The habits of virtue

Were you holier at the end of 2016 than at the beginning? And, if not, perhaps this is the time to think a little about the theology of good resolutions. We recognise that we are at the epitome of faith and science: the interweaving of these two lies at the heart of human nature, because grace and psychology cannot in this life be separated. In secular terms we think about the development of new and better habits; in spiritual terms we think of developing our virtues. But even Aquinas finds himself describing the virtues as habits.

The habits which science recognises are found in the neurons of the brain. Ways of thinking and ways of acting create connections which are triggered by similar circumstances. Like programmed automata they do their work without needing direct attention. But we are continuously responsible for checking, moderating and developing their programs so that they tend towards the good. This is the work of grace channelled through the spiritual qualities of reason and choice.

We can rattle through the formal virtues but I am not going to be so ambitious. I want to look at examples of minor virtues which can support the major ones. When I am faced with a flight of stairs I get to the top step by step — a single leap leaves me flat on my face. A resolution to become, say, more loving will be too vague; I need to master its concrete components.

I start with the virtue of self-esteem. Much Catholic writing conveys the impression that our main spiritual concern is our sins and failures; we can scarcely get through a paragraph without proclaiming our worthlessness. But we rarely admit to our progress and our virtues. Yet theology tells us that, even if we had been the only created human person, Christ would have redeemed us through his Passion. We must be worth something, if we are such objects of love.

Examining our conscience during our night prayers, we find it easy to identify our faults and failures. But how often do we mark the good things we have done and the progress we have made? Yet psychology tells us that if we have a high self-image we tend to live up to that. We live down to a bad self-image. So a possible resolution would be to celebrate our progress through the events of each day. And, ask God for the grace, to build on that.

Another possibility is the virtue of listening. Do you really listen to people – children, spouse, friends, clients, strangers? Perhaps not, for good listening is extremely rare. Most of us have conversations which resemble a tennis game: instead of focussing on the message being served to us, we are already positioning ourselves to make our return. A good listener not only hears what is said but checks his understanding. Psychology tells us, through professional counselling, that we can rarely help people unless they know they have been understood. Theology tells us that we can only love people when we have understood them. Only then can we love them as we want to be loved ourselves.

Some of us, perhaps in gossip, are readier to think of the faults in other people ahead of their virtues. It’s much more fun. We must hope that God does not share that sense of fun because, on Judgment Day, we’d rather he focussed on our virtues and overlooked our faults. Psychology suggests that our brain gets a perverse little boost from knocking someone down. The kingdom of Heaven works the other way round. How many people did we speak well of today, and how necessary was it to mention their peccadilloes? Is there a good resolution there?

Taking that last example, we must consider how we can best persevere with the resolutions we have made. Our determination only to speak well of people will be easy to observe while the intention is fresh in our minds. And we might even last until the end of January before it has been entirely forgotten. Here I advise Benjamin Franklin’s self-organiser.

He recommended that we list the 13 qualities which we plan to develop. And we focus on just one for a week at a time, leaving the others to their ordinary chance. Most of us can cope with a week’s concentration. At the end of the 13 weeks we start the cycle again – though we can modify the items, based on our experience. As our cycle of resolutions goes round and round we can hope to see, and to celebrate, a general improvement in our progress towards virtue. For 2018 we revise our list. We may find that some of our new virtues have now become virtuous habits, biologically and spiritually, so we can replace them with other, perhaps more demanding, virtues.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, virtue ethics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The habits of virtue

  1. Martha says:

    My conscience has been struggling for some time with the traditional practice of fasting, which Our Lady seemingly has particularly asked us to return to, in the messages she gives at Medjugorge, as a specific form of the penance which she asked for at Fatima. I started with the very small step of going without my mid morning cup of coffee on Fridays, and more recently have included Wednesdays, but I am afraid I have not progressed much further, and perhaps putting it into print will encourage me to do more. There is always a reason for putting it off. At the moment it seems sensible to wait until Lent comes on to the horizon, I can hear Screwtape applauding that decision, with added suggestions such as having more opportunity to prepare the rest of the household and enlist support and encouragement, or is the thought coming from my guardian angel?

  2. Iona says:

    Ah yes, the Mejugorie messages seem to envisage some quite heroic fasting. Apparently the “visionaries” themselves eat only bread throughout Lent (though it is special “fasting bread” containing dried fruit and ground almonds which make it a bit more interesting as well as nutritious than ordinary bread). And Ann Widdecombe claims to drink nothing but cold water throughout Lent. A few years ago I gave up both tea and coffee for the whole of Lent, and a very trying six weeks it was. I haven’t repeated it.
    I would think, if you’re planning to enlist support and encouragement from the rest of your household, that part of your plan at least comes from your guardian angel.

    • Martha says:

      Iona, giving up tea and coffee for the whole of Lent, Sundays as well? sounds quite heroic. I don’t think I could manage that, even knowing that that many people, millions probably, in war torn or famine areas don’t have the choice any time.

      It illustrates as well that I find these resolutions do not always by any means become habits and are just as difficult to consider repeating. I remember a Poor Clare aunt being asked how quickly she had got used to early rising, and getting up during the night to pray, and her reply was that even after many years, she had never got used to it.

  3. Vincent says:

    Out of Quentin’s virtues the one I find most difficult is listening to others. The moment someone opens a subject I find myself expressing my own opinion — somehow feeling that I am doing them a service. And of course I go on and on — usually avoiding a gap which would allow someone else to speak..So that’s one I shall be working on.

  4. Iona says:

    I used to be the same, Vincent, until I did my educational psychology training, at which point I learned (and put into practice) that you gain a huge amount of information just by keeping quiet and (as they say) giving someone a “space” into which they can talk. Of course, as an ed psych (or any other kind of psych) you want the information they are giving you, as it is the material which you need to work on. But once you’ve developed the habit you can carry it into the rest of your life. Or, some of the rest of your life.
    Martha, yes, it was Sundays as well; I knew I could “allow” myself coffee/tea on Sundays, but thought it might make Monday too difficult. However, I did have herb teas and decaffeinated green tea; not as austere as Ann Widdecombe’s cold water. For a couple of years I’ve given up coffee but not tea.

    • Martha says:

      A book by Rob Temple, Very British Problems, which also has a website, shows what can result even when the words spoken are for one’s own benefit, “Being unable to concentrate as someone gives you directions because you’re so focused on looking like you’re paying attention.” I suppose in this case you are too concerned for the speaker to know how much you appreciate his time and patience in trying to help you,

  5. Jerry Peri says:

    This is refreshingly positive!

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