St. Thomas Aquinas understood virtues to be habitual or abiding dispositions that help us to realize the good in our decisions and actions. These habitual dispositions, acquired through repetition and an effort over time (and, at the same time, given to us by God through grace), make accomplishing the good easier, more immediate, requiring less internal deliberation and struggle.
- Rev. Mark O’Keefe, OSB - Priestly Virtues: Reflections on the Moral Virtues in the Life of the Priest (2000)
At the suggestion of a close friend, I’ve been reading [The Case for Faith: “A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to” Christianity], by Lee Strobel. In one chapter, an interviewee makes an excellent point about people who have doubts that keep them from embracing their faith. The claim was that for many people, doubts are a way of justifying an underlying desire not to believe, because the cost associated with faith is so high.
Now, I should say right away that the statement was made in a setting of appropriate context and sounds much harsher taken on its own. I’ll also say, as it is said in the book, that it is not necessarily the case for everyone. I wanted to bring it up, not as a way of creating argument, but as a way of shining some light on my own situation.
Personally, I used to find it very hard to accept my faith completely because of a few fundamental questions that still lingered in the back of my mind. These days, I see those lingering questions as being more and more helpful towards me solidly moving forward with my discernment, but it wasn’t always so. For a very long time, the questions of faith were a barrier keeping me from everything, even from sitting in a church. But as I look back upon those times and truly evaluate what I was feeling, I have to agree with the book. I was scared to let go of my comfortable life, free from the demands that faith brings with it.
You see, Aquinas was right about virtues being a habitual state, but he also teaches the same about vice. My life, especially my teen years, had grown deeply in vice; so much so that the very foundation of my thought processes and even dreams were centered in them. I fell very low for a time, if not in a material sense, then certainly in a spiritual one. I was a habitually drawn to make the bad decision. It was easier and required less and less internal deliberation. And faith, poor self-effacing faith, was a powerful threat to that way of living.
So I asked myself, “Do I want to believe?” I asked, “Can I let myself believe?” And still, “Is belief worth it.” A funny thing happened when I did that. I realized that by asking the question, I had admitted to myself that my faith existed already, that I was suppressing it, hiding away from the guilt. It wasn’t pretty.
Even these days, as I know I’ve moved forward a great deal, I still see the sense of habitual vice in me. I’m a long way from the place where good decisions are easy and simple, but I have accepted that I want to be that way one day. Aquinas also said, if you lack a clear understanding of what should be done in a particular situation, look to the example of the virtuous person. Lucky for me, I have several of them as friends.