Cultivating virtue

“Why did you decide to become a Catholic sister?” This question has been asked of me many times in the 10 years since I began my vocation journey. It is really a very complex and multi-layered question of identity, call and response. Over the years, however, I’ve realized that the simplest and most honest answer is this: It is as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace that I can become the person God dreams I can be. Who I am, and who I am with, matters. How we live, work and pray together matters, both for us individually and for the larger whole. It is in the midst of the ordinary moments of life that we become ourselves, and perhaps paradoxically, make the most impact on the world around us.

As a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, my ordinary moments are lived out in community, set within the context of the extraordinary call of the Gospel, and grounded in our charism of peace through justice. Somehow living out my life in the company of my CSJP sisters and associates, I make more sense and the world makes more sense. It really is that simple. It really is that complex. I know that I will continue to be a work in progress up until the day I draw my last breath, a pilgrim on the journey to wholeness and peace.

Over the past few months I’ve been engaged in a slow reading of The Road to Character by David Brooks. I have been reading it slowly not because it is difficult to read, but rather because it is an experience I want to savor and let sink in.

Brooks sets out to discover exactly what it is that forms persons of good moral character. He uses the genre of biography to tease out the answer, looking closely at the lives of an unlikely cast of characters, including Dorothy Day, George Eliot, Saint Augustine, Dwight Eisenhower and Bayard Rustin.

What do a hospitality-minded anarchist, a novelist, a theologian, a general, and a civil rights leader have in common? Brooks recognizes that this diverse grouping “followed many different courses and had many different traits.” Yet, each person’s journey “started with a deep vulnerability, and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability.” The good news, he tells us, “is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is. . . . We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.” (p. 267-268)

These are comforting words, given that we are all indeed flawed. Yet they are also very challenging. The story Brooks tells through the lives of these extraordinary people is surprising. The path to becoming a moral person is not paved by perfect actions. Rather, the key to an extraordinary life is engaging vulnerability. We are called to a lifelong path of growth through, not in spite of, our stumbling.

Perhaps this is why I make the most sense in the context of a religious community. I have a ready-made group of companions with a common mind and heart to catch me when I stumble and help me as I limp along. We each profess vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience to guide us on the journey to peace. Our vows are not a set of rules to be followed or a guide to perfect actions. They are a commitment to a common vision of who we are and how we want to be. By our profession: “We commit ourselves to one another in community, we signify our availability for service in mission, and we express our willingness to become peacemakers in the spirit of the beatitudes.” (CSJP Constitutions no. 39)

As we stumble along, it helps to have signposts to guide our way. Catholic moral theology, in particular the tradition of virtue ethics, offers key insights into how we can stumble our way to becoming moral persons. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas offers four cardinal virtues as guides to becoming a moral person: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. The end of the moral virtues is human good. We become more virtuous through the exercise of good habits in our daily actions. The more we exercise prudence, for example, the more prudent a person we become. Likewise the regular exercise of the other virtues also helps us to become moral persons. Who we are matters.

James Keenan, S.J., a contemporary moral theologian, breathes new life into the Thomistic tradition through the primary lens of relationship. Human beings are inherently relational, which leads Keenan to discern new cardinal virtues for our time (Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, p. 144-148). The virtue of fidelity guides our specific relationships, such as with family or religious community. The virtue of self-care guides our relationship with our unique self, created in the image and likeness of God. The virtue of justice guides our relationships with all people and creation, while prudence helps us navigate the push and pull of these coordinates in our daily lives.

What habits do I exercise which develop the virtue of fidelity in my daily life? I honor my daily commitment to show up in community, whether that is to break bread, pray together to listen to God’s call or visit one of our sisters in the hospital. I exercise the virtue of self-care every time I step away from the computer to go for a walk or have the courage to be vulnerable and share the deepest concerns of my heart with a trusted ear. I exercise the virtue of justice every time I make choices that honor Earth, “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can be reasonably consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

That laundry list of daily actions comes from Laudato Si’(211). Pope Francis recognizes the importance of cultivating virtues in our lives. It helps us to grow in love together: “These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society” (208). In other words, who and how we are matters . . . to you and me and all of creation.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]