Three Virtues, and Voting for a Fourth

I’ve been thinking about the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. It’s been a long time since I studied my catechism, but maybe age and experience is a better teacher than the Baltimore Catechism anyway? My Dad was the best teacher of religious theory in my life, and he’s gone now. He wouldn’t have approved of all my ideas, conservative man that he was, but it was his teaching that launched my own quest for understanding.   (By the way, if you are not in the mood for a spiritual contemplation, here....click 'back' or something.)

Can we talk about why these three virtues are considered to be different than other virtues such as prudence and temperance? I don’t know what the church teaches about it, and I don’t especially care. (Do I hear thunder?) It seems to me that what makes faith, hope and charity different from all other virtues is that these three are between me and God in a way the others are not. Prudence and temperance are about my behavior, and are not really demonstrations of devotion, unseen by others.  Theological virtues are a private matter between me and God. (When I get to charity, I’ll tell you why I think charity isn’t a behavior.)

Faith. What is it? Really? Is it the unquestioning acceptance of what you’ve been taught, a firm belief in God? I think it’s so much more than that.  No, I don't think it's that at all, in fact.  I think faith is a genuine, deep examination of what you think, see and feel, and arriving at a positive assurance in your own heart about the presence of God and His intentions for you.

Did you ever give your spouse a book of coupons for personal favors? (Stay with me here…) Either the storebought sort you might buy at Spencers or maybe a handcrafted set, promising that upon presentation, you will wash his car, fix her breakfast in bed, do the dishes, whatever?

Would you give your spouse a coupon for “anything”? Pure and simple, whatever they ask, you will do. Bungee jumping off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, making love in a tool shed on display at the Home Depot, sell your car, move to Australia, get his mother’s name tattooed on your rump…whatever they ask, it is theirs. OK, I admit that last one would be mighty disturbing on a lot of levels.

I can hear you groaning at the idea. “What if he wants me to hunt brown bears on Kamchatka? Ugh!” (I’m sure you can think of more heinous requests than that.) Think hard. Would you trust your spouse to not ask of you anything that would hurt you, shame you, or endanger your relationship? Could you really give them carte blanche in such a way?

If you said, “Yes, I could.”, then I would say you have faith in your spouse. You are confident that you can trust them with your heart, body and soul. (And reputation). Isn’t that what we are doing when we have faith in God? Not blindly believing, but trusting that He has our best interests at heart. Choosing to trust, eyes open, that what He decides will be good?

Faith is a tough one to really DO, isn’t it?

Let’s talk about the second one: HOPE.

I was chatting with my favorite email philosopher about hope. For a long time, I had trouble with the idea of hope and what it really means. It seemed to me that the concept of hope was at odds with my firm belief that God helps those who help themselves. I would hear people say, “We’ll just hope for the best”, and then they’d sit back and expect the heavens to open and their problems to vanish in a puff of pink smoke or something. It can’t possibly work that way, can it?

Then I read (in some book, somewhere) the sentence: “The gods like the taste of salt.” In other words, the sweat of our brows is appetizing to the gods. Hmm. Eureka!  Clarity, at last!

Which gifts received mean the most to us? The quick last-minute-picked-up-at-the-airport-gift-shop sort of thing? Or the thing that the giver made especially with you in mind? Even if the gift itself is imperfect, the love and pleased expectations of the giver make it a gift to treasure.

What does this have to do with hope? Hold your horses and I’ll tell you. I think to hope is to have an expectation for a positive outcome of your labors, whether those labors be prayer or work or having babies or making a souffle’. I think when we hope, we are putting forth our best efforts, with the HOPE that those will be pleasing to God and that ultimately, good things will result.

Failing to hope is to give in to despair. And to despair is to say, “Things won’t improve, I can’t do better, God doesn’t care and I give up.” How would you feel if your child said to you, “I can not please you, you don’t like me, I’ll never amount to anything and I give up.” If one of my sons were to say such a thing to me, it would break my heart. How must God feel, when He is so infinitely loving?

We aren’t talking about good works, here. Putting forth your well-intentioned labors for others is its own reward and a way to demonstrate your affection for God and your fellow human being. Hope is about keeping a positive attitude that lets you continue to work on, even when you aren’t seeing the immediate results you might want.

Hope is your absolute trust in a better day, given to you courtesy of The One who gets to hand such things out. Hope is about putting your best effort forth at all things, knowing that God likes the taste of salt and that a cheerful heart will bring you to a happy result–sooner or later.

Every one of us feels thwarted in our efforts, disappointed in our results and discouraged by our setbacks. These things do not excuse despair. To despair is to turn your back on God. Even in those darkest hours at the end of a painful illness, there is still hope. Maybe you can’t hope for a full recovery, but you can hope for comfort, surcease for your loved ones, and the ultimate positive outcome of your life’s labors.

Now, charity. Charity is a funny word. We use the word charity when we really mean something else entirely. It’s a noun. It’s an adjective. It’s even a proper name.

I have some very specific opinions about the meaning of charity. (I know this will surprise you if you’ve been reading my blog–that I might have an opinion.) There are hundreds of examples of false charity available for your viewing pleasure; just look in any direction or turn on the television.

My personal definition of charity came from a variety of religous schools of thought, distilled down through time and consideration into my own formula. I believe that charity is a way of working on God’s behalf, doing those things that you think God Himself would personally do if He were in your metaphorical shoes. God wouldn’t do a good thing and then go around bragging about it. He does His thing and says nothing. Did you ever look into the autumn sunset, admire the gorgeous color and then see the clouds shape up to say “Look what I did!!”? No. God does His thing and leaves us to do ours and we should all just shut up about it.

I think if you do a good thing and turn it into a television show — figurative or literal — you have subtracted the goodness from it. You turned it into entertainment and shot charity right between the eyes.

True charity should not hurt the pride of the recipient. Maybe this is too easy in our current Age of Entitlement. Far and away too many people feel entitled to receive charity and hence, have no pride. That’s for another rant. A talented altruist can help other people without making them feel small. In a perfect world, the recipient of your help wouldn’t even know it was you. Not always easy but it can be done.

This one is a little more difficult: giving away something you don’t want is not charity. It isn’t!!! To be an act of charity, it has to hurt a little, folks. I can give you my old clothes and be glad for the closet space, but that isn’t charity. Now if I gave you my car because you needed one? That would charity. I love my car! To count as charity, there must be some quality of effort on the part of the giver.

Here is where the rest of America and I will diverge. Helping doesn’t always help. I still struggle with this, but time will give me clarity, I am sure. If someone is hungry and you feed them, maybe all you did was feed them, not help them. Helping the poor to make a better life is helping. Helping the poor so that they never attain the skills to rise from poverty is not. That old saying about teaching a man to fish, right?

Giving money to a charitable organization is not necessarily an act of charity. Neither is picking an angel off the Angel Tree at Christmas. They are certainly acts of kindness, but maybe not charity. Just because it barks doesn’t mean it’s a dog.

Charity isn’t always giving away some tangible thing. Charity can be as simple as reserving judgement, holding your tongue or giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Charity can be not saying something. Charity can be saying something that is hard to say, but needs to be heard. Charity can be going, or staying at home.

Charity is looking at world around you with clear eyes, an open heart and a wise mind, rolling up your sleeves, and making it happen. Silently.

So, I’m thinking about getting up a petition to appoint a 4th theological virtue, but I can’t decide which one I’d vote for.

How about the virtue of humility? Patience? Gratitude? Alacrity is sure one of my personal faves. Kindness? Compassion? Empathy? Honesty? Integrity? Loyalty? Oh…so many to choose from.

Humility seems a likely candidate. One thing I really can’t stand is being around someone who thinks they’re all that (and a bag of chips). Most of those folks have very little to crow about, as far as I can tell. I admire someone who does much, says little, listens rather than talks (trying to learn to do that better myself), and is genuinely aware that they do not know everything.

Patience is good, but can be a double-edged sword. Too many times I patiently wait for something, past the point of reason and then the next thing I know my patience has transmuted into inaction. Not good.

Gratitude. I like gratitude. I have much to be grateful for (which is another post). I don’t want your gratitude; I want to be aware of how much is mine only through the grace of others. You will understand, I'm sure, that I’m not talking only about the tangible.

Alacrity is a fine thing, too. Nothing brightens my day in the same way as a person who works with cheerful quickness. If that person is my own son, then I feel like they learned something important to the success of their life. If that person is a colleague, it makes everyone else’s day brighter and easier.  And if that person is someone with whom I am doing business, it makes me feel like a valued and appreciated customer.

Honesty and integrity are wonderful virtues, but too often conceal a darker side. Many a hurtful word is said under the pretense of being honest. And integrity can sometimes go hand-in-hand with unyielding stubbornness. Each is a virtue on its own, but each one can also be a cover--or an excuse-- for a less admirable trait.

I’m in favor of kindness, compassion and empathy, too. Those are all lovely virtues to have.

You know what? I think I know what the fourth virtue should be. Balance. We need all of the other virtues, but we must have balance to them or we may fail to temper our honesty with kindness, our integrity with compassion and so on. Yep. Balance. That’s where it’s at, baby.