Developing Virtue Is The Path To True Freedom

“Freedom” Without Virtue, Is License

By:  Fr. Stephen Hellman

God’s Rules Are For Our Own Happiness

I think our teams at St. Ignatius do well mainly for one important reason:  the players listen to the coaches.  The coaches know about sports—be it football, or volleyball, or soccer… they know about what works and what doesn’t, they know how to play the games properly, how to play well and how to play with good sportsmanship…  That’s why our teams are so successful and we have so much fun at the games…

There are certain things needed to become good at sports, a lot of little principles involved in successfully playing any game.  And the coaches teach the players those little principles and it is by internalizing those principles that they become good players, and that the teams become good teams…

Imagine if there were no coaches, and we didn’t even know the rules of the game and just showed up and tried to play?  We probably would not do very well at football, for example, would we, if we didn’t know what a touchdown was?  Or we wouldn’t do very well at soccer if we didn’t know how to pass the ball to our teammates…

Actually, believe it or not, that’s what we are hearing about today in our scriptures…  When we hear about the Jewish Law of the Old Testament, we are hearing about the principles that govern the moral life, the rules that govern human happiness and fulfillment…

Rules And Virtue

In the modern world, we tend not to think of rules as helping us to be happy.  We tend to think of rules only as limiting us.  But that’s a big mistake.  Would we be happy if there were no traffic lights, or no police, or no laws against stealing?  Of course not.

The rules of life, when they are in harmony with God’s plan for us, help us to satisfy our needs.  We human beings have an innate hunger for truth, beauty, and goodness, and we are not indifferent to these needs.  We have an affirmative desire for these things, for truth, beauty, goodness…  We desire… excellence.

The Jews understood this desire for excellence and they teach us three important things about “the Law”:  the Law comes from God, the Law gives life, and the Law is our teacher…

But following rules is just the beginning of success in life.  We use the rules to develop virtue, which are the habits where we have internalized the rules and they no longer feel so difficult.  Virtues are the habits which free us up to be the persons that we are meant to be.

Developing Virtue

Imagine someone learning to play the piano…  When they first are taking lessons, they are just learning notes, and they are learning how to sit, and what hand movements to make…  And it doesn’t seem to be very enriching or enjoyable at first…  But imagine if the person comes to love the piano and continues learning and practicing …  Imagine years later after all that practice and the beautiful, beautiful music they make which seems to come so naturally!  That is what the development of virtue is like…

We do not live in a time or in a society that really encourages the development of virtue…  We denigrate marriage and family which is really the first school of virtue…  We practice the intrinsic evil of unrestricted abortion…  And we as a nation live well beyond our means financially…

All of these are strongly contrary to the development of virtue, and that is because these result from the society’s empty view of freedom as only being freedom from coercion.  John Paul II taught us that this impoverished understanding is really not freedom at all, for our freedom is self-contradictory if it is disconnected from our innate need for truth, beauty, goodness…

And historically the societies that follow such an empty view of human freedom, because they undermine the development of virtue in their citizens historically those societies tend to lose the freedom that they do have…

For The Christian, Rules Are Just The Beginning

But for us as Christians, rules and virtue are not the whole story.  Yes, we are made to live according to the Law, but Jesus reveals something very important about the Law:  the Law of God is written in the human heart…

 In other words, Jesus reveals to us that the Law is not external, the Law is the reality of Love and Truth which is in the depths of our being and which derives from our having been made in God’s image and likeness, and made for ultimate union with God…

This place of the Law in the depths of the person is what Jesus calls “the heart.”  And our hearts are not emotion but rather they are the inner depths of our being where we decide to find our happiness in aligning ourselves with God’s will, or where we choose to deny God, and thus to deny ourselves…

So… rules lead to virtue… and virtue leads to the heart…and they are all connected….

How Do We View Freedom?

When Jesus in our gospel today is castigating the scribes and Pharisees, he is telling them that they have denied the Law written on their hearts by promoting their own superficial religiosity as a substitute for true obedience to God’s will.

The scribes and Pharisees practice outward observance of the laws, but they do not believe.  They pretend to be upright but they love neither their fellow Jews nor God.  They observe God outwardly, but inwardly they are far from Him.

They have neglected what is truly of God in favor of their own human agendas. So, we can ask ourselves today, “How do we view our own freedom?”  Do we see it as something arbitrary, something we create?  Or do we recognize our freedom as a gift from the Lord?  Do we recognize that our freedom exists in the depths of our hearts where God’s plan for us and for all of humanity is truly found?

Do we see our lives and how we participate in society as being part of God’s plan?  Do we seek to use our freedom in a way that promotes the true, the beautiful, the good?

Our freedom is a precious gift, and when we freely receive God in the Eucharist, we receive immeasurable grace, grace which will help us to know Him…

that we might obey his laws…

that we might grow in virtue…

and that we might become true Lovers of the One who loves us so much that He has poured out his love for us on the Cross and endured all things for us…

Today let us renew our commitment to God’s agenda for us, knowing that our happiness is to be found by being who we already are:  creatures made to know, love and serve God in this life, that we may be granted eternal happiness with Him in the next.

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