Abbot Philip: Virtues and Vices in Lenten Practice

monks3Lenten reflections from Benedictine Abbot Philip in New Mexico:

…[I]n Lent we can become focused almost exclusively on sin rather than on virtue. We are struggling to overcome our sinfulness and yet that does not mean to focus on sin. Rather it should mean to focus on living for God and that means to focus on virtue. It is also good to remember that the least offensive of the capital sins is lust, excessive sexual appetites. Often Christians tend to think of such sexual appetites and the worst of the sins. Instead, the worst of the capital sins is pride. From the least to the greatest of these sins, the order would be: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Lots of us have different orders in our own minds, but this would be the classical order. The corresponding virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness and humility.

For us monks, humility is often pointed out to us by Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monks. Saint Benedict has a very long chapter on the degrees of humility. Many people today do not take the time to read that chapter well because some of the ways in which Saint Benedict expresses himself go against our modern sensibilities. For instance, Saint Benedict tells us that we must not only think of ourselves as worse than others but believe it in the depths of our hearts. For many people today, who already have low self-esteem, this can be a fatal recipe. It was C. S. Lewis who stated in one of his books that the problem today for many people is not pride but lack of self-esteem.This does not call us to abandon humility, however, but to understand it more profoundly so that we do not confuse humility with a lack of self-esteem. Instead of trying to reinvent humility, we must simply rediscover its reality so that we can live it more completely in our lives.

For Saint Benedict, humility is a struggle. So also in our Catholic and Christian tradition, we have to work to understand to live this virtue of humility. Lent can be seen as a time to pursue the virtues that are the opposites of the seven capital sins: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness and humility. Chastity does not mean not being sexual. It does mean being sexual in accord with one’s state in life. Thus a married couple, a man and a woman, are chaste when they have normal sexual relations. An unmarried couple, doing the same, are unchaste. Gluttony and temperance are also relational as vice and virtue in some ways. Some people who are ill in certain ways become very fat and yet are not gluttons. Others may be incredibly thin and yet commit gluttony. Temperance is the balance that tells us to eat what we need, not more or less. This does not outlaw feasts and parties, but keeps even those within limits. In the monastery at one time we had a monk who had to eat seven times a day just to maintain ordinary weight. On the other hand, I have to work hard to eat less almost all the time because I gain weight easily. Temperance means always looking for the balance—and I don’t always like that. Greed?

Probably we all have some of all of these vices. Most of us can identify that we have strong problems with one vice rather than another. Often the vice that is strongest within us will also provoke the corresponding virtue to be the strongest. The corresponding virtue to greed in this list is charity. Always charity is a wonderful gift. We need not go through every vice and every virtue. One of the recommendations of the early nuns and monks was to choose one vice or one virtue and work on that. If we try to become free of all vices at the same time or if we try to acquire all virtues at the same time, we will most likely fail and then stop trying. These early monks and nuns often recommended looking for a vice that we think that we can overcome and work on that. Or we can look for a virtue that we think that we can acquire and then work on that. The recommendation is clear: try to choose something that you think that you can achieve! Don’t start with something that seems almost impossible. —Abbot Philip, OSB (Christ in the Desert monastery, New Mexico)

Read Abbot Philip’s whole reflection.

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