We should all feel sorry for Peter Parker. Consider his lot. He is a shy, college nerd, in love with his next-door neighbour, Mary Jane; teased and bullied by his so-called friends. And then, one day, you all know the story, he is bitten by a spider and given extraordinary powers to climb walls and spin enormous webs that carry him from tower block to sky scraper over the city. Being the wholesome young man he is, he makes a choice: to use his powers for good against crime and evil in the city. He becomes the anonymous Spiderman, who saves babies from burning buildings and brings robbers to justice by catching them in the act and leaving them in a webbed net for the police to deal with. What a hero! But have pity on poor Peter, a student by day and a hero by night. It must be exhausting. His work suffers, he is ridiculed more than ever, and the superhero lifestyle puts pay to any chances he has with his would-be girlfriend. She thinks Spiderman is great, but poor Peter’s great deeds go unrewarded and unnoticed. Well, if you want to know how the story develops, read a Marvel comic or watch one of the latest Spiderman films. Number three is particularly bad!
Hollywood tries to offer many of us an idea of what virtue is. It is great deeds of heroic proportions that require super-human strength that are, in the end, recognised and praised by the people. In the films, virtue, practised by the goodies against the baddies, is clear-cut, satisfying, simple and most importantly of all, really, really cool.
But is that our experience of virtue in real life and what is virtue anyway? Don’t we sometimes think of the word in derogatory terms: a series of ‘Thou Shalt nots’ that we heard read from the book of Exodus, that stop us from having any fun? Doesn’t virtue mean an abstinence from the thinks that we enjoy doing? And surely morality is relative anyway, certainly in this day and age? In this sermon, I want to suggest not only that real life virtue is unlike its Hollywood caricature, but also that the truly virtuous life has virtually nothing to do with our own powers at all.
But first, I must explain what this term’s sermons are all about. They are all about virtue: not the seven contrary virtues, which are the specific opposites to the seven deadly sins: Humility against pride; kindness against envy; abstinence against gluttony; chastity against lust; patience against anger; liberality against greed, and diligence against sloth. Neither are the sermons about the seven corporeal works of mercy – the medieval list of things you can do to help others: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; give shelter to strangers; clothe the naked; visit the sick; minister to prisoners; and bury the dead. Nor indeed shall we be looking at the seven so-called, Bushido Virtues of Japanese culture, used by the Samurai: right decision, valour, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Rather we shall be hearing from four bishops, two deans and myself and what they, and I, have to say about the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, and the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love, the greatest of which, St. Paul tells us in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, is love, and it is this virtue that will finish the series at the end of term.
Why choose these particular virtues? Well, firstly, they are portrayed on the ceiling above us: the theological virtues here … and the cardinal virtues there … so if you get bored with the sermon you can always look upwards in contemplation without guilt. But also, because, unfashionable though they may be, within these virtues, together sometimes known as the heavenly virtues, lies the essence of the spiritual life. For, within the Christian life, morality is intertwined with spirituality because, the supernatural creator of the world, revealed to us, completes, corrects and develops the natural world. Participation in the life of God, given by the Holy Spirit, is in the virtue, not of ourselves, but in the virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul reminds us ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me’. By this indwelling, we are adopted as children of God, and therefore, really are children of God.
But before virtue can reveal itself in us, we receive the gift of grace. The fruit of God’s dwelling in us is a sanctifying grace. This is ‘habitual grace’: a permanent gift that completes us as human beings, made in the likeness of God. We are also given ‘actual grace’, which is that transitory power which God gives to enlighten the mind and strengthen the will that we may act according to his will.
Just as God gives us grace, he also is the giver of virtue. God is the giver of justice: our love of what is right; he is the giver of temperance: the desire to look after ourselves and each other so that we are ready for the purpose given to us; God gives us fortitude, or courage, enabling the soul to achieve its goal and giving us character; and he gives us prudence, which emulates the practical wisdom of Jesus and seeks to reconcile humanity to God. But the given-ness of virtue is even more sharply focussed when we consider the theological virtues: Faith is not an intellectual or rational virtue, it is an entirely spiritual movement towards God. It is given by God and merely accepted by us, and advanced through prayer. Likewise, Hope, which refuses to be disquieted by evil, brings joy and is an anchor in hard times; the object of real hope is always God; and lastly Love, which is nothing less than grace working upon our God-given loving instinct.
There are times in life when all this is shaken and tested, when all is black and there seems nothing, as exemplified in W.H Auden’s poem, ‘Stop all the Clocks’, which ends with these words:
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
These are times when there seems a lack of goodness in the world. Perhaps especially now in the light of the earthquake in Haiti: we might feel that there is no hope for 50,000 dead and many injured and trapped; surely there is no faith in a God who can do this; where is the love and courage and justice of those who could help and do not?
This is, indeed, a rational response to a ghastly situation. But a natural human response is compassion and action. Moreover, the spiritual response within us, cries out for hope and faith and love, for justice and courage and prudence in what we do. For by engaging these God-given gifts now, we can hope to make this broken world a better place. To the purely rational mind, there seems no sense in a disaster like Haiti. But if we believe in Christ, then we believe in a God who suffers with the world, who became human, not only to redeem it, but to transform it through the grace and virtue that flows through us by his goodness. Therefore I urge you to give money to the disasters appeal agency and pray that Christ may enlarge our wills to do selfless, life-giving good.
The classic fight between good and evil, light and dark, is the subject of a thousand Hollywood films, but also of many books. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance, pondered the question of evil from his prison cell in a Soviet concentration camp and wrote in his Gulag Archipelago, 1958-68:
‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being … One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.’
We are all capable of giving in to temptation, especially when it is in secret or when a particular wrong-doing has become socially acceptable, but we are also capable of living lives of kindness and generosity, justice and courage, lives full of faith and hope and love. St. Paul tirelessly emphasises good daily practise, as in the passage from Philippians 4 we heard this evening, for the more we can build up the good and positive in ourselves and in each other, the closer the kingdom of God will be to us. Therefore, ‘whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise’ think on these things, be transformed by God’s grace and the merit of Christ’s virtue dwelling in us and then go and do what is good. Amen.
17th January 2010