The more media I am exposed to, the more I appreciate the Cardinal Virtues. While justice is always a timely pursuit, the other three virtues – prudence, temperance, and fortitude - sound stodgy and out-of-step with contemporary needs and desires. Nevertheless, when the Founding Fathers drafted the Declaration of Independence, I’m pretty sure they didn’t define “pursuit of happiness” as unbridled hedonism or the license to say anything publically that comes to one’s mind, no matter how inflammatory.
So as Independence Day approaches, it is worth pondering how the practice of these virtues leads to authentic freedom and true happiness. I am helped in this regard by a recent study of the Gospel of Matthew. Spending a hefty amount of time with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is a heart-lifting experience. While never employing the actual words “temperance, prudence, and fortitude,” Jesus certainly extols them by calling upon us to be makers of peace, bearers of mercy, and cultivators of pure hearts. Doing so requires some restraint on our part – from bearing grudges and lashing out at others in anger or frustration. We can’t foster a holy life without also exercising discretion about choices that are good for body as well as soul. And it takes no small amount of strength to reject notions of happiness that provide “feel-good” fixes instead of long-term fulfillment. As Father Michael Himes points out, the Beatitudes provide a very different description of what a happy and blessed person looks like.
In addition to the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount offers a startling counter to minimalist concepts of justice. Instead of simply following the law as prescribed, Jesus draws us further – to walk the extra mile, give away the cloak, turn the other cheek. It sounds like a lesson in masochism and yet Jesus uses these examples as a way to live as inhabitants of God’s Kingdom. Freedom comes, not from doing what we want, whenever we feel like it. Rather, it emerges when we embrace the choices we have to love instead of hate, to forgive instead of seeking vengeance, to sow seeds of peace instead of cultivating discord. Pondering this long-ago sermon might be a lovely way to consider the precious freedoms we enjoy as a country, and then to pursue the happiness that comes with living as Beatitude people.
Review the Beatitudes with your family or class. Talk together about what it means to freely choose to live each one. How might this cultivate happiness and blessing?