Let me tell you a story. I have been a lifetime smoker. Occasionally I tried to cut down, or to take smoking breaks for a period, but basically I wanted to smoke and – despite all the evidence – I was going to continue. That is, until about four years ago when my wife had a sudden and quite serious drop in health. She had to stop her own smoking habit immediately and conclusively.
Although she made no request I saw immediately that the best help I could give her was to cease my own habit. So I stopped. Strangely I had no sense of tobacco deprivation and I have not had the slightest temptation to smoke again. How did this happen?
To me, the reason was clear. When the motivation was for my own benefit it was simply never strong enough. When I attempted a break I allowed myself to pine for the blessed tobacco and inevitably some incident or occasion led me back to the weed. But when my motivation was quite simply love for the person I care about most, it was instantly and irrevocably game set and match. And painless to boot.
So I was interested to read a study which was published by the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday this week. It concerned the likelihood of people responding to health advice – such as the need for greater exercise – which might be unwelcome. The participants were divided into two groups. One group was simply given the advice, another group was given the advice in combination with self-affirming reflection on their own values. That is, they were invited to looked at their own relevant qualities and potential.
The results were significant: not only was the second group more likely to put the health advice into action but the part of the brain used for recognising the relevance of new information was actively engaged. This has a known association between good intentions and resulting action.
What has this to do with us? We are not short of advice from Scripture, from the Catechism, from the clergy – let alone from our friends on this Blog — on how we should behave in order to ‘become perfect as our heavenly father is perfect’. It is not always easy to take – our basic will is there but our sluggish response holds us back. What we resolve in our morning prayers is forgotten by breakfast.
So the lesson is clear: a straightforward resolution is good, rational and practical. But it is unlikely to persist unless we think about how the resolution relates to the deeper Christian values we hold. And this thought is not nominal, it requires us to see clearly how it is relevant to what we hold dear. In doing that we are understanding that our resolution is motivated by our Christian commitment to love.
So virtue ethics comes to the fore again. It teaches us that our moral lives must depend primarily on the kind of person we are, and only secondarily on what we do. We must avoid concentrating on actions but instead on valuing and developing our virtues. Just as the fruit is the gift of the tree, loving actions are the fruit of the loving person.
(I am hoping before long to write at greater length on the part our material bodies play in our salvation – so this is just a taster. But it would be interesting in our discussion to exchange practical and down to earth ways which have helped us towards holiness.)