Most of us did not grow up with specific training in the virtues. We learned the alphabet and multiplication tables. When we were older, we were exposed to more complex science, literature, and history. Many of us went off to university, where we learned a lot of information and got training so we could land a job. But most of us were not given what authentic Christian communities have always seen as so vital to pass on from generation to generation: the great tradition on the virtuous life.
Our culture trains people to make money, manage businesses, and develop sundry technological innovations but does not deliberately pass on the basics of the virtues: what they are, how they work together, how to develop them, and how to overcome vices.
With this deficit in our personal formation, we each might wonder, “How can I personally grow in virtues if I don’t really know what they are? And how can I pass them on to my children?”
The good news is that it is never too late to get started. Whether we are seventeen or forty-s even years old, we can still play catch- up and form our minds with the correct vision for a virtuous life. And that’s the first step for growing in virtues: educating ourselves about them (see CCC 1810). The more we learn about the virtues, the clearer picture we will have for what we want to aim for in life.
We need to have a target. If we aim at nothing, we’ll hit something. That’s why educating ourselves in the virtuous life is so important. We can do this in many ways: reading the Bible and the Catechism, reading good books about the virtues, and reading good novels by wise authors such as Jane Austen, who presents such a clear picture of the virtuous life. But there are two main ways to learn about the virtues that are worth underscoring: reading the lives of the saints and living in Christian community.
First, the saints offer real-life examples of virtue in action. They give us a picture of how we can live virtuously in our daily lives.
We can, for example, learn about how to deal with difficult personalities from the example of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who consistently rose above her natural feelings toward the more difficult personalities in her community. In fact, she went out of her way to spend time with those people and loved them. She realized they were wounded people and just needed extra patience, care, and attention—something others in the community didn’t always want to give them.
We can learn from Saint Josemaría Escrivá, who began each project with prayer and offered his work to God as a gift of love. His example can inspire us to say a short prayer of offering to the Lord every time we turn on our computer at work or start a project at home.
When we experience a few weeks or months of dryness in prayer, we can be encouraged by the example of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She went through decades of darkness in her spiritual life and still persevered and found Jesus at a deeper level in that darkness. She knew that faithfulness to daily prayer was far more important than any feelings of divine intimacy she might experience in prayer. Her example encourages us to remain faithful and learn, like her, to find Jesus in the darkness.
Filling our minds with stories of the saints gives us an array of concrete examples for how to put virtue into practice in our daily lives. It certainly will do much more for our growth in virtue than filling our minds with the latest score, the latest news, or the latest trend on social media. Our minds can take only so much information into our souls each day. Let’s make sure we give priority to filling our heads with what matters most, including the lives of the saints.
Another crucial way we learn about the virtues is regularly seeing them lived in the people around us: friends, parents, teachers, coworkers, and priests.
All education is ultimately about imitation. We’re imitating others in a way of life. Indeed, living the virtues is an art, not a science. We learn most about the virtues, therefore, not in a book but by spending time with others whom we want to imitate—t hose who have more life experience or are living more virtuously than we. Their examples inspire us and remind us of the way we want to live. Their way of life begins to rub off on us. In fact, the whole Christian way of life can be summed up as imitation: we are imitating those who imitate Christ (see 1 Cor 11:1).
That’s why it’s important to have a community of virtuous friends who are running after the same ideals. And in this community, it’s crucial that we have some friends who are a few steps ahead in life—friends who are perhaps a little older and more experienced in marriage, family, virtue, prayer, and holiness.
When I was single, I intentionally spent a lot of time with various Catholic families. I knew I wanted to be married and have a family of my own one day and was grateful to immerse myself in these families’ day- to- day lives. To this day, I instinctively recall certain things I picked up from my time with them— the way they prayed together, played together, handled conflict, forgave one another, disciplined children—and am inspired to apply some of those approaches in my own home. The time I spent hanging out with those families, sharing meals with them, and babysitting for them was like a valuable apprenticeship in Catholic family life.
Similarly, Beth and I are so thankful for the many couples who were a few steps ahead of us in terms of years of marriage and number of children they were raising. Some were like informal mentor couples whom we could call to get advice on fitting in date nights while raising little ones; balancing work, family life, and daily prayer; staying afloat when raising four kids under the age of seven; and navigating the teen years.
Looking back, I can see that our marriage and family life is a mosaic built not merely on our own ideas but also on the wisdom and experience of so many other couples who were a few steps ahead of us and who, through their examples, inspired us to be better.
This article is based on Edward Sri’s The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute).