~ St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.1
Virtue, it would seem, is woefully undervalued today. I do not mean to say that there are too few virtuous people—only God knows the hearts of others after all, and by what it appears virtue still shines upon the hearts of many. Rather, if St. Ambrose is correct—and I think he is—a virtuous life is the key to happiness. Shouldn’t our whole society be organized with the purpose of teaching and obtaining virtue then? What else would be more befitting of “the pursuit of happiness?”
St. Maximos the Confessor has an interesting view worth noting: virtue is natural; our passions are not. Thus while one may speak of cultivating virtue, it might be more accurate to speak of eradicating passion, which is unnatural.
Now passion—that’s something people support today! “Follow your passion” has become a sort of empty platitude. I say empty because unlike most platitudes it is void of moral value from the start.
Feelings, of course, are not in themselves unnatural or unimportant, but life cannot be truly lived by them; they cannot be followed happily. A passion, traditionally understood, is more a bad emotional habit than simply a feeling. Think, for example, of the sort of strong desires or fears that lead people to regrets. Our passions are powerful, and they will overpower even our consciences if we let them.
Implicit in St. Ambrose’s wonderful saying is that an unhappy life consists of the opposite, i.e. vicious living that produces an agitated conscience and troubled guilt. Over-preoccupation with the cares of this life lead to such passionate living that, in turn, leads to vice, anxiety, and shame.
I do not think, either, that one needs to be fully conscious of such a condition. One may be aware of being unhappy without knowing why.
A virtuous life, on the other hand, is one in which heavenly treasure—virtue—is prized and enjoyed. The cares of this life cannot touch the virtuous person’s happiness.
Happiness, it should be said, is not traditionally understood as a passing feeling but a condition of flourishing. Thus, this is not to say that a virtuous person never feels sad or that a vicious person never has pleasure. But happiness, that wholeness that puts everything in its proper perspective, that balance that keeps us on stable ground, that true health and integrity of soul—it is “the splendour of a virtuous life.”
How many cares does this life bring! It would seem sometimes that the command of Christ, “do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25) is as daunting as his command to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Indeed, understood in the light of St. Ambrose’s saying, they are in fact one and the same.
But perfection is worth striving for, because happiness is worth striving for, and because virtue is not, after all, unattainable. If St. Maximos is correct, there is even a sense in which we already have it; it is just our passions that get in the way.
Those passions, however, can be overshadowed—or rather out-shined—by the virtuous life itself. St. Ambrose continues,
And as the risen sun hides the globe of the moon and the light of the stars, so the brightness of a virtuous life, where it glitters in true pure glory, casts into the shade all other things, which, according to the desires of the body, are considered to be good, or are reckoned in the eyes of the world to be great and noble.
In Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, we have access to the “true pure glory” of God, who is goodness itself. As shadows flee the brightness of light, so also our troubles and cares vanish in the presence of “the splendour of a virtuous life.”
Though that Sun may just be peeking over the horizon of my soul, yet even the light of the dawn gives me hope that the darkness within me cannot abide forever. Even while still troubled with the cares of this life, I can take heart and press on knowing that true, real, everlasting happiness is the reward of virtue, or simply, that virtue itself is its own reward.