Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
We are all called to a life of virtue. In a sense, all virtues are related, so that developing one will help someone find themselves getting better in all other virtues. As St. Mark the Monk explained, it is one virtue which is revealed in many forms: “Just as all material wealth is one and the same but is acquired in a number of different ways, so is virtue one thing, being multifaceted in its operations.” Goodness is one because the source of all goodness comes from God, who is one. Nonetheless, we experience the virtue of goodness in many different forms, each becoming as it were, is own particular virtue which we can engage, just as we have many different ways and forms in which we come to know and experience God, each with its own name or predication which we give to God.
There are many ways we can establish lists which elucidate these virtues for us, each often coming out of a different lens by which the good is engage. For example, there is the list known as the four cardinal virtues, establishing them to be prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Then we can look at the so-called three theological virtues are said to be faith, hope and love. Or, we can look at the relationship between virtue and vice, seeing virtues which combat various grave sins, such as: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
While the virtues are interconnected, so that if we improve in one it affects us and helps us in all, we still find ourselves better disposed to some forms of virtue than others. Thus, some will find charity easier, others, humility, and others, temperance or some other virtue. We should come to know ourselves and realize which virtues we have more affinity for, and which we have more difficulty engaging, so then we can discern not only where we need improvement, but also where we can start our spiritual journey towards holiness.
At times, we will need to engage those virtues we are better equipped to handle, because by doing so, we will raise ourselves out of a spiritual rut; but other times, we will have to work on those areas we find ourselves weaker, so that we can develop ourselves and protect ourselves from our greatest temptations.
Early on in our spiritual development, it is probably best to engage that which we find easiest to address, learning the techniques which are to be used in the forging of virtues. We will be able to find more what works and what does not work in regards to the development of virtue through our own experience. In the process, if we developing ourselves with the help of God, we will find ourselves being improved as a whole; this does not mean those temptations which are most likely to affect us will not affect us, but we should hopefully find some improvement even in dealing with them.
Nonetheless, there will come a time in which we will have to take a more difficult, narrow path; we will have to get to know ourselves in relation to our weaknesses and vices, and find ways to overcome those vices with their corresponding virtue. We will enter into a battle against our darkest temptations, and so to do it right, we will have to forge the right kind of virtue, the right kind of spiritual weapon, to defeat our greatest vices. By first seeing our strengths, and letting them grow and become more powerful, the holiness which they have brought to us will be able to be transferred within us and help us work out our salvation as we contend against our greatest threats to our own good, those vices which are most likely to attract us and lead us away from the fullness of the good. We should seek the peace of God within, to seek the kingdom of God within ourselves, but to do so, we will have to take it by force. It will require great work on our part. If we are gluttons, we might have to fast; if we are prideful, we will have to engage in self-emptying humility through charity. If we are impatient and quick to grow angry and abusive in our approach to others, we will have to seek patience, so that we can then let charity rule in our heart.
Throughout our life, we must engage the trials and temptations, the discipline and sanctifying grace which we need in order to slowly transform ourselves from our unrighteous condition to holiness. If, however, we think we can do this all at once, and embrace all the virtues all at once, we will find that we will never attain any of them, and it is likely we will lose what we already have as a result. It is pride which will make us think like this, and of course, such pride will lead us to our fall: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2 RSV). Likewise, by knowing ourselves, we will come to know when it is time to fight against temptations and develop their corresponding virtue, and when it is imprudent. Likewise, if we think we should first address our greatest faults and weaknesses without building ourselves up in our strengths, it is also likely pride making us think we can do this, and so with such pride, we will easily be led to great sin instead, as Anthony said: “The evil spirit makes us zealous for works which we are not able to perform, and cause us to fain in tasks on which we are engaged, and which are profitable for us.”
For this reason, Anthony took extra concern to remind those who would listen to him and heed his advice: know yourselves, know what you can and cannot do, know what you need to develop and when you can develop it. Focus on one particular virtue, one particular accomplishment at a time. Keep it simple and straightforward until you have accomplished your task. Do not focus on what others are doing, what they are or are not capable of doing, focus on your own spiritual progression and where you are at in your life. Not everyone is called for the same task in the world; not all are called to the perfection of the same virtue at the same time. Let people follow their proper task as you follow yours. Do not let others convince you to seek some different path, some different goal, other than the one you have set yourself to do; when you have achieved it, then it will be time to consider what it is you are to do next. Until then, focus and forge virtue the particular virtue you have started to work on within yourself. You will know when you have made a proper achievement, whereby then it will be time to move on to something else.
[IMG=A Forge Trip Hammer By William F. Durfee via Wikimedia Commons]
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8.
 Mark the Monk, “On the Spiritual Law,” in Mark the Monk: Counsels on the Spiritual Life. trans. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 110.
 St. Antony, The Letters of St. Antony the Great. trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 19 [Letter V].
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