I believe one of the reasons why living a virtuous life is thought to be so difficult is because our culture says, “Do whatever you feel like doing at any given moment.” Our culture encourages us to simply be responsive to stimuli; we are subliminally urged by our consumerist culture to buy the things we see on television. We are encouraged to respond to stimuli in an unorganized, undisciplined way. That is not what a life of virtue is. A life of virtue is a disciplined response to life. It is counter-cultural, and it can be tough for young people to do this on their own. They need direction, help, and guidance from parents, teachers, and peers to create a virtuous culture to live a good life.
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One of the most important things about a virtuous life is that it is based on the understanding that we do not live our lives alone. In fact, it is quite the opposite: we are able to lead virtuous lives with and from the support of others.
That is why a community, or a band of disciples, is so important. Leading a disciplined life in solitude is an awfully difficult thing to do. However, being surrounded by a band of disciples – those who have learned the good, the true, and the beautiful, and those who have learned the discipline of the virtuous life together and support one another – creates an army of goodness for the Lord.
In order to achieve a disciplined, virtuous life, one must have a band of disciples along with and separate from simply just a family. The church is never going to be a substitute for family. It cannot be. While we know that no family is perfect, certain dynamics in a family are not to be replicated as they are just as irreplaceable as they are wonderful.
Instead, there is a certain equality encouraged in the parish that allows us to approach one another as brothers and sisters, and as mutually supportive equals in the lord. A parish does not have a mom and a dad; it is a band of equals pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful. We must understand ourselves as a church, as the people of God, and as a band of disciples under the lordship of Jesus.
I have been a priest for 38 years. I was ordained for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and I have been in Lansing, Michigan, since 2008 as the Ordinary. In my 38 years of being a priest, I have solidified my belief that there is one critical virtue for everyone, whether they are seeking to be married, to be a Priest, or to be a teacher. The most important virtue is gratitude.
If we can learn to say thank you for everything—no matter what it is—we are recognizing that everything is a gift to us. The opposite of gratitude, of course, is thinking “Everything is owed to me, so I don’t have to say thank you for anything.” It is a very selfish, egocentric view of the world and of one’s self, yet that is what the world wants to engrain in us. Instead, if we are always saying thank you, if we are recognizing everything is a gift, everything is from outside, it is not owed to me, then we’re practicing one of the most important virtues that we can practice: to be grateful.
The great value of the virtuous life is the fact that we become who we are supposed to be. God intends us to be fully human, fully alive, fully free as much as we can this side of the grave. The virtuous life helps us to do that. Instead of pursuing evil, we pursue good. Instead of pursuing the ugly, we pursue the beautiful. Instead of pursuing falsehood, we pursue the truth. That makes us fully human, fully alive. I cannot think of anything better for young people than to be growing in that process, and for their parents and elders to see their pursuit and be motivated themselves to seek to be fully alive, fully human – as we are all called to be.
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