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Temperance and Fortitude, from the Lenten series on the Four Cardinal Virtues.
August 04, 2012
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Temperance and Fortitude.

(From a 2012 Lent and Easter series of sermons on the Catholic Virtues.)

In discussing the virtues this Lent we’ve looked at the cardinal moral virtues of prudence and justice. Now for temperance. Temperance is the habit of living a balanced life of moderation; knowing how to enjoy yourself without going over the line into sin and debauchery.

An example of intemperance can help us understand temperance, this from the life of Thomas Merton, who died a Trappist monk in 1968, but he sure didn’t start out a chaste and temperate man. In his autobiography, entitled The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton tells of his student days at Columbia University in New York in the 1930’s:

Three or four nights a week my fraternity brothers and I would go flying down in the black and roaring subway to 52nd street, where we would crawl around the tiny, noisy and expensive nightclubs that had flowered on the sites of the old speakeasies in the cellars of those dirty brownstone houses. There we would sit, for hours, packed in those dark rooms, shoulder to shoulder with a lot of surly strangers and their girls, while the whole place rocked and surged with storms of jazz … If you moved your arm to get your drink you nearly knocked the next man off his stool …

It was not that we got drunk … it was a strange animal travesty of mysticism, sitting in those booming rooms, with the noise pouring through you, and the rhythm jumping and throbbing in the marrow of your bones … If we got hangovers the next day it was more because of the smoking and nervous exhaustion than anything else …

There is nothing so dismal as the Flushing bus station … There was always at least one or two of those same characters whose prototypes I had seen dead in the morgue … Among all these I stood, weary and ready to fall, lighting the fortieth or fiftieth cigarette of the day – the one that took the last shreds of lining off my throat.

The thing that depressed me the most of all was the shame and despair that invaded my whole nature when the sun came up, and all the laborers were going to work; men healthy and awake and quiet, with their eyes clear and some rational purpose before them. This humiliation and sense of my own misery and of the fruitlessness of what I had done was the nearest I could get to contrition. It was the reaction of nature. It proved nothing except that I was still, at least, morally alive. The term “morally alive” might obscure the fact that I was spiritually dead. I had been that long since!

But being at least morally alive he recognized his own despair and began to seek something better, a search that led him through spiritual reading to God, the Catholic Church, and eventually the monastery. He discovered the inner joy and contentment of temperance, and as a monk he developed a great deal of fortitude, though one doesn’t have to be a monk to practice temperance or develop fortitude. Everyone can, should, and benefits when they do.

Fortitude is the habit of persevering in times of trial, the inner strength to hang in there when the going gets tough, to be faithful to your commitments when it is costly and difficult. The Bible and Church History are full of examples of fortitude. All the saints had it in spades. In a book about faith and atheism by Michael Novak entitled No One Sees God I read about Anatoly Sharansky, a Soviet dissident of the 1970’s. He was of Jewish background but was himself an atheist and prominent scientist. When he began to defend the rights of fellow Jews he was imprisoned. For nine years he was kept near starvation, never saw the sky or the sun, and was pressured to sign certain papers, small untruths; what would it matter? He could go free and return to his wife and their home. But if his lies wouldn’t matter, why the pressure to lie? So something inside Sharansky resisted, and the longer he resisted the stronger he became.

A Hebrew copy of the Psalms was smuggled in to him and he connected to the fortitude of King David in his travails. Sharansky began to keep what Jewish religious rituals he could, feeling strengthened by his connection to a larger community of faith that had survived persecution. When a fellow prisoner reminded him that one of his heroes, Galileo, had himself signed certain papers, Sharansky had a sudden insight:

Like a thunderbolt, these words of his cellmate flooded Sharansky’s mind with the interconnectedness of all souls in history – those who remain faithful to the truth, and those who betray it. Galileo’s betrayal four hundred years ealier was now being used to seduce Sharansky, just as every spiritual surrender of another individual in the Gulag was used to pound home to him that long-term resistance was useless. In that lightning flash, Sharansky saw the power of inner truthfulness down the ages, that electronic belt of fidelity that ties all regions and all times together, in however many hearts that remain faithful to the truth.
– No One Sees God; Novak; p. 34.
Sharansky refused to sign. He was eventually released. The Soviet Union is no more, thanks to the fortitude of Anatoly Sharansky and many others.

So, to review – prudence recognizes the true good and the right means to achieve it. Since our true good requires good relationships with God and other people, justice is necessary – giving others their due. But if we are habitually self-indulgent we can hardly give others their due, so the self-restraint of temperance is necessary; and temperance, persisted in, makes us strong, which is fortitude.

These human moral virtues can be recognized by reason and improved by practice, but the grace of God can help us; and living virtuous lives clarifies in us that image of God put into us by the Creator, which improves our receptivity to gifts that only God can give.

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