A few weeks ago I began reading ‘You are What you Love’ by James K.A. Smith. It is about the spiritual power of habit, as the subtitle goes. A significant point he makes is about the acquisition of virtues – that it takes practice.
Such moral, kingdom-reflecting dispositions are inscribed into your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition to an end (telos) that becomes a character trait – a sort of learned, second-nature default orientation that you tend toward “without thinking about it.”
In the same week, I saw the film ‘Sully’, which is getting rave reviews. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the pilot Chelsey Sullenberger III, aka Sully. It is the story of the Hudson River Landing on January 15, 2009. The film is brilliant, and the non-linear timeline meant you were kept on the edge of your seat, despite knowing the outcome of the story. At the time the landing was hailed as a miracle, and although Christians would normally leap at such a claim, popular theologian Tom Wright offered a better explanation in his book ‘Virtue Reborn’.
Now, as I say, many people described the dramatic events as a “miracle.” At one level, I wouldn’t want to question that. But the really fascinating thing about the whole business ins the way it spectacularly illustrates a vital truth – a truth which many today have either forgotten or never known in the first place…
This is what the ancient writers meant when they spoke of “virtue.” Virtue, in this sense, isn’t simply another way of saying “goodness.’… Virtue… is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally” – and then, on a thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say.
Tom Wright points to Sully’s display of four strengths – courage, restraint, cool judgment, and determination to do the right thing – and how they align with Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. For Wright, his talk of Sully is not a mere creative analogy, but an authentic demonstration of virtue.
Robert McKee wrote that ‘true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure‘. Preparing to get married, moving hemispheres and beginning a new job – these were all stressful times for me. And also, life in the Community of St Anselm was described by some as a pressure cooker. Reflecting upon how I responded in these situations, I can see there is a long way to go in forming these character traits so that my automatic response is good and godly.
James K.A. Smith sums it up well in his definition of virtues:
Virtues, quite simply, are good moral habits. Good moral habits are like internal dispositions to the good – they are character traits that become woven into who you are so that you are the kind of person who is inclined to be compassionate, forgiving, and so forth.
What are some character traits you would like to be woven into who you are? And what can you do each day to make it a reality?