Can You Be Too Virtuous?

Is it possible to be excessively virtuous?  The question might seem ridiculous and yet one can find in the Church Fathers comments saying even in practicing virtue moderation is a virtue.

Humorously, the question reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert asks Dilbert, “Do you think I have too much false humility?”   Which of course begs the question, can a person have too much false humility?  If it weren’t for false humility, Dogbert would have no humility at all.

St Gregory of Sinai did think there was a danger in exceeding the limits of virtue.  Virtues are lived out on a continuum or scale and one needs to know where the precise midpoint for that virtue is, for that is where the wise person will be.  He comments:

The cardinal virtues are four:

courage,

sound understanding,

self-restraint and

justice.

There are eight other moral qualities, that either go beyond or fall short of these virtues. These we regard as vices, and so we call them; but non-spiritual people regard them as virtues and that is what they call them.

Exceeding or falling short of courage are audacity and cowardice,

of sound understanding are cunning and ignorance;

of self-restraint are licentiousness and obtuseness;

of justice are excess and injustice, or taking less than one’s due.

In between, and superior to, what goes beyond or what falls short of them, lie not only the cardinal and natural virtues, but also the practical virtues. These are consolidated by resolution combined with probity of character; the others by perversion and self-conceit. That the virtues lie along the midpoint or axis of rectitude is testified to by the proverb, ‘You will attain every well- founded axis’ (Prov. 2:9. LXX).   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 41411-41423)

Wisdom Justice Divine Inspiration Truth

It is a vice in St. Gregory’s teaching not only to fall short of a virtue but also to exceed what is the midpoint of the range of behaviors associated with the virtue.  An excessive amount of courage becomes the vice of audacity, an excessive amount of understanding becomes cunningness, an excessive amount of self-restraint becomes the vice of obtuseness, and even justice can be taken to an excess which becomes injustice.  Balance in the spiritual life is needed, moderation in all things is a good spiritual rule.  As. St. Gregory also says one can even read Psalms to an excess:

In my opinion, those who do not psalmodize much act rightly, for it means that they esteem moderation – and according to the sages moderation is best in all things [emphases not in the original text].  In this way they do not expend all the energy of their soul in ascetic labor, thus making the intellect negligent and slack where prayer is concerned. On the contrary, by devoting but little time to psalmodizing, they can give most of their time to prayer. On the other hand, when the intellect is exhausted by continuous noetic invocation and intense concentration, it can be given some rest by releasing it from the straitness of silent prayer and allowing it to relax in the amplitude of psalmody. This is an excellent rule, taught by the wisest men.   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42480-42487)

Ilias the Presbyter also writing in THE PHILOKALIA confirms the same teaching:

Neither one who falls short of virtue because of negligence nor one who out of presumption oversteps it will reach the harbor of dispassion. Indeed, no one will enjoy the blessings of righteousness who tries to attain them by means of either deficiency or excess.”  (Kindle Loc. 25349-51)

The Problem of Profanity

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  (James 3:5-12)

In just about every generation, writers comment on how bad things have become – as if there were a previous age in which things were better.  That probably is a human thing, as far back as Seth who really could think things were better in his parent’s day, but even in Paradise there was a serpent and sin.  St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, who died in 1783AD,  laments the disrespectful language he was hearing in Holy Russia which he claimed had become commonplace.  He would not believe how tame the profanity he laments sounds today and in fact for many would not even count as profanity.  His words remind us we should be mindful of what we say.

Profanity has become commonplace – a thing that is extremely unbefitting Christians – as to say “By God!,” “God be upon it!,” “As God is my witness!,” “God look after it!,” “For Christ’s sake!,” and many others. And these are said by some people quite often, even in every utterance. Such profanity is nothing but a satanic plot devised to dishonor the name of God and for the destruction of man. You should guard yourself from swearing in these and other ways.

When there should be need for you to affirm the truth, let Christ’s words be for you, Yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh from the evil one (Mt. 5:37). (Journey to Heaven, p. 15)

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:34-37)

A Statue of Responsibility

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“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)

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The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

The Drive Against Drunkeness

St. Basil the Great dealing with life in the 4th Century as a Christian pastor shows us that human behavior and problems have remained the same through the centuries.  Humans are humans, no matter what time period in history we are dealing with.  Speaking just a few days before a fasting period was to begin, he says:

“Drunkenness leads to licentiousness, sobriety to fasting. The athlete prepares by training, the one who fasts by practicing self-control. Do not acquire a hangover immediately before these five days, as if you were avenging these days or outsmarting the legislator. Indeed, you toil in vain if your wreck your body but do not comfort it with abstinence. Your storehouse is treacherous. You draw water in a leaky jar. After all, the wine will pass through you and exit along its own path, but the sin remains.

A household slave runs away from the master that beats him. But you remain with the wine that beats your head each day. The use of wine is best measured by the body’s need. But if you exceed this boundary, you will arrive tomorrow afflicted with a headache, yawning, dizzy, reeking of vomited wine. It will seem to you as if everything is whirling around, as if everything is wobbling. While drunkenness induces a slumber akin to death, it produces a wakefulness like dreams. Do you know, then, whom you will welcome as your guest? He who promised us: I and the Father will come and make our home with him. So then, why are you anticipating his arrival with drunkenness and closing the door to the Master? Why are you urging your enemy to occupy your fortifications before his attack? Drunkenness does not provide a welcome for the Lord.

Drunkenness drives away the Holy Spirit. After all, as smoke drives away bees, so a hangover drives away spiritual gifts. Fasting brings about the orderliness of a city, the tranquility of the forum, the peace of households, the security of possessions. Do you want to see its nobility? Compare this evening with tomorrow evening, and you will see that the city has exchanged tumult and storminess for a deep calm. Indeed, I pray that today be like tomorrow in terms of nobility but that today’s frivolity not carry over to tomorrow. The Lord has brought us to this period of time. May he grant that we, like competitors, display the steadiness and vigor of perseverance in these preliminary contests and so arrive at the appointed day of coronation. Let us now recollect the saving passion but in the age to come may we be rewarded for our actions throughout life by the righteous judgement of Christ himself, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” ( On Fasting and Feasts, pp 70-71)

Thirsting for Righteousness

“The key for many of my secular friends is to understand this pathway has been the clarification of our thinking around ‘value’ and ‘virtue’. Arete, virtue, for the ancients including the Church Fathers who lived in and through the Greek language, carries within it the sense of our longing and quest for excellence and our in-born righteousness (Heb. tsedeq and tsedaqah  ‘justice’ implying a restoration). For the ancients sharpness was the arete of a knife and strength the arete of the boxer. For the Church Fathers compassion was the arete of human nature. We were created to be in love. We come to know ourselves in love and we come to know the world, with ourselves in it but not at the center of it, in cosuffering love. This is the personal experience of the communion the Church articulates in its teaching on the Trinity: the divine communion that is at once creative, incarnate and the ‘Life of life.’” (David J. Goa in Freedom to Believe by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, pp i-ii)

St  Patrick of Ireland (d. 461AD) prayed:

“I bind to myself today God’s power to guide me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to teach me,

God’s eye to watch over me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to give me speech,

God’s hand to guide me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to shelter me,

God’s host to secure me…”

(Breastplate of St  Patrick of Ireland, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 184-188)

What is Patience?

“Patience: the armor of understanding,

judgment over wrath,

sanatorium of the heart,

exhortation of the insolent,

pacification of the agitated,

storm-free haven,

comfort of the grieved,

kindness toward all.

When slandered, it blesses;

mistreated, it rejoices.

Consolation of the oppressed,

mirror of hoped-for good things,

trophy of the tortured.”

(Evagrius – d. 399AD in Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread by Gabriel Bunge, p 109)

Patience

“True patience consists in bearing calmly the evils others do to us, and in not being consumed by resentment against those who inflict them. Those who only appear to bear the evils done them by their neighbors, who suffer them in silence while they are looking for an opportunity for revenge, are not practicing patience, but only making a show of it. Paul writes that love is patient and kind. It is patient in bearing the evils done to us by others, and it is kind in even loving those it bears with. Jesus himself tells us: Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, pray for those who persecute and calumniate you. Virtue in the sight of others is to bear with those who oppose us, but virtue in God’s sight is to love them. This is the only sacrifice acceptable to God. But often we appear to be patient only because we are unable to repay the evils we suffer from others. As I have said, those who don’t pay back evil only because they can’t are not patient. We are not looking to have patience on the surface, but in the heart.” (St. Gregory the Great – d. 604AD, Be Friends of God, pp 50-51)

The Virtuous Christian

As we continue our sojourn through the Nativity Lent, one goal of fasting – which also happens to be the first command from Christ to us His disciples – is to come to repentance. Fasting is not the goal, but a tool to change our hearts, moving us away from attachment to the good things of this earth so that we can love God and love neighbor.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD) offers us a detailed description of what the Christian life looks like, and invites us to follow the discipline.

“Thus he is set aright by the mortification of his own will. I am not just talking about what concerns the outer man, such as not eating, not drinking, not doing something lightheartedly, not sleeping, not doing anything which is apparently good without a command to do so, but I mean as well as the mortification of what is within,  of the heart’s own movement,

such as not looking with passion at, or greeting anyone or anything in such manner,

nor laying blame secretly,

nor judging anyone,

nor rejoicing at the fall of anyone,

nor being angry in thought,

nor envying maliciously,

nor being jealous with malice.

How shall I enumerate all the characteristics of piety in order to show you exactly what it is, strictly, to be a Christian? Listen once again to what is proper to life-giving mortification:

not hiding even any passing evil thought from your spiritual father;

not agreeing with anyone against anyone else;

not saying anything which is not edifying;

not being silent about anything which ought to be said;

nor ever abandoning your rule of prayer until death.”

(On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pgs. 66-67)

What Prevents Us from Living Virtuously?

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“Therefore let no one be disheartened to be poor, let no one be displeased to be unskilled, nor suffer pain for being among the lowest ranks, but only those who have a weakened soul and an enfeebled mind. For this alone is a hindrance to virtue – wickedness of soul and weakness of purpose – and apart from this there is no other obstacle.”       (St. John Chrysostom in The Heavenly Trumpet by Margaret M. Mitchell, pg. 468)

A blessed feast of St. Nicholas to all!

Faithful servant and man of God;

Minister of His mysteries and man filled with the desire of the Spirit;

Living pillar and breathing icon:

Father Nicholas, Bishop and Wonder-worker,

The Church of Myra claims you as her treasure

And the intercessor for our souls.