Character is Everything

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Recently I received an email from a former student asking a host of great questions, one of which sought to know how we might explain non-believers who mock religion and see it as "a source of blind hope", but who are otherwise content with their lives and apparently happy.

Firstly, it is very easy for anyone given over to secular "Meism" to feel comfortable in today's culture, for everyone agrees with him and regards him as entirely normal. Such persons will flourish for a time and appear very contented. But consider the psalms, for example:

Be not vexed over evildoers, nor jealous of those who do wrong; for like grass they quickly wither, and like green herbs they wilt…Be not be vexed at the successful path of the man who does malicious deeds….For evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.  Yet a little while, and the wicked man shall be no more; though you mark his place he will not be there (Psalm 37 1-2, 7-10).

In other words, their time of comfort is short. In fact, the apparent happiness of those given over to selfishness is not really joy, but complacency, which lasts as long as things go smoothly. But life is not consistently smooth, and things tend not to work out the way we want them to. Furthermore, suffering is a part of life. And how do such people deal with suffering? They don't. In fact, their lives become one big project ordered towards the escape of suffering.

But life is only joyful when one is on the road to union with God. This alone gives life an inexhaustible meaning. That is why people not on that road desperately pursue pleasures and delights, and seek to find their rest here, that is, they seek heaven on earth. They are not at peace, although they may seem to be. I get better at spotting this "under the surface malaise" in others the older I get. Many people are just not doing okay emotionally and psychologically, but are profoundly restless. And in seeking only complacency, they miss their destiny. For life is nothing but a preparation for heaven. And we prepare by tending to our character, that is, by working hard to cultivate the virtues. If we neglect this, we're sunk.

This year I was asked by one of my colleagues, who was raising money for the Alzheimer Society, to sponsor him for a triathlon. When I received his thank you note this fall, I almost fell off my chair. It turned out he wasn't doing a simple triathlon at all, but an IronMan competition. He swam 3.8 kilometres -- which is about as much as I can jog at this point -- then biked 180 kilometres, and after that ran 42.1 kilometres, in a total of 13 hours and 22 minutes. I had no idea that such a thing was humanly possible, and I am still astounded every time I think of it -- not to mention ashamed at the amount I donated for such a huge sacrifice.

Perhaps the spiritual life can be compared to an IronMan competition. Even St. Paul speaks about the Christian life as a race. "Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; ...No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Co 9, 24-27).

If you know that in three years you are going to be forced to run an IronMan triathlon and that if and when you cross the finish line, you will enter an unimaginably beautiful city where you will live forever in unspeakable joy, it would be reasonable to start training now. All I know is that if I were to attempt such a thing today, I'd probably drown, or if I made the swim, my legs would cramp up after the first half kilometre bike ride. If I could do the bike ride -- which would have to be downhill the entire way -- I'd collapse at the finish line and probably never get up. The prospect of a marathon run is simply unthinkable. But that's how most people are morally and spiritually. There is a spiritual IronMan marathon, and to make it to the finish line to eternal rest you have to have developed a certain kind of character, and that's profoundly difficult as well as a life's work. The virtues are tough to cultivate. Human beings are generally a wreck -- emotionally and morally -- and the virtues, such as humility, magnanimity, patience, temperance, justice, gratitude, thoughtfulness, chastity, meekness, fortitude, perseverance, liberality, magnificence, piety and observance, longanimity, constancy, and affability, not to mention the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, bring order to the emotions and the will. Growing in holiness of character is much slower than progress resulting from physical training, and so few are committed to it.

My colleague assures me that what he did is indeed humanly possible. But achieving our destiny is not humanly possible. It is above the capacity of our nature, wounded as it is by sin. We require a supernatural quality to dispose us towards it, namely divine grace -- which sin destroys. The sacraments are the channels of grace that make the achievement of our destiny a possibility and give our life the rich meaning it was intended to have. The way to train for this marathon is to cooperate with grace, pray for more faith, get back to confession, receive the sacraments frequently, and become aware of the insidious pride that keeps us from entertaining the possibility of personal and perpetual reform.