We need to talk about virtue

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How many sins do you come across every day? Loads I bet: theft, murder, environmental destruction, sexual violence, war crimes, political corruption, bullying, tax evasion, drug offences, driving offences…to name but a few. The daily newspapers and nightly news programmes parade a vast array of sins before us every day. Sin certainly appears to be newsworthy these days.

Because we hear so much about it, we have become very good at talking about it. For example, there are myriad ways to describe the act of killing – first and second degree murder, voluntary and involuntary man-slaughter, crimes of passion, self-defence, suicide bombings, honour killings, abortion, fratricide, genocide, regicide, capital punishment. We also have lots of words for describing the negative side of people’s personalities: greedy, self-centred, manipulative, jealous, boastful, insensitive, lazy, aggressive, domineering, attention-seeking, biggoted, close-minded, impatient. We have an extraordinarily large vocabulary when it comes to describing sinful acts and personality traits.

Sin is undoubtedly a part of this world and it would be naive to ignore it. But when I turn on the tv or radio or log in to social media, I begin to think that sin is dominating the agenda. And so I agree with the statement made by the priest character played by Brendan Gleeson in the movie Calvary:

“I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.”

Well said. Let’s talk about virtue then!

How do we generally describe good people? “Nice” is a word that we use a lot. A really good person might be described as “OMG soooo nice.” In Ireland, probably the nicest compliment you can pay somebody is to say that they are “sound.” People who are entertaining also tend to get a good rep – great craic. But these are very general terms, My hunch is that we are not as well practiced at being more specific about people’s qualities and virtues. I say as a result of a recent experience which had a big impact on me.

I have just finished a four-day walking pilgrimage for young adults in Co. Wicklow, just south of Dublin. On the final night during the meal, everybody was given a postcard with their name on it. The postcards were circulated around the table until everybody had written one virtue of the person on their postcard. The exercise had a big effect on us all, probably because we weren’t so used to hearing about and appreciating our own virtues.

We need to talk about virtue. If we don’t, then we will forget how to talk about it and possibly forget how to live it. That would be a very sad state of affairs. Like so many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Thankfully, one of the benefits of belonging to a faith tradition like Christianity is that the tradition has a memory that you can draw on. If you’re looking for virtues, then a good first port of call is the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus describes what he considers who live blessed and happy lives. Here is a beautiful sung version by the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey.

Another helpful exercise is to write down 10 virtues that come to mind. Here is mine:

Courageous, faithful, understanding, wise, reliable, carefree, conscientious, knowledgable, perceptive, reassuring.

Niall Leahy sj