A month ago many of us made New Year’s resolutions as we began 2013 and the beginning of February is a good time to check to see how we are progressing. My resolutions included, as in previous years, that I was going to start eating healthier, begin a good exercise routine, read more and carve out more time for prayer. For many of us, we might have made the resolve that 2013 is the year we are going to stop smoking, perform random acts of charity, or manage our money better.
Most of our resolutions have to do with the practical changes that we hope to make in our lives to help us be the better version of ourselves. Our resolutions should have to do with becoming a better person and recognize the potential we have with the gift of life God has given us. We may resolve that this is the year to finally stop drinking. To reconcile with a family member. To live in honesty and truth. To forgive someone who has injured us, or to seek forgiveness for an injury we may have caused. Or, we may resolve to speak more kindly of others, to stop judging others so harshly and to seek to avoid conflict and division.
We know what it takes to achieve what we have resolved. If we want to lose weight, first we have to be convinced that we need to lose weight, and then discipline ourselves to eat less and exercise more. This is obvious, but many times it’s not easy. It seems to me that our New Year’s resolutions are a small but intensely practical exercise of daily virtue.
St. Thomas Aquinas, building on Aristotle and St. Augustine’s reflections on virtue, stresses that what he describes as the intellectual and moral virtues, are not acquired instantly but over time and in the course of a lifetime. Virtue is a practice, a repeated action that over time becomes habitual. Just as we can acquire bad habits (also known as vices), we are also able to acquire good habits (also known as virtues). Each of the four cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice - with effort - can become habitual over time.
That is to say, we can acquire the virtue of temperance by moderating our daily decisions and choices. For example, going back to our New Year’s resolution to lose weight and eat with self-control, if done only occasionally will not result in a slimmer waistline. However, if eating with self-control and moderation becomes our daily, even habitual practice, then we will become slimmer.
In a similar way, the virtue of prudence is exercised when we choose the correct means to achieve what is good, right and just. Facing decisions while discerning what is right or wrong and choosing the right – results in being prudent.
Justice is the virtue that intentionally seeks to give what is due God and neighbor. Sacred Scripture often speaks of “the just man” - this person is known by his consistent right thinking and honors the human dignity of his neighbor and God’s gifts.
And fortitude, or courage, is the virtue that ensures steadfastness in difficulties and steadiness in the pursuit of the good – especially in the face of opposition or obstacles.
Growing in these virtues is at the heart of becoming the better version of ourselves. The daily practice of kindness and consideration helps us to become the kind and considerate men and women that we are called to be. Daily acts of compassion and generosity are what help us to become compassionate and generous people. From my perspective, in the spiritual life, we become people of faith by daily acts of trust in God’s goodness and his purpose for us. We become charitable by our daily acts of unselfish giving to others, without expecting anything in return. Through it all, when we live a life that is virtuous, we begin to impact the people around us, those with whom we live, work and interact. Hopefully, our virtuous behaviors will help model for young people the best way to live and have an effect in our community.
We can be confident that the practice of the virtues will become an ingrained habit that will transform us into better people. On the other hand, we need to remember that the practice and habit of our vices will transform us as well as they deform our character and bring us much unhappiness.
The good thing about resolving to live virtuously is that none of us needs to wait till next year. We can begin today to live with prudence and temperance, with justice and fortitude, to follow the commandments and to love God and our neighbor - and to make a habit of it.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.