Brookline Carmel Bulletin
September 17, 1961
J M J T
The life of a man can be looked upon quite simply as a continual coming to grips with the world that surrounds him. Between the two there exists a perpetual interplay of stimulus and response. Through the avenue of the senses a stream of data keeps pouring into his consciousness, which, when interpreted, occasions his response: an adjustment to the situation in which he finds himself. Thus, in the life of every man there exists some norm or rule to which he strives to conform, and in some way he is ‘driven’ to it.
Every human being finds two courses open to him. He has the choice either of letting his innate drives, tendencies and instincts have free play, and so determine his response, or else he can resist them and react according to some learned response. That is, he can supplement the innate tendencies and instincts by those he has acquired by dint of diligent effort. In the first case the norm is decided upon for him by the very nature and temperament he is born with. In the second, it is one that he has settled upon for himself. If the norm selected is in full scope with his dignity as a rational being then his response will be an act of natural virtue. If, as in the case with those who believe in God and in supernatural destiny, it accords fully with his dignity as a child of God, then his response is an act of supernatural virtue.
In speaking of a norm, we really mean the exigencies of the objective in life that a man is determined to achieve, one, which he believes will constitute him in the happiness he craves. Now it is impossible that this objective be kept always explicit before the mind’s eye. It remains, for the most part, hidden in the unconscious, but exerts a powerful influence upon him. When the environment is such as to place its final attainment in jeopardy, a man feels disturbed. When, on the contrary, the circumstances pose no threat, he is aware of a sense of well-being.
Corresponding to the three kinds of norms mentioned above, there are three kinds of ‘well-being’ of which a man may be conscious. On the lowest level, the awareness derives from the data of the senses and nervous system. It is the feeling of comfort, or at least of physical fitness. On the next level, the awareness derives from reason. This sense of well-being is a kind of ‘ego-satisfaction’. It is supra-sensory, for it is founded upon abstract entities: talent, charm, success, high office, etc. On the third, and highest level, the awareness springs from Faith, or better, from reason illumined by Faith. This kind of well-being is the sense of having a clear conscience. This level transcends the natural completely. It is founded upon such supernatural entities as Sanctifying Grace, the Sacraments, etc.
All of us well know, from experience, that it is the needs of the present moment that occupy the lion’s share of our attention and concern. Likewise, we know that sense impressions belong, by their very nature, to the here-and-now of our existence. Since those sense impressions can be very vivid, and can cause us at times to lose sight completely of our sense of ego-satisfaction and the voice of reason, we readily understand why it is very difficult for us to live up to the demands of reason and Faith. The difficulty is further complicated and made worse by the fact of Original Sin, that is, by the inordinate tendencies and instincts it has spawned. Virtue does not come naturally to us.
Inordinate pride is rooted in every man. It is an entirely unrealistic evaluation of one’s own worth, an unsubstantiated conviction of one’s own exalted dignity. If a man allows its promptings full rain, he will not scruple to injure another’s person, property and good name for the sake of his own gain. He will even put his own bodily comfort and convenience before the rights of God and man. Pride can lead a man so far astray that it will cause him, for no reason other than his own convenience, to neglect obligations freely assumed, and to shirk the duties incumbent upon him in virtue of promises and commitments deliberately made. Obviously, unless a man resists his disordered tendencies, he will never live up to his dignity as a rational being. And if he doesn’t do that much, he can never expect to be true to his status as a child of God. Hence the adage: Grace builds upon Nature. Sanctifying Graces add a new, a supernatural dimension and a supernatural efficacy to natural virtue.
Although the various levels of well being are now and then at odds with one another – now and then we must sacrifice health and a reputation in order to preserve our supernatural life – the conflict is only apparent, and, at most, temporary. When we succeed in living as children of God we preserve our physical well-being and earn the respect of men of good-will. In other words, fasting, continence, sobriety, fidelity to humble occupations and a low station in life are quite compatible with good health and a good reputation. Our Lord phrased it thus: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His Justice, and all these things will be added unto you.
Virtues, then, are learned responses to reality. They are habits; good habits: stable and permanent inclinations to respond to every eventuality in the manner dictated by our dignity as children of God and as temples of the Holy Trinity. To acquire virtue requires assiduous and strenuous labor. We have, first of all, to know our Faith thoroughly and all its personal and social implications. Then we have to introduce them into our life. It is only by practicing them that we make them our own.
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