The Cultivation of Virtue (Fri. Dec. 31, 2021)

The word of the day is “virtue.”  In today’s reading of Titus 1:15-2:10, St. Paul gives instructions about the virtues that Timothy should teach his flock.  Paul gives special counsel for different groups in the congregation: older men and older women, younger women and younger men, and bondservants.

A Pattern of Good Works

But the young Bishop himself should be “a pattern of good works in doctrine, showing integrity, reverence and incorruptibility” (vs. 2: 7) (Strong’s #5179, 254).  The Greek word that The Orthodox Study Bible translates as “pattern” comes from the idea of “stamping with a blow.”  What is struck by the die is a copy of the original (Strong’s #5179, 254).  As such a stamp, Timothy should “show himself” to be worthy of being copied (vs.2: 7).  That means that he should be a model for “good works” (Vs. 7).  Likewise, in “doctrine” (“teaching”), he should exhibit “integrity.”  In Greek, this word connotes instruction that is “without corruption.”  It is “genuine” (Strong’s #861, 48).  Finally, Timothy’s preaching also should have the dignity of “reverence” to God and “respect” from his hearers (Strong’s #4587, 226).

St. John Chrysostom expands on Paul’s expectation that Timothy will be a model for his congregation.  He explains that Paul is saying to the young bishop, “And let the luster of thy life be a common school of instruction, a pattern of virtue to all, publicly exhibited, like some original model, containing in itself all beauties, affording examples whence those who are willing may easily imprint upon themselves any of its excellences” (NfPf1: 13, 553).

A Pattern of Virtue

In this quotation, Chrysostom speaks of Timothy’s example as a “pattern of virtue” (NfPf1:13,553). This phrase offers the key to our understanding of the collection of social “duties” that Paul recommends for the age groups in his church.

For Chrysostom, these responsibilities are assorted qualities of character, that is, “virtues.” Virtues are habits of moral excellence that incline us to do what is good, right, and true.  Proto-Presbyter Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory said that the “fruits of the Spirit” are often called “virtues” (Hopko 1981).  In Galatians, Paul says that these laudable attitudes include joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Similarly, in the book of Titus, Paul lists fifteen qualities such as temperance, patience, discretion, chastity.  Among these, he mentions love three times and counsels the faithful to be sober, reverent, good, and obedient two times for each.

The Development of Virtue Depends on Our Cooperation With the Spirit

Maximus the Confessor writes, “Virtue may be defined as the conscious union of human weakness with divine strength”(G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 230).  To explain, Maximus says that if we rely on our own capability as if our natural powers are our strength, we confuse our human works with virtue.  On the other hand, if we “do not make an effort” to receive divine help and “transcend human weakness” with the power of God, we will fall short of virtue (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 230).  Thus, the development of virtue depends on the Orthodox concept of “synergy,” the cooperation between God and the human person.

For Reflection

From the teaching of Maximus and Paul, we learn that the faithful need exhortation, education, and encouragement to grow in the virtues.  Virtues are fruits of the Spirit, not human works.  But the Spirit does not produce these fruits in us unless we cultivate them.  The virtues do not spring full-grown from the ground of faith.  Thus, the apostle wrote that we should add virtue to faith (2 Peter 1:5).  Then the apostle states that if you “abound” in knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love, “you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:6-8).

The Lord Produces the Fruit of Virtue

The virtues are like seeds that the Spirit plants in the heart. To grow they must be cultivated, that is, practiced.  And the Philokalia states, “the practice of the virtues depends on our own will and resolution” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 323).  Yet ultimately, the Lord produces the fruit of virtue, for the source of both the will and the power to do good is the Spirit.  It is as Paul said, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

We may think that it is too late for us to nurture the virtues that Paul advocates in our reading.  Our personality has been formed, our identity fixed, our perceptions developed, and our attitudes shaped.  But after his temptation, the Lord came into Galilee “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled the kingdom of God is at hand, Repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).  If we open the ears of faith, we can still hear Jesus proclaiming “Repent” in the Galilee of our hearts.  If by our past observance of the Nativity Fast, we have already started to cultivate the virtues that Paul advises, let us continue with greater diligence.  But if we have not yet begun to consciously nurture the fruits of the Spirit, let us take the opportunity of this season of Theophany, the manifestation of Christ, to begin.

Works Cited

G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber

Hopko, Thomas. 1981. Spirituality: The Virtues. In The Orthodox Faith Department of Religious Education: Orthodox Church  in America


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