Criteria and Virtues

Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”

I’ve been rolling around our current criteria for sanctity in my head as well as my own understanding of our theology of sanctity. Our criterion 2 “Christian Discipleship” is rather broad and vague. Indeed, that’s not necessarily surprising as discipleship comes in a variety of forms. But, what if—as a way of focusing our thoughts—we identified the specific virtues of Christ that we see manifested most fully in the given individual?

The value here is that it accomplishes a couple of things. First, it brings the basic vocabulary of the virtues back before the eyes of the church, reminding them of our ascetical theology. Second, it reiterates a sound theology of sanctity which does not praise individuals for their individuality but which understands them to be participating in the virtues of Christ.

Of course, this does raise the issue of what list of virtues to use—and there are any number to chose from whether that be the classic list of the seven (fortitude, temperance, wisdom, justice, faith, hope, love) or one of the list ennumerated in Scripture or a combination of several. Again, this leads us back to us as a church and how we understand the Christ-like virtues most needful now.

For instance, Catherine of Siena might be (wisdom, temperance) or (wisdom, reconciliation, service). [But are the last two virtues or charisms—should there be a distinction between the two; can there be a distinction? Gonna have to think about that…]

3 Replies to “Criteria and Virtues”

  1. Actually, it might be better if we declined to establish a single authoritative list of virtues while pointing to a couple lists as examples. After all, the virtues are fundamentally patterns of behavior that conform to or reflect Christ, while the names we give to them can shift or even prevent us from seeing what is actually virtuous.

  2. I’ll quote again from the OCA site on this topic, just because I think there’s something really right about what’s said here (http://oca.org/FS.NA-Document.asp?ID=82).

    “The word saint means holy, thus ‘Saint John’ means, in fact, ‘Holy John.’ This is not to say that he was always perfect; that he was a genius; that he was a great man according to the understanding of this world; that his views on politics, social life, or economics were desirable or correct. It means only that, within the context of his age, he manifested the image of God in himself in some way — that he was an ikon, an original creation, a new creature in Christ.”

    Granted, this may not be particularly helpful analytically – but it’s a terrific description that ultimately does what you’re asking for, i.e., it brings the focus back on Christ. And there really is that ineffable something else in sanctity. To be able to think along the lines of “an ikon,” “an original creation,” and “a new creature in Christ” seems awfully important to me – and I’m not sure the “four classical virtures” (for instance) have much to say about any of these things.

    The Catholic formula contains a provision that “one miracle must be believed to have taken place through the intercession of the person to be beatified.” And it came to me recently that this provision is sort of an “objective” version of another section in that OCA article: “Local congregations of the faithful simply began to remember certain well-known Christians in their liturgical gatherings, to ask them for help in prayer….” Surely, they are both talking about the same sort of thing?

    In the end, like Jonathan, I would think some mention of the various lists of virtues could be given as examples – but they should not be limits. If only because I wonder if any of us can say with assurance exactly what “the virtues of Christ” actually are. I’m fairly certain they won’t map one-to-one with any human being anyway!

  3. The key I find in Derek’s proposal–what if we identified the specific virtues of Christ that we see manifested most fully in the given individual?–is found in the second point: “a sound theology of sanctity which does not praise individuals for their individuality but which understands them to be participating in the virtues of Christ.” That is the essence of hagiography, and the hardest thing to explain to students about medieval biography because they look for difference or individuality, rather than conformity to a model (which they see as lack of originality or even plagiarism).
    So I don’t think having the right master list is all that important–we have plenty to work from in Scripture and tradition. What is important is being able to articulate to someone else just how you see Christ in them. How do we put this into practice in our mutual discipleship?

Comments are closed.