On the Balance of Virtue, As Seen in Two Videos

“Tightrope walking” by Wiros from Barcelona, Spain
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I have remarked before on this blog that what we call “balance” is really more a range than a fixed point. That is to say, balance is achieved not so much by staying still on a fixed point as by moving within a range around that point. The videos below feature unicyclists and tightrope walkers.  The tightrope walker only survives by being able to move within a very narrow range. The same is true and even more visible with the unicyclists—the moment they stop moving, they will fall.

And in this is a picture of virtue. What is virtue? Virtue is the habit of doing good. St. Thomas Aquinas, basing his view on those of Aristotle, spoke of virtue as the mean between excess and defect. An old Latin saying comes to mind: in medio stat virtus (virtue stands in the middle).

The virtuous act is one that is neither excessive nor deficient. So, for example courage is neither foolhardy nor cowardly, and temperance is neither total abstinence nor gluttony. Humility is neither arrogance nor subservience. Perseverance is neither obstinacy nor capitulation (Art and Laraine Bennett, The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics, p. 83).

Thus, the balance of the virtues is not something that freezes us, but rather is better described as a range of motion around the golden mean.

It is true that in highly specific moral acts or settings, there is often only one valid choice, e.g., in cases of abortion, fornication, and murder. But virtue here is understood more broadly as a general and habitual way of acting in accord with right reason.

Understanding virtue as the mean or midpoint between excess and defect is important for two reasons.

First, it helps us to avoid being overly scrupulous. In life there is often a range of possibilities available to us and we need some flexibility to be able to handle the unique circumstances of each moment. We must act within a range of responses that respect what faith and reason require. Scrupulosity often causes people to focus on a single aspect. Without balance, the flexibility necessary to move in a morally graceful way is limited.

Second, because life is made up of many complex things that come together in varying combinations, it is not reasonable, possible, or wise for the Church or Scripture to speak to every possible moral topic and scenario. What the Church and Scripture do most frequently is to give us principles to apply along with virtue.

There are many critics of the Church and of religion in general who are dismissive of rules and “micromanaging” by Church authorities. Of course there are some rules (there are rules in every walk of life). But more important, there are principles to be applied. It is quite impossible for the Church to micromanage every situation or have a rule for every possible situation. The dignity of Catholics is respected by the Church. She teaches us, but then expects us to use our intellect and reason to apply her principles virtuously, that is, with neither excess nor defect.

Just brief reflection on virtue.

As you view these videos, notice how balance is less a fixed point and more a range of motion. Further, if the artist is not able to move within a range and adjust to circumstances moment by moment, disaster is sure to follow. Virtue is moving and acting within the golden mean, within the range of neither excess nor defect. Virtue is a form of balance.

In this second video it is clear that the tightrope walker’s range of motion is much narrower, but still he must be able to move within that range to adjust to circumstances. I also want to say that I am not even sure that tightrope walking is a moral activity. In showing this video I do not affirm taking needless risks (though I know they train well). The reason I use this video is just to illustrate the point. The morality of tightrope walking is uncertain to me, but I’m inclined to lean against it. 😉

What is”the Flesh”??

There are many references to “the flesh”  in New Testament Scripture, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase confuses some who think it synonymous with the physical body. It is true that there are many times when Scripture uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body. However when the definite article “the” is placed before the word “flesh” we are dealing with something else. Only very rarely does the Biblical phrase  “the flesh” (ἡ  σὰρξ (he sarx), in Greek)  refer only to the physical body (eg. John 6:53; Phil 3:2; 1 John 4:2) , but almost always  the phrase refers to something quite distinct from the physical body.

What then is meant by the term “the flesh” (ἡ  σὰρξ)?  Perhaps most plainly it refers to that part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly and obstinate part of our inner self that is operative all the time. It is that part of us that does not want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and does not want to have a thing to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause me to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe.  The flesh hates to be under authority or to have to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. The flesh often desires something simply because it is forbidden. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature” which is not a bad term in summarizing what the flesh is. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the string inclination to sin that is in us as a result of the wound of Original Sin. If you do not think that your flesh is strong, just try to pray for five minutes and watch how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast or be less selfish and watch how your flesh goes to war.

The flesh is in direct conflict with the spirit. “The spirit” here refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit. The (human) spirit is that part of us which is open to God, which desires him and is drawn to him. It is that part of us which is attracted by goodness, beauty and truth, which yearns for completion in God and to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thankfully our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit draws us to desire what is best, what is upright, good and helpful.

Perhaps it is good that we look at just a few texts which reference “the flesh” and thus here in Lent learn more of the flesh and its ways. This will help us to be on our guard and to rebuke it by God’s grace and learn not to feed it. I make some comments in red with each quote.

  1. The Flesh does not grasp spiritual teachings – [Jesus said] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (John 6:63) Having taught on the Eucharist,  most of his listeners ridicule his teaching and will no longer take Jesus seriously. So Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching on the Eucharist is of the flesh. The flesh demands that everything be obvious to it on its own terms. The flesh demands to see physical proof for everything; demands that it be able to “see” using its own unregenerate power. And if it cannot see based on its own limited view,  it simply rejects spiritual truth out of hand. In effect the flesh refuses to believe at all since what it really demands is something that will “force” it to accept something. Inexorable proof which faith demands takes things out of the realm of faith and trust. Faith is no longer necessary when something is absolutely proven and plainly visible to the eyes of flesh. The flesh simply refuses to believe and demands proof.
  2. The flesh is not willing to depend on anyone or anything outside its own power or control – For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless….I [now] consider this rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:3-9 selected) The flesh wants to be in control rather than to have to trust in God. Hence it sets up its own observance, under its own control. And when it has met its own demands it declares itself to be righteous. Since the flesh hates being told what to do it takes God’s  law and makes it “manageable”  based on the flesh’s own terms. So, for example, if I am supposed to love, let me limit it to my family and countrymen but I am “allowed” to hate my enemy. But Jesus says, no, love your enemy. The flesh recoils at this for unless the law is manageable and within the power of the flesh to accomplish it, the Law cannot be controlled. The flesh trusts only in its own power. The Pharisees were “self-righteous” That is to say, they believed in a righteousness that they themselves brought about through their flesh power. But the Law and flesh cannot save. Only Jesus Christ can save. The flesh refuses this and wants to control the outcome based on its own power and terms.
  3. The Flesh hates to be told what to do – For when we were controlled by the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. (Rom 7:5) The disobedience and rebelliousness of the flesh roots us in sinful behavior and prideful attitudes. The prideful attitude of the flesh is even more dangerous than the sins that flow from the flesh since pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that lead to life. But the flesh does not like to be told what to do. Hence it rejects the testimony of the the Church, the scriptures and the conscience. Notice, according to the text,  the very existence of God’s Law arouses the passions of the flesh. The fact that something is forbidden makes the flesh want it all the more! This strong inclination to sin is in the flesh and comes from pride and indignation at “being told what to do.”   The flesh is refuses God’s Law and sets up its own rules. The flesh will not be told what to do.
  4. Flesh is as flesh doesThose who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the spirit have their minds set on what the spirit desires. The concern of the flesh  is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace (Rom 8:5-6) The flesh is intent on things of this world, upon gratifying its own passions and desires. On account of the flesh we are concerned primarily with ourselves and seek to be at the center. The flesh is turned primarily inward. St Augustine describes the human person in the flesh as “curvatus in se” (turned in upon himself). But the spirit is that part of us that looks outward toward God and opens us the truth and holiness that God offers. Ultimately the flesh is focused on death  for it is concerned with what is passing away: the body and the world. The human spirit is focused on life for it focuses on God who is life and light.
  5. The Flesh is intrinsically hostile to God – The mind  of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:7-8) The flesh is hostile to God because it is pridefully hostile to any one more important than itself. Further the flesh does not like being told what to do. Hence it despises authority or anyone who tries to tell it what to do. It cannot please God because it does not want to.
  6. The Flesh abuses freedomYou, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. (Gal 5:13) The flesh turns God given freedom into licentiousness. Licentiousness is to demand freedom without limit. Since the flesh does not want to be told what to do it demands to be able to do what ever it wants. In effect the flesh says, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.”  This is licentiousness and it is an abuse of freedom. It results in indulgence and paradoxically leads to a slavery to the senses and the passions.
  7. The Flesh Demands to be fed – So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal 5:16-17) Within the human person is this deep conflict between the flesh and spirit. We must not be mistaken, the flesh is in us and it is strong. It has declared war on our spirit and on the Holy Spirit of God. When the spirit tries to obey the flesh resists and tries to sabotage the best aspirations of the spirit. We must be sober about this conflict and understand that this is why we do not do what we most know is right. The flesh has to die and the spirit come more alive. What you feed grows. If we feed the flesh it will grow. If we feed the spirit it will grow. What are you feeding? Are you sober about the power of the flesh and do you and I therefore feed our spirit well through God’s word and holy communion, through prayer and the healing power of confession. What are you feeding?
  8. The Flesh fuels sin – The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-210) This catalogue of sins that flow from the flesh is not exhaustive but is representative of the offensive and obnoxious behavior that flows from the flesh. Be sober about the flesh,  it produces ugly children.
  9. This [condemnation by God]  is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:10) Clear enough, the flesh hates authority and, did I mention (?) The flesh does not want to be told what to do.

So here is a portrait of “the flesh.” It is ugly. You may say I have exaggerated, that the flesh is not really this bad. Well I am not, just buy a newspaper and see what the flesh is up to. You may, by God’s grace, have seen a diminishment in the power of the flesh in your life. That is ultimately what God can and will do for us. He will put the flesh to death in us and bring alive our spirit by the power of his Holy Spirit. But step one is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves. Step two is to bring this understanding to God through repentance. Step three is, by God’s grace, to stop feeding the flesh and start feeding the spirit on prayer, scripture, Church teaching and Holy Communion. Step four is to repeat steps 1-3 for the rest of our lives. God by his grace will cause the flesh to die and the spirit to live by his grace at work in us through Jesus Christ.

There is no musical better at (humorously) depicting the flesh as Camelot. Here are a few video clips that depict well the flesh

In this first video Sir Lancelot ponders what a great and perfect guy he is. He goes so far as to say that “Had I been made the partner of Eve we’d be Eden still!”


In this video one of the Knights depicts the flesh by ridiculing the “Seven Deadly Virtues.”  The song concludes by Roddy McDowell singing: “With all those seven Virtues, Free and happy little me has not been cursed!”

In this clip, the Knights (in the flesh) ridicule goodness and sing “Fie On Goodness!”

On the Lord’s Team! Sports as an image of the Christian Life

St. Paul used the image of an athlete to describe the Christian life in Several places. Consider this one:

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; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be  disqualified. ( 1 Cor. 9:25-27)

Clearly there are many virtues necessary to the athlete that are also of great necessity to the Christian:

  • Discipline – The athlete must carefully and persistently train the body. Without a clear and repetitive discipline the sport will not be mastered and neither will the body have proper stamina, strength and coordination. Athletes train every day and work to perfect their mastery of the sport. So too must Christians undertake a clear discipline and persistently train in the ways of faith through prayer, scripture, sacraments,  moral virtue and self mastery. The Christian must practice every day.
  • Persistence – The Athlete must follow discipline all the time, not just occasionally. To fail in persistent training not only jeopardizes good performance but it risks injury. So too for the Christian. We cannot expect much progress with an on again, off again regimen. Without a persistent good habit of prayer, scripture, sacraments and practicing of moral virtue the Christian not only stunts progress  but also risks injury (sin).
  • Rules – every sport has rules that must be accepted and followed. The athlete is not free to reinvent the game. They must play by the rules or risk exclusion and disqualification.  S0 too the Christians must play by the rules set by God. If we are going to be on the winning team and secure the victory we have to abide by the rules. To refuse this is to risk being disqualified. We are not free to reinvent Christianity as so many try to do today. There is only one playing field and one game. Follow  the rules or be ejected.
  • Alert for Injury – A good athlete listens carefully to his or her body and any signs of injury. If injury is detected they see the team doctor quickly and take measures to heal as quickly as possible. Further they avoid injury by learning proper form, stretching etc. So too for the Christian. We must monitor ourselves for injury and upon discovery of even minor injury we should consult our team physician, the priest and get on the mend quickly. Further we should avoid injury by learning proper Christian form (moral life) and avoiding what ever leads us to sin (a kind of stretching to avoid moral injury).
  • Teamwork – many sports involve learning to work together for the goal. Athletes cannot merely seek glory for themselves, they must have the good of the whole team in mind. They must learn to work with others toward the common good and overcome any idiosyncrasies or selfishness that hinders the common goal. So too Christians must strive to overcome petty and selfish egotism and work for the common good,  learning to appreciate the gifts of others. The team is stronger than the individual alone. Life is about more then just me. When others are glorified so am I if I am on the same winning team.

Well, you get the point. Why not add a few of your own thoughts on how sports is a good analogy for the Christian life?