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No petty virtues

Some time ago, an online discussion of NFP took an interesting turn.  I remember it especially because I got off a pretty good zinger (and that’s what we Catholic bloggers do to advance the kingdom of God:  we zing people).

The Other Guy’s argument went like this:  Sure, sure, the Church permits NFP to space out pregnancies in serious circumstances.  Because we are a stiff-necked people, she even turns her head while we stretch the definition of “serious.”  But really, if we truly want to follow God, shouldn’t we learn to let go?  Isn’t the lesson of faith that God will provide for our needs, whether emotional, physical, spiritual, or even financial?  NFP, more often than not, is a crutch which interferes with our radical dependence on God.  He is calling us to loosen up that death grip of control and abandon ourselves more generously to his will.

The answer, of course, is that he is calling some people to give up control.  To others, the call is entirely different:  take charge, be responsible, grow up.  Some people are already quite good at living with abandonment, thank you very much, and what God wants from them is a little self-control.  It’s not even necessarily about having or not having a baby:  it’s about taking responsibility for your life in general.

Different people, different situations, different lessons to be learned.

And I was gratified when several people said, “Wow, thanks, you’re right.  I never thought of it that way before.”  You’re welcome, and may God bless you and some day make you as insightful as I am.

I had it set in my head that it was a battle of prudence vs. generosity — that some people were called to one, and some to the other.  And secretly, I thought that we overly-abandoned types had chosen the better part, even in our weakness.  I admired people with prudence in much the same way as I admired Superman for flying:  nice trick, and I wish I could do it — but who really wants to be Superman?  Is this a guy who could fall in love?  Look how clean he is, and how cold.

image source

Prudence, like temperance, is such a dreary virtue.   Justice and fortitude are about getting stuff done — but prudence and temperance are all about holding back, clamping down, cutting back, saying no. It’s all about the negative: wait, stop, think, don’t do it, hold your horses, cut it out.

Or . . . not.   In this season of our life, it seems that another baby is a joy to be postponed for a while yet.  With growing astonishment, I’m discovering that there is no tension between prudence and generosity.  Prudence is a kind of generosity. Of course it is!  Everything that comes from God overflows.  What is the promised land?  Not a static place, a spot on the map, but a state of motion, of spilling over — a land flowing with milk and honey.  And if virtuous behavior imitates God, then how could some virtues be more petty than others?

You can do it wrong.  You can exercise self-control with a mean heart, with a bitterness of restraint, or with fear.  But that’s not true prudence, any more than it’s true fortitude to sit dozing in a car that someone else is steering through the storm.  With prudence comes an openness of heart, that same sensation of welling up, of cracking open and flowing over that often comes (but doesn’t always hang around!) when we immerse ourselves in the will of God.  I did not know how much warmth and love were at the heart of this misunderstood virtue.

I know it’s not all about the feeling.  I know (or at least I’m learning) the dangers of depending on those occasional spiritual gifts of religious emotion, discussed so lucidly by Jen Fulwiler.  On the other hand, when we decided to be more prudent, I wasn’t expecting any emotion at all.  I was expecting something utterly dry and mechanical, something contrary to my nature, something foreign to my relationship with my husband.

Instead?  It’s like one of those dreams where you’re wandering around on the top floor of your house, looking and looking for something — and what is this?  A whole other room.  You open the door, and step inside — and there you find what you were looking for.

There are no petty virtues.  Everything that comes from God is a form of love.  Why do I need to learn this so many times?

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