This chapter marks a turning point in this journey. We covered the fundamentals of building a spiritual life in understanding of self, the soul and how our sufferings form. We’ve explored wisdom, virtue, the reality of God, aspects of the body and soul. We have shown how the soul becomes sick, and how this sickness can lead to darkness and suffering if one does not seek out healing. We can now move on from the negative side of spiritual warfare to the positive. Now we will show how all this comes together to transform us.
We will start by defining what virtue is. The common modern understanding is that virtue is an action that is considered good, right or noble. This conception of virtue comes down to us from the ancient idea of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control and justice. This was initially proposed by Plato, and was later adopted by the stoic philosophers such as Epictetus. Somewhere in between this entered the mindset of the Hebrews. This can be seen in the Old Testament book, The Wisdom of Solomon:
“And if a man love righteousness her labours are virtues: for she teacheth temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude: which are such things, as men can have nothing more profitable in their life.” (Wisdom 8:7).
With the incarnation of Christ, virtue was manifest in a new way. Before Christ virtue was a human action of the will, but after Christ virtue became an extension of the energy of God. Instead of being a good action, virtue became something that was transformative, and could lead one to a higher state of spiritual knowledge. Virtue was that which connected one with God. This combination of the ancient philosophical notion combined with the divine was how the Church Fathers viewed virtue. Here’s what St. Gregory of Sinai said about virtue:
“Each virtue is endowed with its own specific gift of grace, its own particular energy, and thus possesses the capacity to produce such a disposition and blessed state in those who attain it even when they have not consciously sought for any such state. Once a virtue has been bestowed on us it remains unchanged and unfailing. For just as the living soul activates the body’s members, so the grace of the Holy Spirit activates the virtues.”
-- St. Gregory of Sinai
The key in this quote is the connection between God as Holy Spirit and the virtues. According to the scriptures and the Church Fathers virtue is power or energy that is activated within us by God. There is an interesting episode in the New Testament that illustrates this. In the Gospel of Mark, when the sick woman touched the hem of Christ’s garment and was instantly healed of her infirmity, He said virtue or power came from him (Mark 5:30). This virtue or power from Christ was ultimately what healed the illness of the woman.
For us, virtue comes from a disposition of the will. We must first choose the virtue, and then pursue it though self-control. St. Gregory of Sinai reveals this process in all its majesty:
“The principle and source of virtue is a good disposition of the will, that is to say, an aspiration for goodness and beauty. God is the source and ground of all supernal goodness. Thus the principle of goodness and beauty is faith or, rather, it is Christ, the rock of faith, who is the principle foundation we build every good thing.”
-- St. Gregory of Sinai
It is important to view the practice of virtue as a form of healing of the soul because in direct terms whit is what happens. As St. Dorotheos says,
“For Christ is the doctor of souls, and He knows everything and applies the right remedy for every sickness. For example: for vainglory, the commandment about humility; for love of pleasure, temperance; for avarice almsgiving. In short, each disease of the soul has a commandment which is its appropriate remedy.”
-- St. Dorotheos of Gaza
Although virtue may not come easy, especially for those who are attempting to seriously practice them later in life, the virtues are in fact the natural desired actions of the soul. On this St. Dorotheos said:
“Virtue and vice are formed in the soul by repeated actions, and ingrained habits bring peace or punishment with them. We speak of virtue bringing rest to the soul and vice bringing punishment—why the difference? Because virtue belongs to the nature we possess; the seeds of virtue are ineradicable. I say, therefore, that insofar as we carry out what is good we generate for ourselves a habit of virtue—that is, we take up a state proper to our nature, we return to a state of health which belongs to us."
-- St. Dorotheos of Gaza
And from the Philokalia, St. Maximus the Confessor confirms,
"Just as the soul and body combine to produce a human being, so practice of the virtues and contemplation together constitute a unique spiritual wisdom."
-- St. Maximus the Confessor
Also from the Philokalia,
"If you combine the powers of the soul with the virtues the soul will be freed from the tyranny of the passions."
-- St. Thalassios
“Whether we think, speak or act in a good or an evil manner depends upon whether we cleave inwardly to virtue or to vice.”
-- St. Thalassios the Libyan