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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Comiskey

Four Hinges on the Door of Life: Day 31

‘“The doctrine of virtue” was one of the great discoveries in the history of man’s self-understanding…It has become a basic component of the European consciousness, as the result of persistent intellectual endeavor by all the creative elements of the emerging West…’

‘The doctrine of virtue…has things to say about the human person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to--by being prudent, just, brave, and temperate…its aim is to clear a trail, to open a way...that team of four…can enable man to attain the furthest potentialities of his nature.’

‘I so often cite a certain medieval writer, Thomas Aquinas…whose vision and thought…Though marked by an altogether extraordinary grasp and the most disciplined, dynamic, and penetrating independent thinking, there yet speaks through it less the individual writer, Thomas Aquinas, than the voice of the great tradition of human wisdom itself.’

(The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper pp. xi-xii)

I love chastity. Honestly. Upon becoming Catholic, I bumped into this ‘virtue’ and upon probing it discovered the supreme invitation to sexual wholeness. No rivals: within chastity--the alignment of our bodily sexual humanity with our finest Christian aspirations (CCC #2347)--lies the adventure of a lifetime. I thought I did pretty well by coining the terms ‘sexual brokenness’ and ‘wholeness’ in the late eighties. Chastity beat me, hands down, by a couple millennia.

Its muscular reach goads us to integrate the fractured parts of our humanity and guides us to offer our sexual gift with integrity, first in same-gender friendship then fruitful self-offering to our complement. All part of Jesus’ redemption of our bodies, who is ever present and faithful to help us ‘rediscover our lost fullness’ (TOB 43:7) Chastity is sexy virtue. How did this treasure get dumbed down to abstinence? Frustrated interpreters?

Let’s back up. Virtues are habits of the soul that we exercise as to become all that God created us for--they direct us in Pieper’s words ‘to attain the furthest potentialities of our nature.’ Chastity is but one such virtue and apparently not a headliner. I discovered this when I asked my friend and moral theologian Fr. Paul Check for recommendations as to how to get to the core of chastity. He immediately pointed me to Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Little did I know the exquisite and dense forest I entered to find the path to chastity.

It seems that the best theological mind in Christian history--St. Thomas Aquinas of the 13th century--culled the virtues from Aristotle then framed them in his masterwork, Summa Theologica. That’s where Pieper comes in. Pieper was a Catholic philosopher, a German who like his contemporary C.S. Lewis (British and Anglican), mined the riches of Christian thought in the throes of war-torn Europe during the twentieth century. Pieper wrote as a bridge over which moderns were supplied the formidable contribution of Aquinas.

One such gift is The Four Cardinal Virtues, Pieper’s dense ode to Aquinas’ take on the ‘hinge’ (Latin: cardo) habits to cultivate--prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. One goes through the first virtue to get to the other; each one is intrinsically linked and must be grasped in succession if one wants to move onto the next, much like a child’s successful social development. In truth, this is a kind of moral development, originated by the ancient Greeks and baptized by the fire of Aquinas. At the end of the line lies a not unimportant subset, chastity. More eager than equipped, I sought my golden needle through the haystack.

Boy, what a thicket. I felt like I was in an overgrown botanical garden verdant with plumes too exotic for me. The thorny overhang of Latin similes and synonyms for the kings, cousins, aunts, and stepchildren of virtues and anti-virtues felt as foreboding as the Borgias.

But far more liberating. The Four Cardinal Virtues challenged and expanded me.

Pieper addressed the questions and concerns I had about the fate of personal wholeness in our postmodern culture. If one seeks integration then he must become prudent, alive to the nature of Reality and how it informs what it means to be human. How else can one make decisive movement toward chastity? Then justice--only the prudent man can give another his due. If I’m in fantasyland, sexually-speaking, I am a confuser, a user, a demander of false justice, not an agent of the real thing.

Fortitude frees me to be brave in my vulnerability, enduring what I must for the sake of the good. Finally, temperance invites me to integrate, to unite the weaker parts with the strong and so begin to function more wholly, body and spirit. From temperance comes the chaste man, whose sexuality can grow in alignment with his wise and tempered self-gift. Sexy virtue. For the next ten days, join me as we sort through this exquisite haystack to find golden chastity.

‘Jesus, please guide us through this way that leads to life--taking seriously each hinge: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. We need the best oil with which to burn bright and clear, the sure path on which to stay true in a crooked culture. Thanks for Pieper, Aquinas, and the virtues retrieved from the ancients. Grant us a sharp mind and agile will to cultivate these ways that lead to life.’

‘Jesus, thank You that we are first and foremost citizens of Your Kingdom. Your saving purposes, the plans of Your heart, endure forever (Ps 33:11). Patriotism and its partisan interests must bow before “Your will be done.” “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, who hope in His unfailing love” (Ps 33:18).’


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