March 3, 2017
The Heart of Virtue According to Romano Guardini
In Loyola University's bookstore in Chicago, my eye caught The Virtues by Romano Guardini. Small in size and inexpensive I purchased it never imagining it would be the basis of my homilies, articles and retreats during fifty-four years of priesthood. Nor did I envision it turning my four years of studying moral theology in Latin inside out, and then later inspiring me to write The Promise of Virtue, a companion to it.
What attracted me in The Virtues is its focus on the challenges, foes and needed strength involved in being the authentic human person God desires of us.
During the occasion of his death on October 1, 1968, theologian Karl Rahner recalled Guardini was born into a Catholic church that saw itself "as an intellectually, culturally and humanly self-sufficient closed society, on the defensive, seeking to win support by her conservatism."
Rahner recalled that Guardini saw the church different, needing to take a new stance that "plunges into the situation of the time, giving and also ready to receive, sharing the problems and perils of the time, bursting into a new age which even it cannot plan in advance, serving and concerned not with itself but with men and women." Guardini's work is about humanity's involvement in humanity.
Guardini defines the virtue of kindness as "being well disposed toward life", pointing us to the awesome role our disposition fulfills in making life more lovingly. Good disposition requires dying to indispositions that hinder the intimacy of I-thou relationships.
Guardini states, "Whenever [we] encounter a living being, the kind man's first reaction is not to mistrust and criticize, but to respect, to value, and to promote development. Life is sorely in need of this attitude --- our human life --- which is so vulnerable."
Guardini's definition of kindness echoes Cardinal John Henry Newman's idea of a gentleman. "A gentleman is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him. . . His great concern is to make everyone at their ease and at home."
Pointing to the role of trust in kindness, Guardini mirrors an indispensable quality in Blessed Pope Paul VI's encyclical Ecclesiam Suam in which he sees trust imperative to successful dialogue: "Trust, not only in the power of one's words, but also in an attitude of welcoming the trust of the interlocutor. Trust promotes confidence and friendship. It binds hearts in mutual adherence to the good which excludes self-seeking."
Once when looking up the meaning of civility I learned it is associated with the concept of home. At first it didn't click on how civility and home go together. Then it hit me: civility makes us feel at home with another and is at the heart of the confidence and friendship of which Pope Paul VI speaks and Guardini sees in kindness.
Guardini's description of kindness lauds "promoting development." My best friend, Father Rollins Lambert, the first African American priest of Chicago epitomized this principle par excellence when working with him at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. He was forever connecting me with others, especially African Americans who could help me in my work in research. He never looked for credit for himself.
Guardini lists three basic foes of kindness: the desire to dominate over others, resentment and envy.
Whenever I have preached on resentment affirmative nods ripple through the congregation. Almost everyone has resentments they wish could be dispelled, especially if they are deep rooted and personal. Keeping a wound open and never letting it heal is the bane of resentment.
On the virtue of reverence Guardini points us to the German word ehrfucht, meaning a combination of honor and fear. To reverence another is to honor another. The word fear, however, does not connote being afraid but "not to permit the breath of one's own being to touch the revered object"; in other words to give another his or her reverential space. When missing it often results in broken marriages because of one spouse not allowing the other breathing space.
The Virtues contains seventeen virtues ranging from truthfulness, acceptance, patience, and justice, to understanding, courtesy, gratitude, unselfishness, recollection and silence.
On the virtue of acceptance Guardini writes: "What is the presupposition for all moral effort if it is to be effective, to change what is amiss, to strengthen what is feeble, and to balance what is uneven? It is the acceptance of what is, the acceptance of reality, your own and that of the people around you and of the time in which you live." We must wonder if this principle were lived better how much less discontentment would exist.
On courage Guardini reminds us, "Courage is the confidence requisite for living with a view to the future, for acting, building, assuming responsibilities and forming ties. For, in spite of our precautions, the future is in each case the unknown. But living means advancing into this unknown region, which may lie before us like a chaos into which we must venture."
Throughout his works Guardini repeatedly focuses on the power of the human spirit within us and its responsibility in helping shape God's creation. Courage encourages us to be adventuresome and constructive, and to fear not.
The virtue of silence runs through much of Guardini's writings. "Silence," he states, "does not mean no word is spoken and no sound is uttered. This alone does not signify silence; the animal is capable of this, and the rock even more so. Rather, silence is that which takes place when man, after speaking, returns to himself and grows still; or when he who could speak remains still. Only he who can speak can be silent. Silence means that he, who would go forth by speaking, remains in inner reserve; it is a knowing, a feeling, a living stillness, a vibrating within self."
Guardini's book The Virtues speaks to our times much more than when I purchased it in 1963: a book of wisdom devoted to teaching us the beauty of being an authentic human person.