>Monasticism part III "How good we can become"

Posted: 07/08/2009 in monasticism

>Of all the reasons why I like monasticism, I believe their ethical vision is what attracts me to it the most. If monasticism teaches us anything, it teaches us how good we can be. This was done by conscious and persistent attention to one’s own sins, and a deep desire for perfection. It motivated monks to behave in such a way that we find it difficult to fathom. Their approach, which is broadly termed ‘virtue ethics,’ contrasts with a lot of rule-based ethics that is sometimes taught in Christian circles.

It is not hard to think of the kinds of “rules” that we Christians –all the while talking about salvation through grace alone- often preach. A few might be rules such as these:

”Always give 10% of your paycheck, before taxes, as a tithe.”
“Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.”
“Occasionally having wine or beer is okay, but if you’re really serious you know that drinking is bad.”
“Tame your tongue by not using the following curse words…”
“Pray and read your bible everyday.”

Many other rules could abound. Some are needed, some not so much. Yet all these “rules” have a common failing: they assume correction action without emphasis on forming correct character. It is if the entire Christian life can be summarized into an exhaustive set of “biblical commands” in which we memorize and then rigidly and impersonally apply to every situation in life. I cannot speak for every Christian out there, but this approach is simply exhausting.

The virtue ethics approach seeks to reform character and then assumes that good actions flow from that. Rather than finding a list rules, it goes deeper and seeks to change the needs, desires, and emotions that cause us to sin and create the list of rules. It begins with the seven deadly sins, recognizing them, and then resisting them. Though there is a “rule” to getting started on this path, St. Benedict rightly considered it only the beginning of perfection.

One great benefits of virtue ethics is that it gives us good habits (the virtues) to aim at in addition to sins to avoid. This is best explained by example. Instead of saying “always tithe 10%” the virtue ethics approach says, “resist the demon of greed. Be free of your enslavement and bondage to material possessions, so that you might have the virtue of generosity.” Instead of saying, “tame your tongue” it says, “pray that the Lord would give you patience in all things. Resist both anger and sadness. From there, you’re heart and your speech will always be pure.” The goal is never to memorize rules, but rather develop the right habits and desires so that rules are simply no longer needed.

Another benefit is that there is such a thing as unity to the virtues. This is not so easily seen with a rules based approach. Let’s say, for instance, that I find myself unable to tithe. Better put, for some reason I cannot be generous. Perhaps
I think back to my week, and I think about the last two times I ate out at a nice bristo. Perhaps I really didn’t want to eat some boring food at home, so I went out and purchased something far more costly.

What is happening here is that because I am not willing to avoid gluttony and strive for temperance by restraining what I eat, I suddenly find myself with less money (a consequence of greed as well) and now I “can’t” be generous enough to tithe. Is there something wrong, intrinsically, about restaurants? Not necessarily, but there is something intrinsically wrong with allowing my desire of tasty food to trump my desire to be generous.

Some may wonder exactly how far this can go. After all, we all admit that we sin and will always be tempted and such –at least until heaven. This is true to a large extent, but I think there is one story of two monks who spent years resisting anger that speaks for itself:

One tells of two old men who had lived together many years and never fought. One said to the other, “let’s have an argument like other people do.” But the other said, “I don’t know how to have an argument.” So the first told him, “Look, I’ll put a brick between us. Then I’ll say, ‘That’s mine.’ Then you say, ‘No it’s mine.’” So the first monk put the brick between them and started the argument: “That’s mine.” The second played his part: “no it’s mine.” The first immediately relented: “Okay it’s yours. Take it.” So the two gave up, unable to argue.”

(From Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism)

This little story –perhaps a parable- is both humorous and incredible in a very literal sense. I suggest though, that Christians think about stories such as these and be inspired. The monastic life, and its approach and practices of virtue ethics, should show us how good we can become.

Thanks for reading.

  1. Daniel says:

    >Man, this approach on how to live life really makes sense. It's what I try to strive for, but its been hard to put into words for me. I've never heard it in these terms before, so thanks for sharing this.

  2. Jin-roh says:

    >Thank you for commenting. I did not even feel that I wrote very well.

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