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Virtue & Freedom

“Freedom is the human capacity that unifies all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, which is God.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, A Tale of Two Monks

When asking the Lord what I should give up for Lent this year, I received a helpful reminder from one of my housemates. She challenged me to first pray about what virtue I would like to grow in, and then allow the Lord to show me how I can best grow in that virtue through a particular Lenten fast.

For example, giving up sweets can help us grow the virtue of temperance or self-control. Staying off social media may help us grow in kindness, the opposite virtue of envy. As St. Therese demonstrates so well in Story of a Soul, doing small tasks with great love in a hidden, unnoticed way can lead us on the path of humility.

As we grow in virtue, we also grow in freedom. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, freedom is the ability (habitus) to choose the good. In considering how virtue leads to freedom, I was reminded of my experience learning to play the piano.

In some sense, unrestricted freedom can be compared to simply sitting down and playing any note I want to on the whole keyboard. Any note, however, does not always sound good. There is theory to music – certain intonations sound better in harmony, some chords produce a sentimental, now an ephemeral, now a provocative message to the senses. I’ve learned there is a very big difference between sitting down and playing any note I want, and sitting down and playing Chopin’s Faintaisie-Impromptu straight through, from memory.

Each time we choose to practice virtue in the Christian life, it is like learning a single motif.

Over time, what we learned starts to make sense within the context of a larger piece. We start to play the song with hands together.

The more we practice, the more beautiful the melody sounds against the surrounding accompaniment. The music is not always light-hearted, but it is real and it is ours. It comes with a framework – there is a right note here that I can learn, but how I play it is within my ability to choose.

To play a piece I know as well as my own heartbeat - that is the pinnacle of musical freedom. I can play loud or soft, slow or fast, emphasizing the points I’d like to make depending on my mood. There is an almost lazy intimacy with the music, a comfort of knowing the piece that only comes after meticulous hours and days and years of practicing.

To grow in Christian virtue then, as St. Therese teaches us, is taking every small opportunity to practice the Little Way of holiness and love. It is in the hidden hours of prayer and contemplation, the silent washing on another’s dishes without complaint, the gentle turning of our thoughts from the road of sinfulness to the road of compassion, self-acceptance, and radical trust in the Lord, despite all odds.

As we begin this holy season of Lent, I pray each day we choose in freedom to recommit to prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, we may gently learn more and more the interior freedom that comes from a life of virtue in Christ.


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