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The Four Cardinal Virtues – The Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th Century

Several years ago, say around 1994, my daughter, Lisa, who was seven or eight years old at the time, did something she shouldn’t have done (today, I don’t even remember what it was) and I caught her at it. When confronted, she lied to me to try to keep from getting in trouble. So, to teach her a lesson about honesty, I had her read a story from William J. Bennett’s book, The Book of Virtues, and then write me a letter telling me what she learned and why it was important not to lie.

The story I had her read was, Matilda Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death by British writer, historian, and Catholic, Hilaire Belloc, which is sort of a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” kind of tale. The title sounds harsh but the story is actually more tame. Young Matilda had, it seemed, a tendency to lie and once telephoned the fire department claiming her house was on fire. The firemen responded and began to douse the house until Matilda’s aunt convinced them the house was not on fire. Then, one night just a few weeks later, while Matilda’s aunt was away….

“….a fire did break out –
You should have heard Matilda shout!
You should have heard her scream and bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To people passing in the street –
(The rapidly increasing heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) – but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And, therefore, when her aunt returned
Matilda, and the house, were burned.”

Lisa’s letter to me read:

“To Daddy,
Well Daddy they could call you that [Little Liar] some day. And it tells me to always tell the truth and never tell a lie. Lisa”.

A few years later, her younger sister, Grace, was caught lying and was given the same punishment. Her letter read:

“To Mom and Dad,
It’s important to be honest so you don’t get in trouble and so people will trust you. If you aren’t honest people won’t trust you on anything so you won’t get to do much. Grace”.

These memories came to my mind last Sunday when I listened to the second reading of the Mass:

“For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus,” (Rom 15:4-5)

Bill Bennett, compiled The Book of Virtues from stories, old and new, with the intention for them to collectively be an instruction manual for right living, to teach us how to be people of virtue, how to live a moral life that brings, as St. Paul says, “harmony with one another”.

But, Paul’s words tell us that there is another book, even better than Mr. Bennett’s, which has been around for over two thousand years, with stories that have been the basis for virtuous and harmonious living to entire civilizations: the Bible, God’s instruction book on how to get to heaven, and, conversely, in many cases, how not to get there.

To learn about the Cardinal Virtues one only has to read Proverbs, the stories of Solomon, or the book of Sirach to understand how to apply the virtue of Prudence; or to read the stories of David to learn about Justice, Temperance and Self-Control (see 1 Sam 24:1-23). In the Old Testament books of Judith and Esther, one can find classic examples of Fortitude.

In Exodus, Moses sets the example for Perseverance and Leadership as he leads the Israelites out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. And, Job’s experience can teach us much about Patience.

The Theological Virtues are exemplified in Genesis through the Faith of Abraham as he nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac; and the Love (Charity) and Compassion of Joseph as he forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery. And, Hope can be found on nearly every page of the Psalms.

Other examples of virtues like Responsibility, Wisdom, Hard Work, Friendship, Loyalty, and Honesty are strewn throughout the Old Testament, as are other magnificent examples of how to live in right relation to one another.

When Paul wrote, “whatever was written previously”, in his letter to the Romans, he was referring to all the books of the Old Testament. The New Testament had not yet been written, but the virtuous life of Jesus Christ was indeed being told, retold and shared throughout the known world by the Disciples who witnessed it up close and personally. And, as they, like Paul, came to realize, all that had been “written previously” simply prefigured and pointed to the life of Christ.

Jesus was the perfect man – because He was also God. Thus, He is the One Who we should look to and imitate when we want to live a virtuous life. There has never been, nor ever will be, anyone better from whom to learn about living in right and harmonious relationships.

In the predominantly secular culture of the world today, a world that has turned its back on Christian morality and is rife with hedonism, individualism, relativism, and materialism, is it any wonder there is so much hatred, turmoil and erosion of relationships among people? The ultimate casualty has been the loss of virtue.

I wish I could snap my fingers and people (myself, included) would suddenly know that earned labels such as “Little Liar”; that relationships broken due to lack of trust from those we love; and other selfish acts and vices, are behaviors that destroy us as individuals and as society. But, I know I can’t. It’s not that easy. It requires the difficult task of personally living and exhibiting the virtues in a way that others see the good. It means reading Scripture and desiring to imitate Christ. And, it requires prayer, a lot of prayer. Because, we can’t do it ourselves. Our concupiscence won’t let us. We can only live a completely virtuous life by the grace of God. Without Him, as can be seen in much of the world today, it is impossible.

With which vices do you struggle every day? What changes can you make to replace those vices with virtues and grow in holiness so that you can be an example for others?

“Heavenly Father, I pray for the grace to grow in virtue, to become a better disciple, husband, father, son, brother and friend. As I am faced with trials and temptations throughout my day, help me, Lord, to keep Christ, the One Who I desire to imitate, at the center of my life, Through Your grace, I pray I may be an example for others to follow. Amen.”

(Virtue: A Casualty of a Secular Culture was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

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