A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLV

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLV January 16, 2012

“Holiness, salvation, and a crown of incorruption are given to the man who bears misfortunes cheerfully and with thankfulness. To control anger, the tongue, the belly and sensual pleasures is of the utmost benefit to the soul.”[1]

 

One of the most difficult things for any of us to overcome is our egotistical pride. But this is exactly what we are called to do as Christians. We must be humble and not think too highly of ourselves. We must be willing to accept the place we find ourselves in life, even if we think we “deserve better.” As long as we think we “deserve better,” we do not know ourselves and what it is we are called to do. We must learn to accept our lot in life. It is not that we can’t work to better ourselves, but we must not assume what the outcome should be. Hard work does not always mean earthly success, however, hard spiritual work in cooperation with grace does lead to the salvation of our souls, and this is far more valuable than anything which we can receive in the world. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36 RSV).  It is not that we cannot find ourselves in a place of prominence, but our joy should be found in the good we do, whether or not the good is appreciated by anyone else in the world. Doing good should be enough to satisfy us. Of course, for most of us, it isn’t. This shouldn’t discourage us: as long as we know the goal and pursue it, grace is more than capable of fulfilling that which we lack and helping us slowly become holy, at which point, such good will be enough.

We should always remember that the good we do might not be something which gets any earthly reward. We shouldn’t be looking for it. We should ignore all the voices around us enticing us to follow foolish goals. They are trying to distract us from our proper goal, God. They want us to be satisfied with something separate from the good God desires for us, something far less than what God will give us if we justly follow him. Of course, when we are weak and fail, God’s gracious love is able to heal us and move us out of the dead-end we have made for ourselves: as long as we shall live, we should never give in to despair. When we see the mess we have made for ourselves, thanks to such grace, we can get out of it and move forward, doing whatever it is we should be doing.

When we are treated unfairly, how we handle such an injustice will show how holy or unholy we have become. If we have our eyes on God, we will know that such treatment purifies our soul and helps bring us closer to God. “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 RSV). Those who do evil should be given pity, because in the ultimate sense of things, their actions hurt them, not us:

For an impious and wicked person will not go unpunished because his wickedness was unable to harm a righteous person. The long-suffering and virtue of the righteous earn a reward not for the one who has inflicted death and torture but for the one who has patiently endured what was inflicted upon him. Hence the latter will be deservedly punished for his fierce cruelty because he desired to inflict evil, while the former has endured nothing evil because, patiently sustaining trials and sorrows in his strength of soul, he caused the things that we inflicted upon him with bad intent to bring him to a better state and to the blessedness of eternal life.[2]

We should seek to convert those who have done evil, to encourage them away from their evil. Indeed, though we should not approve of their actions, we should love them in the way God loves us, forgiving them as God forgives us for our sins. Hatred and wrath destroy the soul, as St. Caesarius of Arles points out: “If anyone harbors hatred for even one man in this world, no matter what he has offered God in good works, he loses it all.”[3]

We must learn to bear patiently with the trials and tribulations which come before us, knowing if we persevere to the end, we shall find our place with God far outweighs any evil which we have suffered. “He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death” (Rev. 2:11b RSV). We will be said to be conquerors, not because we have overcome others, but because they have not overcome us and turned us away from the path of virtue unto the trail of vice. The ascetic path, a path everyone is called to in their own way, is the path which helps us transform ourselves so that we do not feel the sting of evil in our lives. We must learn to control our body and not be controlled by it. Discipline is the key. We must know how to control what we say, to think before speaking, so as not to let the heat of the moment make us say something which we will later regret. Indeed, since Jesus, our Lord, is the Word, the Logos, we must recognize the value of the word and realize this is why James tells us true religion is connected to the bridling of the tongue: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26 RSV). Likewise, other disciplines, like fasting, help keep the body in check, help us see how the body works, so that we do not find the body controlling us and leading us astray due to its passions. It is for this reason the desert fathers believed if one can control oneself through fasting, other passions such as lust or anger can then be put under control: we will have learned how our impulses work and how to act without being overcome by them.

 

 

The message here is typical of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, where the fortitude the martyrs showed in their martyrdom was used to encourage the monks in their daily practice. It could easily be from St. Anthony as it could be from a host of other famous desert monks, and as such, we can believe this reflects teachings Anthony gave, whether or not these words were actually written by him.


[1] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 353 (#155).

[2] Abba Theodore in John Cassian, The Conferences, 222-3.

[3] St. Caesarius of Arles, “Sermon 219” in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 187 – 238. Trans. Sister Mary Magdalene Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1972), 130.

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