarely use this language anymore.
Our society today is a totally secular society and our culture has been described as “after virtue.” That means we no longer believe what Christians, Jews, and the Greeks before us believed, that human life has a “telos,” that there is a spiritual direction and purpose in our lives, a “good life” that we should be striving for.
What matters in a secular and consumer society like ours is only material utility and productivity. We are much more concerned with what people do than with who they are. Talk of virtue is considered out of step, a throwback. The concept is now associated with imposed moral absolutes, rigid rules, and prohibitions that limit people’s fun and freedom, especially in matters of sexual morality.
This is a profound distortion, and losing the language of virtue makes it harder for us to see the beautiful possibilities of our life in Christ.
So, during these weeks of Lent, I would like to use these columns to reflect on the virtues and maybe help us to recover the truth that seeking the virtues is the content of our Christian character, and seeking virtue is the art of living.
Lent is a good time for this reflection because Lent is a time of purification, spiritual growth, and deepening our conversion in Christ. The life of virtue is also about self-examination and discipline, about mastering our appetites and cultivating good habits that order our lives in the image of Jesus.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”
And Jesus is the true man of virtue. By reflecting on his humanity, we discover what it means to live by faith, hope, and love; by his teaching and example he shows us how to act with prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Becoming virtuous is the work of a lifetime. We will never be able to say we are “already perfect,” St. Paul tells us. So, as St. Paul did, we need to keep pressing on day by day to our higher calling, “to become like him.”
Pray for me and I will pray for you, as together we begin this holy time of Lent.
May our Blessed Mother Mary go with us in these weeks of penance as we seek the virtuous life that we are made for, the new life that we will celebrate at Easter.