Some thoughts about “heroic” virtue

A few days ago something interesting happened in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.   Bp. Robert Finn, may God grant him many and happy years, officially opened the canonical process, the cause of Servant of God Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey, a French nun who was a key figure in the recovery of Mary’s house at Ephesus.

Fore more information on Sr. Marie, check here.

For some great photos and the story of what happened in Kansas City – I recommend it – go to SERVIAM.

Here is a shot of the instrument, signed, by which Bp. Finn started the process.

This is the first step in a long process, which resembles the stages of a trial.  All manner of evidence is gathered, including documents, testimonies, etc., a case is made, and then presented for the scrutiny of canonists, theologians and other experts.

What are they trying to prove?  Initially that Sr. Marie lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are about to say.  “Heroic virtue?  Really?  How can any of us aspire to such a thing!  That’s sounds terribly difficult!”

It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

We are all called to be saints.  God wouldn’t ask something of us that isn’t possible.  And when He asks things that are hard, He also provides the means and the occasions.  Even in your suffering, for example, or your obscurity, you can serve Him.  God knew you before the creation of the material universe.  He called you into being now, in this world.  Of all the possible worlds God could have created, He created this world, into which you would be born. He has a plan and purpose your you, if you will embrace it.

Back to the cause and back to “heroic” virtue.

Perhaps we should spend just a moment on what “heroic” virtue is all about.   It sounds rather dramatic and, frankly, unattainable by most people.

The term “heroic” comes from Greek (heros).  It points to valor, courage.  The term “heroic virtue” came into the west with a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomacheam Ethics by Robert Grossatesta (+1253).  From there it was brought into the the writings of scholastic philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.    It was more fully elaborated by the amazing Prospero Lambertini, who was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XIV.  After that, it became a common term when dealing with saints and causes of saints.

The supreme “heroic” Christian is the martyr, who especially in the moment of martyrdom exemplifies the charity that the Lord taught from the Cross.   So, that is a precise act of a Christian.  But “heroic” can also be applied to a large arc of a Christian’s life.

Every person is called to live in union with the Trinity, in charity.  In this life, we can only strive to live this way.  Only in the next life will we truly attain what we were called to.  Nevertheless, this life is what we have now.  By baptism we became members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, the adopted children of the Father.  We can begin to live the life of charity and other virtues now, to the best degree we can with the help of God’s grace.  It takes both, our elbow grease (we are not Quietists) and God’s grace (we are not Pelagians).

We live in this fallen world, in this vale of tears, with wounds to our intellects and will, constantly dealing with the world, the flesh and the devil.

We are called to holiness.  We are actually called to holiness in a heroic degree.  Let’s understand “heroic” properly.

The “heroism” to which we are called does not consist mainly in great or famous or dramatic acts or accomplishments.  It might include those, but it does not mainly consist of those.  Every person has the possibility of this sort of heroism, even if he does nothing spectacular.  When it comes to the causes of saints, very often people with more dramatic or famous lives comes to the attention of others, and therefore they are more likely to be the subjects of causes.

Living a virtuous life even in the tedium of routine or the obscurity of everyday living can be heroic.

Accepting God’s will, living in conformity with God’s will is the true test of a Christian.  That is the essence of “heroic” virtue, not what appears outwardly to be heroic (though that may also be heroic, as in the dramatic case of the martyr).

Furthermore, people don’t, except by a rare gift from God, instantly or easily attain the state of living a life of virtue heroically.  Virtues are habits.  Some virtues, the theological virtues, are infused into us by God with baptism and sacraments.  They “dwell” in us “habitually” (“dwell” and “habit” are etymologically related… think of a “habitat” where critters “dwell”).  Virtues are habits, good practices and attitudes which are in us to a degree that it is easy for us to do them rather than hard.  This usually takes time and maturity.  We don’t suddenly, except by a special grace, become virtuous.  It can take a whole lifetime and many stumbles along the way.

With God’s help we must strive in the concrete details of our lives to avoid faults and even small imperfections, even if we don’t always succeed.  We have to want to succeed and try to succeed and make progress, not giving in to discouragement or, worse, despair, accepting God’s will and going forward with humility.

All the circumstances of our lives play a role in our living as Christians.  Each one of us is born into a particular time and place.   God gives different gifts to different people.  There is no one way to live as a Christian, except for the common calling to holiness.  We cannot be, however, content with mere mediocrity.

So, heroic virtue consists mainly in living in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation, always accepting God’s will with faith, hope and charity as we go forward during these short years on earth toward the goal of heaven, trusting that God’s providence guides all things.   This life may have moments which are dramatic and famous.  It will probably be rather plain and obscure.  But it is not mediocre.

Those are some thoughts about “heroic virtue”, so that when you hear the term, you don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the person in question was working miracles while alive, or was going without food in a cave for thirty years, or levitating off the ground at the mention of the Holy Name.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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29 Responses to Some thoughts about “heroic” virtue

  1. Agnes says:

    Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. We just do the best we can in God’s grace. One day, one moment, one mindful prayer at a time.

  2. MarkJ says:

    Thank you, Father Z… I am going to share this with my family tonight.

  3. “So, heroic virtue consists mainly in living in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation, always accepting God’s will with faith, hope and charity as we go forward during these short years on earth toward the goal of heaven, trusting that God’s providence guides all things. ”

    I understand: is TRYING to live as Our Lady lived, perfect in the little things of life so when God asked Her for the big ones She was ready.
    Hum, I’m not even near!

  4. Reading the stuff you linked to… I’m really pleased that Kansas City would take on the logistical challenge of such a cause. But it’s a very practical sort of “sister city” fellowship with the folks in Izmir/Smyrna and Ephesus. Maybe other groups with stalled sainthood causes could benefit by this sort of arrangement, putting together the gung ho folks with those who’ve got resources for big projects. It’s sort of a mini-spiritual act of mercy.

    And of course, even if it turns out that somebody doesn’t have “heroic virtue”, per se, you’ll have gotten together a lot of valuable historical resources in one place. That’s never wasted.

  5. poohbear says:

    Thank you, Father, for the great explanation.

  6. There is a book titled, “By Those who Knew Her”, testimonies at the trial of St. Therese. It is an excellent book and shows how the process works, etc. I hope a book is published with testimonies concerning the Servant of God Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey.

  7. Katherine says:

    I appreciate the reflection on herosim.

    I also appreciate the the good news in regard to Mother Marie. I have been blessed to have made a pilgrimage to Mary’s House in Ephesus. It it one of the most peaceful and wonderful Marian sites. It is also, per Mother Marie’s wish, a place of Christian-Islamic dialogue. When the Holy Father visted Mary’s House in 2006, he exclaimed “From here in Ephesus, a city blessed by the presence of Mary Most Holy — who we know is loved and venerated also by Muslims – let us lift up to the Lord a special prayer for peace between peoples.”

    For those who might have the opportunity (easily combined with a visit to the grotto of St. John the Evangelist on Patmos), I would highly recommend such a pilgrimage.

  8. GregH says:

    This is great stuff. I wish you post more of this type of material and more of your cooking.

    Greg Hessel in Arlington Diocese
    Huge Admirer of Msgr Schuler

  9. MichaelJ says:

    I confess to having no knowledge of Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey and will have to remedy that situation. In the meantime, Katherine said something that piqued my curiosity. The word “dialog” simply means “a conversation between two persons”, but it has come to mean much more, especially when used in an inter-religious sense.
    So, precicely what is meant by ” Christian-Islamic dialog”? If it means more that explaining, with charity and understanding, why a moslem is jeopardizing his salvation by rejecting (implicitly or explicitly) the Church founded by Christ, I would be a bit concerned.

  10. thickmick says:

    Great write up Father. I love your writing style. It makes it easy for someone like me to read and understand. You have a great sense of humor too. Thanks and God bless.

  11. iudicame says:

    I have always considered Heroic Virtue to mean virtue that is practiced without forethought or hesitation, by second nature – in the sense that the ancient Greek Heroes exhibited their virtues effortlessly. In the Christian sense it is the holy life so attuned to the Father’s will that there is no struggle for virtuosity despite the accidents of our fallen nature which impede the way.

    More of a Greek thing than an Audie Murphy thing.

    m

  12. elizabeth00 says:

    First of all, I second GregH. I especially like the point about virtues and habitats.

    It seems to me that to live a life of heroic virtue is to pull oneself, and thus also the space and time we traverse in this life, through the eye of the needle. The eye of the needle is the death of self and life in Christ. This takes courage.

    The heroic ideal is complicated for Christians by all the paradoxes of the Gospel. To quote Lionel Trilling on the ancient concept of the hero – “The hero is one who looks like a hero; the hero is an actor – he acts out his own high sense of himself.” Nothing could be further from Our Lord’s attitude.

    But the saints perfect the ideal of the hero. Take Trilling again, on the same ancient concept: “courage is only a single element, and although it is essential, it is not in itself definitive. It is virtually taken for granted in a man who is favoured by the gods, as the hero is presumed to be.” The saints deal in free will, in linear history not determined by Fate. They take courage one step further and become true heroes. They go against the grain, they die to themselves, they don’t know themselves as heroes, in fact their self-knowledge is identical with the knowledge of Christ. (I’m reminded, again, of St Philip Neri: “If I knew You, I would also know myself”). Thus, Christ can act in them, wherever they happen to be in space and time, to do His work.

  13. Brad says:

    I believe this very blog explained to me that virtue is the actual cause of canonized sainthood. Father Z pointed out a line toward the end of the Holy Father’s speech in England for Cardinal Newman where “virtue” was finally and specifically mentioned. It was good to have a fine point finally put on saintliness.

  14. Supertradmum says:

    Father Z,

    Thank you for the lovely and clear meditation above. If I may add that I think those who kept their Catholic Faith, have lived in kindness, charity and forgiveness, after having been abused by priests for years, exhibit such heroic virtue. There are four such people in my family. The fact that they did not sue the Church and live quiet, yet involved, lives in their respective parishes, the fact that they kept their Faith in Holy Mother Church despite the years of torment, shows me how heroic virtue can be lived. Two of these people are in their eighties and two in their seventies. May God continue to give them the grace of perseverance until death.

  15. robtbrown says:

    elizabeth00 says:

    The heroic ideal is complicated for Christians by all the paradoxes of the Gospel. To quote Lionel Trilling on the ancient concept of the hero – “The hero is one who looks like a hero; the hero is an actor – he acts out his own high sense of himself.” Nothing could be further from Our Lord’s attitude.

    I knew a priest in Rome who had taken courses under Professor Trilling at Columbia before attending seminary. At that time it was well known that Trilling was dying of cancer. Anyway, the class was dealing with the famous Wordsworth poem–Ode: Intimations of Immortality. The professor He finished the lecture by saying, “Too bad it’s not true.”

  16. Katherine says:

    Katherine said something that piqued my curiosity. The word “dialog” simply means “a conversation between two persons”, but it has come to mean much more, especially when used in an inter-religious sense.
    So, precicely what is meant by ” Christian-Islamic dialog”? If it means more that explaining, with charity and understanding, why a moslem is jeopardizing his salvation by rejecting (implicitly or explicitly) the Church founded by Christ, I would be a bit concerned.

    My friend,

    I think the simple meaning of the word is the situation — a conversation not limited as you suggest later. If you see what is proper is only the more limited explanation you suggest, then I guess you should be concerned as to what the Holy Father is promoting. I must say, I do not share your concern.

  17. avecrux says:

    Thank you, Father. It was really helpful to read that. God bless.

  18. Robbie J says:

    How true!
    It’s in our every-day, humdrum lives that the opportunities for grace abound. As Fulton Sheen once said, “all of us would like to make our own crosses–tailor-made trials,” and usually this includes some sort of grand gesture of our love for Him. Many of us I suspect, (and this includes me) wish to be able to do something spectacular and dramatic. We tend to forget that it was a simple “yes” that opened the door to the incarnation.

    God Bless you Fr. Z.

  19. Hidden One says:

    We also forget that no one who does nothing small does anything great.

  20. Maltese says:

    “So, heroic virtue consists mainly in living in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation…”

    Very true, Fr. Z.

    This age when everything is available at the finger-tip hasn’t made things easier…

  21. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for this instructive post!

    Alas, I have no Liddell & Scott, Lewis & Short, or OED accessible. Could you – or any other kind soul – perchance tell about the fortunes of Greek and Latin ‘heros’ (and related adjectives) in Christian usage prior to Grossatesta? And later, in English – or other modern language – use?

    What dictionaries I have tell me Homeric usage (e.g., Iliad B 110.2) could include any and every free man. Thereafter, the cult of the demi-godly hero seems long to hold sway (about which W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods (1954 rev. & corr. ed.) is very interesting). Then, in Latin, one encounters “heros noster Cato” and an ironic use by Cicero re. Clodius.

    I can imagine early Christian writers would be chary of using it, or at least careful, when I recall the treatment of Herakles/Hercules and Asklepios in the Apologists (if memory serves…).

    On the particular occasion, thank you for the link about Servant of God Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey. As far as I read, it was not clear to me – does this cause have necessary implications – or rest in part upon (recent) official recognitions – respecting either the details of vision(s) of Katharina von Emmerich/Emmerick or the building in Panaya Kapulü identified as the house of Mary? My acquaintance with the subjects is anything but thorough and up-to-date, but, for instance, Prof. Dr. K.H. Schelke, in ‘Maria, Mutter des Herrn’ (the translation I have has a 1960 Imprimatur), says there was a firm tradition of the early Greek-speaking Church that St. John first came to Ephesus after the death of the Virgin, and that the earliest unambiguous witness to her presence there is Bishop Jacobus Bar Salibi (d. 1171). He recommends what he calls the erudite and careful consideration of Clemens Kopp, ‘Das Mariengrab’ (1955) – which, alas, I have yet to see – and thinks that with the evidence then available the place of Our Lady’s death could not be confidently established. Another scholarly source from 1979 I’ve read does not go further. What have the last 30 years to half-century added to this picture?

  22. robtbrown says:

    iudicame says:

    I have always considered Heroic Virtue to mean virtue that is practiced without forethought or hesitation, by second nature – in the sense that the ancient Greek Heroes exhibited their virtues effortlessly. In the Christian sense it is the holy life so attuned to the Father’s will that there is no struggle for virtuosity despite the accidents of our fallen nature which impede the way.

    More of a Greek thing than an Audie Murphy thing.

    Disagree. Heroic virtue is perseverance in virtue during extraordinarily dire circumstances. The martyrs, incl Becket, were persecuted and killed for doing ordinary things.

    The same is true for Medal of Honor recipients. The two I know did ordinary things in extraordinarily dire situations–while under heavy fire and/or wounded.

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Having happily directed our attention to “the amazing Prospero Lambertini, who was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XIV”, do you – or does anyone else – have strong feelings about any of the three films entitled ‘Il Cardinale Lambertini’ (1934, 1954, 1983), or know how one can get to see them legally, easily, and with subtitles (and, if possible, for free)?

    Also, any biographical recommendations?

  24. Well, martyrs don’t have to have the habitual virtue thing to be martyrs; but then, martyrdom is a qualification and schooling sufficient in itself, even surpassing Baptism or any great degree of knowledge of what you’re dying for. I think I’m right in saying that this is why certified martyrs jump directly to being beatified. Do not pass go, do not have to demonstrate any other heroic virtue.

    Among “confessors” also — those who have suffered for the faith without dying — the thing in itself is sufficient. (As long as you don’t do bad stuff afterward.) It’s a much more relaxed sort of investigation on that point.

    Heroic virtue really kicks in, when it comes to saints who didn’t suffer extraordinary persecution. The whole concept explained how you could be a saint at all without being a martyr or a confessor, which were the earliest saint categories. We see it first applied to the ascetic hermits and early monks, who were perpetually “in training” as “Christian athletes” of asceticism and prayer. Now, sometimes it does apply to brave deeds of virtue under stress as well; but generally, the idea is that someone trains so that deeds of virtue become natural, or follows up the deed of virtue by living up to it. The only sprint race in the Christian life is dying a martyr or dying young.

  25. robtbrown says:

    Suburbanshee,

    I disagree with most of what you wrote.

    1. Acc to St Thomas, virtue is by definition habitual.

    2. Any saint who is a Confessor has shown heroic virtue in the defense of the faith. There are hundreds of times when any theologian, preaching, teaching or writing, can give in to pressures intended to prevent him from propagating Truth.

    It also must be remembered that there are virtues of the intellect.

    3. Almost any martyr will have had the opportunity to avoid death, e.g. St Thomas More could have left England before his arrest and St Agnes could have simply accepted her arranged marriage. It was heroic virtue that allowed both to persevere in the faith until death.

  26. papist says:

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia,

    “Benedict XIV, whose chapters on heroic virtue are classical, thus describes heroicity: “In order to be heroic a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations.” An heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties.”

  27. MichaelJ says:

    I think the simple meaning of the word is the situation — a conversation not limited as you suggest later. If you see what is proper is only the more limited explanation you suggest, then I guess you should be concerned as to what the Holy Father is promoting. I must say, I do not share your concern.

    Katherine,

    I kind of guessed that you did not share my concern. Nevertheless, you did not answer my question. What do you meann by ” Christian-Islamic dialog”? Just a simple, everyday conversation? – “Hey Frank, How’s the family. You ever get that check engine light fixed?”
    Somehow, since you specifically indicated that is is Christian-Islamic dialog, I do not think so. What would you expect to be discussed in a “Christian-Islamic dialog:” and, more importantly, what should the ultimate end of such a conversation be?

  28. Katherine says:

    You ask what I mean by Christian-Islamic dialogue. This looks pretty good:

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20090225_final-decl-rome_en.html

    [That is not the topic of this thread. Rabbit hole closed.]

  29. MichaelJ says:

    Sad, don’t you think that the “PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE” would publish a document that contains only two vague references to God and that agrees that peace can be achieved through purely human efforts – without recourse to Christ. Perhaps this is because it should be “revised in order not to contain material which may offend the religious sentiments of other believers”.
    Such a “dialog” is doomed to failure and has the (hopefully unintended) side-effect of confirming moslems in their error thus condeming them to damnation. [Again, this is a rabbit hole. Not the topic here.]