I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

“To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” Let us learn then what are the things that defile the person. Let us learn them and flee from them. For even in the church we still see such a custom prevailing among many that gives great attention to what we are wearing and whether we have our hands washed. But as to presenting a clean soul to God, they make no account. I say wash to what degree is fitting, but above all wash with virtues and not with water only. No one is forbidding the washing of the hands or mouth, but the real filth of the mouth is evil speaking, blasphemy, reviling, angry words, filthy talking, inordinate laughter and immature jesting. If you are not conscious of yourself doing these things or of being defiled with this filth, then draw near with confidence. But if you have often done these things and received these stains, why do you think that washing your tongue with water is going to change anything? You labour in vain to wash it out externally, while you are still inwardly carrying such deadly and hurtful filth.

Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 51. 4-5, in  Manlio Simonetti (ed). Matthew 14-28 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) 26.

Humility is rightly compared with the morning, for as the origin of all the virtues it enables us to distinguish between day and night, between light and darkness, between virtue and vice. All those who take leave of the darkness of vice must of necessity begin with the virtue of humility in order for the growth of the virtues to be realised until the end of the day.

Today is the memorial of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. This quote is my translation from the Dutch of an extract of a text by Saint Aelred that was read at Vigils this morning, from Aartsvader Isaak, een wijsheidsmeditatie, translated by Michel Coune OSB of Zevenkerken, Bruges.

No man can conquer the passions except by the palpable virtues; and no one can conquer the wandering of the intellect except by the study of spiritual knowledge. Our intellect is volatile, and if it is not tied down by some reflection, it never stops wandering. Without attaining perfection in the aforesaid virtues, a man cannot acquire this safeguard. For unless a man does not vanquish his enemies, he cannot be at peace. And if peace does not reign, how can a man find those things that are stored up within peace? The passions are a wall impeding the hidden virtues of the soul. If the passions are not first cast down by means of externally manifest virtues, that which lies within cannot be seen; for a man who is outside a wall cannot keep company with what is inside. No man sees the sun in a cloud, nor the natural virtue of the soul in the constant turbulence of the passions.

Entreat God to give you to feel spiritual aspiration and yearning. For whenever this yearning of spirit comes upon you, you will stand aloof from the world and the world will stand aloof from you. It is, however, impossible to experience this without stillness, ascetic endeavor, and the converse of reading devoted to the same. Without the latter, do not seek the former; for if you seek after it, it will gradually be altered and become corporeal. Let him who has understanding understand. It was the wise Lord’s good pleasure that we should eat this bread with the sweat of our brow. He did not ordain this spitefully, but lest it should oblige us to vomit and we die. For every virtue is the mother of a second. If, then, you abandon the mother which gives birth to the virtues and go out to seek the daughters before you have acquired their mother, those virtues will be vipers to your soul, and if you do not hurl them away from you, speedily you will die.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 34), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 157

This week’s Tablet has an article by Abbot Christopher Jamison, whom I quoted a while back, on ethical engagement, and especially virtue ethics, in the context of climate change. The article is for subsribers only, but the Operation Noah inaugural lecture, of which it is a shortened verson, can be found here. He argues that “If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people’s motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics.” He discusses the role of the virtues in public policy and the need to rediscover the traditional understanding of “the good life”.

…let’s now take a look at how virtue plays out in people’s lifestyle and how that too is relevant to climate change. In this area, I choose as an example how the virtue of temperance can affect our lifestyle choices. We are increasingly aware that the Western lifestyle needs to change if we are to contain climate change. This is a problematic area because consumer culture is so embedded in our way of life. And of course this industrial system has brought real benefits. Too often people decry this culture’s material impact without seeing its material benefits, so what has gone wrong with this commercial process? The danger lies not simply in what consumer culture has done to our bodies but in what it has done to our souls, which in turn has led to an abuse of the material world. In this area of life, the monastic tradition offers some penetrating insights about temperance and about greed.

John Cassian was a great fourth century monk, the inspiration of St Benedict, and here is his account of greed in a monk: Greed is a work of the imagination that begins with apparently harmless thoughts. The monk begins to think that ‘what is supplied in the monastery is inadequate and can hardly sustain a healthy and robust body.’ The thought develops: ‘the monk ponders how he can get hold of at least one penny.’ When he has achieved that ‘then he is distracted with the still more serious concern of what to buy with it and how he can double it.’ This in turn leads to disillusionment with the way things are in the monastery and the monk cannot put up with things any longer so he wants to leave the monastery.

What emerges from this and other monastic writings is how deeply seriously greed was taken by the founders of the monastic tradition. The two basic insights that they offer can be readily applied to the lives of ordinary people today. Firstly, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have of our life and its needs. Secondly, if we get that mental picture wrong, it is a potential source of disintegration in the lives not only of individuals but also of communities. Armed with those monastic insights about how greed actually works, we can now look at consumer culture.

And he continues:

I believe that this ecological conversion involves individuals and society explicitly reaffirming that the classical virtues do indeed describe the good life. The churches in Britain, together with other religious communities, have a unique role to play in this regard. The four cardinal virtues have become endangered species, but the Church has given them sanctuary. They have been protected by the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. For the Christian, the cardinal virtues are rooted in the theological virtues. Does this mean that only Christians have displayed fortitude and justice, temperance and prudence? No, because these virtues are part of being human. Nor does it mean that only Christians have thought like this. What this does mean, however, is that the Church is the principal global institution that sees in these virtues hard realities that have their own science that can be taught. In addition, the Church affirms them as an integral foursome that, when rooted in faith, hope and love, adds up to the heart of humanity. It is this totality of vision that is the Church’s special contribution. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Baltahsar commented: “The Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics in our time.”