St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians (4:8), sets out the path of virtue: “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.”
As human persons, we have been gifted by our Creator with an intellect. This intellect signifies the higher, spiritual, cognitive power of the soul; among its functions are attention, conception, judgment, reasoning, reflection, and self-consciousness. In turn, each of these functions assist us in our efforts toward thinking. In pondering all of this, I can remember an oft-repeated phrase of my father: “God gave you a brain, use it!” Still another comes to mind: “Use it or lose it.”
In his book Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, Professor Vincent Ruggiero notes that today, in most schools (colleges included), effective thinking is not taught at all! Given this tragic omission, he recommends that we adopt the “W.I.S.E.” approach to thinking: (1) Wonder applies reflective thinking to examine experiences and identify interesting problems and issues and promising lines of inquiry; (2) Investigate answers the questions raised by reflection and provides the information necessary to address the problem or issue responsibly; (3) Speculate applies creative thinking to produce possible solutions to problems or ideas for resolving issues; (4) Lastly, Evaluate encourages us to apply critical thinking to compare the possible solutions and decide which is most practical, or ideas for resolving issues to decide which is most reasonable.
As Christians, however, we know that thinking about a problem or potential course of action is never enough. Rather, faith-in-action is required! St. Ambrose, reflecting upon the 40th Psalm, noted that “Faith is the firm foundation of all the virtues.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th-century bishop, expands upon this idea and points to its ultimate meaning: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”
Our life of faith, therefore, is expressed through our practice of the Virtues. Regarding virtues, the Catholic Church teaches that there exist both Theological (faith, hope, and charity) and Cardinal (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) virtues.
Many of us know someone who, when the challenges of life befall them, never seem to give up. Rather than falling over, they stand firm, place their faith In God, and trust that in the end, “All shall be well.” Within my own family, I once asked my grandmother how she was able to navigate the sudden and tragic death of my grandfather. Left with little money and small children (my mother included), she confided that it was her faith in God that carried her through. For me, I remember sitting next to my wife in the hospital delivery room as she prepared to deliver our full-term, stillborn son. During those hours of labor, between prayers with the chaplain, handholding, and tears, I asked her what she was thinking. She told me that she was joining her suffering to the Cross of Christ. Regarding faith, both my grandmother and wife possess a “faith that can move mountains.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1814-1816) tells us that “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. Further, “…the disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it.”
At baptisms, I like to reflect upon the story of St. Thomas the Apostle, sometimes known as the “Doubting Thomas” because he doubted Jesus’ resurrection. In the Gospel of John (Chapter 20), we hear how Mary of Magdala arrived at the Tomb of Jesus early in the morning to find that the stone covering the opening had been rolled away, thereby revealing an empty tomb. Quickly, she left and told the disciples what she had seen. Upon their arrival, they found the same and returned home. But Mary stayed behind. And it is then that the Risen Lord presented himself to her. After her encounter with Jesus, Mary informed the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.” In time, all the disciples are visited by Jesus—with the exception of Thomas. During this period of doubt, Thomas surely wondered whether the accounts of his friends were true.
A week later, it was Thomas’s turn. With Thomas and the disciples gathered in community, Jesus entered the room and invited Thomas to come closer and place his hands in the wounds inflicted upon him at Calvary. After doing so, Thomas blurts out one of the greatest statements of faith in all of Scripture: “My Lord and my God.” While spoken to Thomas, Jesus’ reply is also meant for you and me: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
And so, this is the meaning of faith. Even though we do not see the Risen Lord the way those early followers of Jesus did (in flesh and blood), we are called to believe as though we have. In our world, through faith, we need only look around. If we look closely enough, in our families and communities, we can see the Risen Lord and the blessings he bestows upon us—daily! And when we receive the Eucharist, he comes to visit us in the most special of ways. He wants us to know that long after Mass has ended, he remains with us. He promises to accompany us through the good and bad times of our lives.
Our faith, therefore, serves to strengthen us on our earthly journey. With proper nourishment, it assists us as we confront and navigate the mountains of our lives.
“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #s 1813, 1817-21)
In thinking about this word, it is helpful to step back and reflect upon what most of us “hope” for. The Brooklyn born twentieth-century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, made such an effort through his Hierarchy of Needs. Included among these are: Physiological (food, water, warmth, rest); Safety (security, employment); Love (friendship, family); Esteem (prestige, accomplishment); and Self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential). While his list contains many items for which we humans hope and strive, there is one glaring omission.
The Psalmist (39:7), through his question and response, provides us what is missing: “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”
By placing our hope and trust in God, a Divine rhythm unfolds. Each day, through an ever-deepening relationship with Our Lord, we speak freely regarding our most intimate concerns. While already aware of our needs (see Matthew 6:8), it must nevertheless please Him when we sit quietly and listen to His soft voice. Over the years, so many have told me that they make no decision in their lives without first asking God two simple questions: (1) Lord, is this your Will for me? (2) By moving in this new direction, will it, in ways large or small, help bring about your kingdom?
In the Gospel of Mark (10:17-22), this idea of meeting the Lord and asking Him “the question” regarding our lives is illustrated in the Parable of the Rich Man. If you remember, this rich man asked Jesus what was required to inherit eternal life. In reply, Jesus told him that he should follow the commandments (which the rich man had been doing). But then, Jesus gave him one more instruction: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” However, the rich man could not separate himself from his earthly possessions and give his life to Jesus. And so, “…he went away sorrowful.” Clearly, the Rich Man was sorrowful because his hope (earthly riches) remained out-of-synch with God’s divine will for his life.
Today, is the Lord asking us to part with everything we own? For some of us, perhaps. But for most of us, what the Lord asks is that we allow Him entry into our life decisions; that we invite Him along on our journey! Regarding our earthly treasure, perhaps the question is: Might some of our earthly wealth be shared with others? Still yet, in our day and age, when so many of us are overly consumed with digital gadgets, perhaps He is asking us to reduce our online time in favor of visiting those in our families and community who are lonely and receive very few visits? In this regard, the gift of our time—to others—is what the Lord asks.
I like to remind myself and those I meet that while our earthly journey requires that we tend to the here-and-now, it is more important to hope for things that last. For it is there that true happiness resides.
CHARITY (or LOVE)
In her book, Real Love, author Mary Beth Bonacci notes that there are two distinctly different definitions for the word, love; there is pizza love and real love. Pizza love says, “You exist for me.” Real love, however, says just the opposite, “I exist for you.” And there is the difference.
Regarding real love, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, asserts that, at its core, love requires kenosis; that is, an emptying of ourselves on behalf of others.
“Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (2:7-8)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1823) clarifies this: “…By loving his own to the end, he [Jesus] makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive.” To put this another way, our loving Creator has loved each of us (His beloved) into existence so that we might enter and experience His eternal reality of love and loving! To recall those beautiful words from the First Letter of John: “We love because he first loved us.” (4:19)
In our daily lives, is it easy to separate pizza love from real love? I believe the answer is—yes! It is true that each of us have experiences of both. We saints-in-training can recount times in our lives when we have “used” others as a means of achieving our ends. Despite our failings, real love (God’s love) always prevails and comes to visit. Through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, may we come to see these God-given moments in our lives by opening our hearts to them; for daily, God presents them fresh and anew within our circle of family and friends.
Indeed, real love changes us in ways unimaginable. In fact, the entire meaning for our lives is transformed. Others see this change in us, as well. In her book, Words to Love By, Saint Teresa of Calcutta reflects upon this: “Just allow people to see Jesus in you: to see how you pray; to see how you lead pure life; to see how you deal with your family; to see how much peace there is in your family. Then you can look straight into their eyes and say—‘This is the way.’ You speak from life. You speak from experience.”
Regarding these three virtues, St. Paul (1 Cor 13:13) reveals that one is superior: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” In his Summa Theologiae (2-2, 23, 6) St. Thomas Aquinas provides us deeper understanding: “Faith and hope attain God in so far as we derive from him the knowledge of truth or the acquisition of good; whereas charity attains God himself that it may rest in him, not that something else should come to us from him.”