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Evaluating Spiritual Practices

How do we evaluate spiritual practices? (By "spiritual practices" here, I want to start by casting a big net--let's include everything from grace before meals to religious life.)

Easy answer--a spiritual practice in Christian tradition is good for us to the extent that it fosters our growth in ability to respond to Jesus' twofold commandment of loving God and neighbor. 

Yeah, but--how do we KNOW we're becoming more loving?

This question is made tricky because the same spiritual practice that makes one person a saint can make another person worse. (E.g., volunteering in prison can make someone more compassionate or more judgmental, istm.)

Well, thank heaven for social scientists! David De Steno in the New York Times provided data for the moral efficacy of meditation. Astutely, he says that benefits that redound solely or mostly to the benefit of the meditator, (better productivity at work, or there are other studies that like meditation to lower blood pressure, less stress, et al.,) "weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, 'I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.'” So he set out to test compassion. Test subjects were evaluated on their willingness to yield a seat to a visibly lame person--a very commonplace exercise of quotidian compassion. Drum roll, please: 

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated.

And this was after only 2 months of practice. 

In virtue ethics, we say that "practice makes perfect." If you want to be just, do just things, if you want to be courageous, practice courage. But it turns out that if you want to be compassionate, one route to that end is meditation.

So--clearly virtue ethics needs to be more alert to these "indirect" means of growing in virtue. There's also an implicit challenge to all our spiritual practices--do they make me better in visible ways, as meditation can make us compassionate? 





About the Author

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).



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Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1931-1987), the Jesuit spiritual director, lecturer, and author, discusses meditative practice in his posthumously published book of thirty-one meditations: THE WAY TO LOVE (reissued by Image in 2012 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death).

He does not explicitly advert to virtue ethics. Nevertheless, in his own more general way, he advises against such efforts as the specific examples you have mentioned, Lisa.

In my estimate, THE WAY TO LOVE is by far the most coherent expression of his thought.

The meditation literature gives lots of examples of people who live with meditators complimenting the meditators on their improved dispositions.  Think about it.  If you've really changed, the people you live with will notice it.  I even read of one lady who said she would go out in the morning to sit near a little lake to meditate.  There were ducks in the area, and one of them regularly would come and sit right next to her and lay its head in her lap.  That is such a strange story I can't believe the person just made it up.  Plus we all know that some people attract animals, and I don't doubt that it's the person's body language that makes the animal trustful.  So why wouldn't a duck make friends with a  totally non-threatening lady?  That's the thing about meditation -- it makes us peaceful in both sould and body.

I know from my own experience that in an aggravating situation that half a minure of Centering Prayer can defuse my irritation.  Centering Prayer is essentially accepting the will of God, and in an aggravating situation that means being patient with others.   But you have to *mean* it :-)  That's the hard part, but when you do you can sometimes see a change in yourself -- your whole body relaxes.  (Note, I said "sometimes".)

Lisa --

I wonder if people who pray with the intention of becoming "more holy" aren't assuming, wrongly, that our whole soul is necessarily improved by prayer and virtuous action. I'm really challenging the common metaphor of becoming a saint as being like "a journey" which moves a whole person towards towards the total love of God and man.  With the proposed canonizaiton of JP II, just observing his virtues and faults makes me think that you can be very holy in one part of your life, but very deficient in another.  His ignoring of the suffering children was awful, though I doubt that he realized that he was wrong.  But he certainly wasn't a saint in that aspect of his life.  Yet he obviously was extremely loving in other ways.  So was he a saint?  How does one measure sanctity?     

Prof Fullam,

I think there are a few category mistakes here. First, I worry that by casting a "wide net" as you'd like to do, you end up eliding crucial differences between, say, prayer in the Christian tradition and meditation in the Buddhist tradition. (Of course, what Christians mean by prayer and what Buddhists mean by meditation needs a lot more unpacking.) Even within the Christian tradition, we see different lives of prayer in different traditions of Christianity, not only among different Christian denominations but within those denominations.

Second, I'm not convinced that a study of 39 Bostonians who trained in an eight-week course on meditation does a study make. It is difficult with so few people to adjust for all sorts of variables that might play a role in their decision-making: religious affliation, socio-economic status, education &c &c.

Third, as for the relationship between meditation and virtue, we find that in the Ur-text of virtue ethics, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Now, evaluating the precise relationship betwen what Aristotle says about _theoria_ (which, if we're casting a wide net, I suppose we could count as meditation) and what he says about _arete_ (virtue) is an important scholarly debate, and I won't get into that here. But it is clear that Aristotle sees some relationship between the two.

I agree with you completely, of course, in the need to link one's love of God with one's love of neighbor, and see the life of prayer as caring for those around us. I'm just not sure that we need 39 Bostonians to help us out here.

Of course, if I'm missing something, let me know!


The Catholic tradition has such a rich repetoire of meditation practices from Ignatian styled, to lectio divina, to Eckhart and the apophatic mystics, and centering prayer. I admit that I have been away from my practice for far too long and I really need the discipline to return to the practice as I KNOW that is makes a qualitiative difference in my life. Alas, balancing the emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual is very difficult

I am glad that this was posted. I think that overall, as a Church, we get too wound up in activism of all sorts which is important. And spending time commenting on public policy issues. Again this is important. But the overemphasis on these dimension obscures our rich heritage of meditation and prayer that would be of assistance to so many people.

 Coud you  explain the  "practice makes perfect " idea a little more?  Does it work with every attitude?  Like if we all the time tried to think the best of people, would we get better at thinking the best of people all the time?

I do think Ignatian prayer, the kind of imaginative conversation with Jesus that Ignatius calls a colloquy, can help people become more compassionate.  As a spiritual director omce told me, hanging around with Jesus tends to rub off on you  :)

I'm not sure doing good acts will necessarily make you become good, though.  What seems more possible is that becoming good first makes you want to do good acts second.

"Hanging around with Jesus" may help one person but not another. Some of the vilest things I have ever heard or read on the internet come from people who claim to be tight with the Lord.

Even those who hung around with him literally and in the flesh did not always derive much immediate benefit. Luke 9:52-54:

These [messengers] entered a Samaritan town to prepare for his passing through, but the Samaritans would not welcome him because he was on his way to Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw this, they said, "Lord, would you not have us call down fire from heaven to destroy them?"

They are saints now, of course, so something must have rubbed off eventually.

Coud you  explain the  "practice makes perfect " idea a little more?

Brevity and alliteration. It's snappier, if less accurate, than "Practice may result in some improvement."

Practice makes perfect...

Aristotle: "We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

C.S Lewis also recognized the power of habit: "(The) safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts...."

I think Aristotle was wrong  = we aren't waht we do, but instead we do what we are. 

About about people being changed by spending time with Jesus ...  1) we have no idea what the disciples were like before they spent time with Jesus - they may well have been worse ;)  and 2) when you love someone, you can't help but be affected by their values and beliefs - that's the whole "know him, love him, follow him" idea of the Spiritual Exercises.


I think we tend to do what we are in the habit of doing, and we are in good part defined by what we are in the habit of doing.  Our decisions not only affect their object, but they also make us the persons that we are.  So I don't think Aristotle was wrong, and neither are you. 

Anthony de Mello, S.J., understands awareness as the key to personal growth and development. Awareness as he understands it may be the equivalent of what Aristotle refers to as contemplation. That is, the process of cultivating one own awareness about oneself may involve contemplation.

Fr. K,  yes, I think you're right.

Plato/Socrates too thought awareness was important, saying tha the unexamined life wasn't worth living.

Sorry to detract from this conversation, but I have to inject that I was shocked when I read the NYTimes article Lisa refers to.  Only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats and, worse, only 50 percent of the meditators did? 

What's going on here?  I've never been on a crowded subway car in Manhattan where people stayed in their seats when someone on crutches and in visible pain enters.  Several people immediately offer up their places, and if more don't that's because others did it first.  The only exceptions I've witnessed were instances when the person in distress appeared somehow threatening (e.g., drunk and disorderly) or so dirty and malodorous that one wondered what one was doing to the riders in the adjacent seats. 

So what's with this sample of Bostonians, whether meditators or not?

The only explanation I come up with is that the experiment involved two people in the waiting room who did NOT give up their seats (of course, they were part of the set-up) and the person whose behavior was being tested would have had to embarrass them.  That may indeed say a lot about the effect of a social setting, which the experimenters also note.  In the impersonal subway car, one is only slightly embarrassing those who are not moving quickly to offer a place. 

But like Scott above I have my doubts about the whole experiment, and I await its publication in a peer-reviewed journal with all the variables that could have been involved. 

Meanwhile, keep on meditating and keep on giving up your seats to the lame and the halt.  I'm getting there. 


When I was very pregnant on the subway, I was rarely offered a seat.  The people who did offer were either other women or foreign men.  

I think that there are many misconceptions about "meditation".  In the first place, the word can mean many different kinds of mental practices.  What they have in common is acute *observation* of something, usually  just the flow of body sensations or purely mental processes.  it rarely means prayer of some sort.  By 'prayer" i mean a mental process that includes an act or acts of the will *intending* towards God -- prayer intends to establish some sort of relationship with a God or gods.

That meditation increases people's compassion is not too surprising -- it makes us less aggressive which might be why we can then become more compassionate.  But that doesn't make it essentially *religious*.  Ask any agnostic or atheist.  They are not praying when they do meditation.  Of course, some might do certain Buddhist meditations which many people call "religious" because they consider Buddhism to be a religion.  But Buddhists do not believe in God in any Western sense.  The Buddhist absolute is uncreated, unchanging, etc., but is not a personal reality, as is the Western and Middle Eastern God. 

Here's a WaPo article about atheists and agnostics practisinc meditation:



Ann Olivier: According to Anthony de Mello, S.J., the good news is that everybody is eligible to become a mystic, because everybody is eligible to practic awareness. According to him, the key to becoming a mystic is to practice awareness, which involves what Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics refers to as contemplation. According to de Mello, mystic experiences can be liberating and can lead to personal growth and development. According to him, mystic experiences are in effect what the historical Jesus proclaimed as the kingdom (or rule) of God. But it does not necessarily follow that people must believe in the montheistic deity in order to experience mystic experiences. As I say, according to Anthony de Mello, everybody is eligible to experience mystic experiences, and so everybody is eligible to aspire to become a mystic through cultivating the practice of awareness.

Ann:  As you say, "the word can mean many different kinds of mental practices," but that's no reason to take as normative what they all have in common.  There are spiritual traditions (e.g., Christianity!) in which meditation is precisely mental prayer.  That's what that half-hour before Mass was called and was supposed to be for us in the seminary. And I believe that's what the Ignatian spiritual exercises encourage. And I think there are a host of books on the Christian spiritual life with "meditation" in the title. So I don't think it's true that the word "meditation" "rarely means prayer of some sort."  It depends on the people and the traditions. 


Given today's Good Samaritan gospel amateur social scientists may want to replicate this study: 


"In another experiment, theology students were told to prepare themselves to give a brief talk in a nearby building. One-half were told to build the talk around the Good Samaritan parable(!), whereas the others were given a more neutral topic. One group was told to hurry since the people in the other building were waiting for them, whereas another was told that they had plenty of time. On their way to the other building, subjects came upon a man slumping in a doorway, apparently in distress. Among the students who were told they were late, only 10 percent offered assistance; in the other group, 63 percent did so. The group that had been told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan was not more likely to behave as one. Nor was the behavior of the students correlated with answers to a questionnaire intended to measure whether their interest in religion was due to the desire for personal salvation or to a desire to help others. The situational factor - being hurried or not - had much greater explanatory power than any dispositional factor."


JAK --

Yes, the older European Catholic prayer tradition did use the term "meditation" to refer to prayer, and no doubt within that tradition it still does.  (My evidence for that is the spirituality section of my local Barnes and Noble.)  I even said that that the word meditation "rarely means prayer of some sort" (which implies that I recognize that sometimes it still does mean prayer).  I was talking mainly about the common meanings of the word these days in the  English speaking world.  

As I see it, the biggest difference between the Asian and Western traditions is that the typical Asian practices are extremely passive psychologically and may or may not be called "religious", while the Western ones actively intend some relationship with God.  Not that there are no Asian mystics who have sought a relationship with God, and not that there are no passive Christian ones who mistake themselves for God (see the nuns of Port Royale, e.g.).  Zaehner makes it extremely clear that there are all sorts of mystics in all sorts of cultures and all sorts of religions.  (Well, maybe not *all*.)  The question is:  which types are genuine experiences of God? The field of prayer/mysticism is so vast and so old that the semantic problems are almost bound to be a huge problem, not to mention the fact that it is always difficult to describe interior events.  

What concerns me is that non-religious  notions of "meditation" are leaking into Catholic thinking on the subject.  deMello, for instance, is still quite popular.  And I must also admit that sometimes one of my favorites, Thomas Merton, sounded something like his friend Suzuki, though he never explicitly identified his soul with God nor all things with the Great Being.  I think the official Church needs to take some fresh -- and unbiased -- looks at prayer in the twenty-first century.  There are some dangers in some of the Asian practices, but some of the practices are not only no threat they can be extremely valuable for Christians and others.

By the way, why isn't Merton quite so popular as he used to be?

Also by the way, it's not only the teachers of "prayer" who sometimes present problems.  Many, many poets, including some great ones seem to be talking about non-religious mystical experences.  See for example, Whitman, Rimbaud, Rilke and maybe (but maybe not) Wordsworth, and some of the Beats.  The present Amercan culture is hugely influenced by myticism of vsrious sorts.


Thomas --

Yes, Aristotle recommends contemplation as the highest activitiy of the human soul.  But he says some very strange things about "enthusiasm" sometimes.  In the Eudemean Ethics he grappels with the fact of "luck" which, since he is an exponent of teleology, he apparently finds highly problematic. Anyway, the lucky people seem to puzzle him.  Great empiricist that he also was, he recognizes the fact that some people have some extraordinary and genuinely valuable experiences that are *not* (as he would expect) gained by reasoning!  I suspect he is talking about some of the experiences Zaehner considers.  He also says somewhere that we "only occasionly" know God, which could easily refer to genuine mystical experiences of God.  Since he was a pupil and great admirer of that very great mystic Plato (see Plato's Symposium), it is not surpising that Aristotle admits the reality of such experiences that don't quite fit his general theory of what human rationality is capable of.

P. S.  Sorry, I looked for hours for the reference about "only occasionally" knowing God, but I didn't find it.

Ann:   Some of your reservations about the influence of Asian pantheism appears to have been behind the notice issued some time ago about certain writings of Anthony de Mello.  You can find the text and a justificatory commentary here:


Talk about the importance of virtue and the moral life. I finished an interesting book by Yiu Sing Lucas Chan entitled "The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life". Chan was trying to demonstrate the connection of Scripture to moral theology (mainly virtue). Each Commandment and Beatitude has a cluster of virtues associated with it, and many virtues overlap when you list these virtues by Commandment and Beatitude.


When all is said and done, it almost seemed like a prescription that is not very practical if not impossible to put into action. We are all imperfect beings who strive to love God and neighbor by worship, prayer, meditation, practicing virtue etc. We only become the man or woman God wants us to be by the love and grace of God. Virtue ethics is almost abstract in one sense because we never can be perfect in all the virtues and it is easy to err by an extreme striving to be perfect. Virtue is never about the extremes of virture (sometimes associated by the Church as "heroic virture") but about the means of virtue guided by prudence. Perhaps one day someone will write a book integrating virtue ethics into Aquinas's moral ethical method with some real examples of practical application. After all, virtue ethics is concerned about what I ought to do in daily life while moving from "who I am" to "who I ought to become". 


Some questions were not answered: How can one be certain that one's intention or end/goal, and one's chosen exterior actions are "virtuous"? How does one resolve a conflict among virtues? Interestingly, Chan ends his book by demonstrating that virtue ethics is similar to Confucian ethics. 



Jesuit Robert Kennedy is very into meditation  - he's alos a Roshi and teaches zen at the Morning Star Zendo ...

He's an interesting guy.  His Wikipedia page ...

Oh, I forgot about Benedictine monk and priest Laurence Freeman, who founded the the John Main Center for Meditation and Inter-religious Dialogue ....

Heh  :) - one last example: Bede Griffiths ...

I'm not sure if this is off-topic, and I apologize if it is, but one of the things that is striking to me about this Gospel is that the Good Samaritan exhibits what I think of as good and healthy boundaries; he continues on the journey he was on and gives the inn keeper money to care for the victim.  There were limits to his charity; he doesn't stop his journey and stay at the inn to care for this man.  He does what needs to be done and then goes on with his own task.  

And maybe this parable can help us think about whether spiritual practices help us maintain the kind of boundaries that allow for basic emotional health.  

(I live in Medford, 5 miles outside of Boston, and have to say that I was shocked by the low numbers.  I am 63 and have enough gray hair that I am regularly offered seats on crowded bus or subway.  I almost always decline.  The numbers are disheartening, to say the least.)

JAK --

Thanks for the deMello notification.  (Why the apparently erratic use of quotation marks in it?  Hmm.)

 The later stuff does indeed look worse than the earlier.  deMello's saying that God and 'each of us are neither one nor two' seems equivalent to the typical pan-en-henic's saying that God and each of us are BOTH one and two. Surely the identification of self and God is not consistent with Church teaching. (I'd say it's heretical, but that's not politically correct/ecumenical.)  

What I mainly have against such mysticism is its so-called "reconciliation of opposites" -- it both identifies good and evil and denies both are real. deMello's version is this:   

"Actually there is no good or evil in persons or in nature. There is only a mental judgment imposed upon this or that reality" (Walking on Water, 99). There is no reason to repent for sins, since the only thing that matters is to be awakened to an awareness of reality: "Don't weep for your sins. Why weep for sins that you committed when you were asleep?" (Awareness, 26; cf. ibid., 43, 150).  

(The quotation marks are in the notice,so this is no paraphrase.)

I suspect that one of the reasons for deMello's popularity is that he tells us we aren't responsible for our sins.


A focus on one's inner spiritual growth, whether by meditation or contemplative prayer with the goal of letting go and listening to God is supposed to manifest itself in outward signs of loving neighbor. However, I have found that there are many blind alleys and a certain isolation, if one is only focused on one's personal relationship with God. A less tretorous road to the love of God, IMO, is a dual focus on the love of neighbor as, for example, in a ministry of helping the poor. What better way to love God than to serve him by loving our neighbor. 

As for meditation, et al, there are many types of prayer and no one type is superior to the other. God loves all types of prayer. However, if petitionary prayer is devoid of requests to be lead to acts of love in helping thy neighbor, but simply to avoid sin and damnation, striving not to offend God, then is one's prayer sufficiently complete? 

It is almost impossible to measure our spiritual journey and where we stand in relation to the person God's wants us to be. Rather than being frustrated with our weakness and sinfulness, is it not better not to overly worry about such things as what types of meditations, prayers etc, will bring us closer to God, but to put our entire trust in God who promises to lead us to everlasting life? 

I wish I had the answers to these things, but I don't. However, I do believe in virtue defined as good habits repeated often, that both develop a good character that will lead to the choice of good actions and love. This may take a lifetime and this road is not easy. The most important thing I have leaned is to keep striving and never give up on ourselves when we fall because God never does.



It seems to me that Jesus' command "Judge not" applies to ourselves as well as to others.  Who can be completely objective about oneself?  But sometimes we have to try to judge ourselves. Surely we can know that we did something bad,  but judging our motives and how responsible we are for an act or non-act is another matter.

There is one Buddhist practice, called "noting" or "naming", that helps me to become aware of my repressed motivations.   The practice is a mindfulness one -- watching the various mental events that flow through one's mind,  They come thick and fast and often in random order.  It works like this: close your eyes and focus on the flow, and  when some mental event occurs into your mind silently  name it, e.g.,  imagining . . . wondering . . . . . . hearing . . pain . . . . hoping. . . blaming . . . itching . . . fearing . . . remembering . .anger . . blaming. . . .  . rejoicing,  . . . questioning.etc., etc.  What happens with me is that I become more aware of how complex my mental states are, and i become aware of motives I might have other wise repressed.  The habit of noticing motives is a big help in examining my conscience, to use the old prase.  This is a non-religious method -- it just reports the fact, ma'm, just the facts -- but it can be put to a religious use.


Jim Keenan writes in his book "Moral Wisdom" that sin is not in our weaknesses but in our strength. It is where we are complacent in the fact that we have measured up, that we are just fine, that, like all other New Testament sinners, we are satisfied with ourselves. It is in confessing our moral faults in an act of humility that we can discover the depths of our faults. It is not enough to name only the wrong we have done but also the ways we have not loved. How have we not loved family, neighbors, those who are less fortunate that us, who suffer? When examing our conscience, concentrating and framing our thoughts in the context of the corporal works of mercy and the cardinal virtues can help. There is no perfect system or advise-giving here, but frequent confession helps us to hate the sin more and more and open our eyes to the many ways, often hidden, that we have not loved as Christ has asked us to do. It is only in trusting in Jesus and living likewise that we will help one another get to the new Jerusalem.

If meditation or Buddhist practices help, go for it. 



Michael B ==

I think that JP II is probably an example of a generally very virtuous heroic man who, on the other hand, looked away and so didn't help the suffering children as he should have. 

That noting technique would catch me *choosing* to turn away from the suffering that is before me.  But noting isn't *all* painful discovery of one's faults -- occasionally one sees oneself  doing something good, and then finds oneself feeling grateful for the grace of God.  

Anne Olivier ==

I admire your striving for spiritual growth to love God and neighbor. There is much to learn about ourselves and God's will. I am the first to admit I stand at the end of the line when It comes to being the man God wants me to become.

It is sometimes disheartening to criticize a pope or the RCC despite good reasons for doing so. I do so not for any hang up or excessive compulsion, but in my sincere belief that as a Church there is much to do in our collective search for the truth. In this regard, a focus on "the suffering of others" is one reason to move the conversation forward by legitimate but respectful disagreement about practices and teachings that cause much of it. JP II not only looked away from the suffering children (victims of clergy sexual abuse) and shielded bishops from justice who covered up these crimes, but he also protected Marial Marciel who committed horrific crimes and detestable sins. Equally important, JP II looked passed the suffering of many Catholics and refused to recognize that Church teachings is a cause of the suffering of:

1. seropositive husbands who cannot use a condom to protect their spouse from a deadly disease while they express their love for them in sexual union; they are told this is intrinsically evil.

2. many divorsed and remarried Catholics who are refused the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharist reception; they are disenfrancized from the Church. 

3. those with a same sex orientation that are told that the only way to their salvation is through a lifetime of sexual absintence;

4. married couples who have children and want no more for good reasons are told if they practice contraception they have a false, evil and destructive love; the list goes on.

JP II was a heroic man, a holy man who truly believed he was doing God's will and helping the Church. There is much to admire about him. However, he was not free from misinformation and erroneous thoughts about human sexuality, marriage and procreation, Western societies and women.





Lisa: You asked: "Yeah, but--how do we KNOW we're becoming more loving?"  I find this an odd question, at least when I try to compose a judgment that might answer it, in the affirmative: "Well, yes, I am more loving than I used to be."  As Ann asks above, "Who can be completely objective about himself." The Catholic tradition has resisted Protestant claims to be certain that one has already been saved or stands in God's grace.  One may have no doubts about God's mercy or Christ's merit or the efficacy of the sacraments and still, on account of our weakness and indisposition, not be entirely certain that one has attained that grace.  This was also Aquinas' view: one could be certain that one possessed the knowledge needed to become a professor but not that one has the charity required in a bishop.

Bernard Lonergan said that his Jesuit spiritual director once asked him whether he loved God. "I'd like to," the young Lonergan replied. "If you'd like to, you do," said the director. I think that was a very wise answer. 

About self-objectivity --  a psychiatrist friend once said to me, "Each of us has a whole family of selves running around in our unconscious". That being the case, maybe one of those unconscious "selves' could be objective about what I have done, but another one couldn't, so what's the use trying to be objective?  

On the other hand, it seems we are also morally bound to judge ourselves -- consider Confession. 

We need a thread or two on "Judge not that ye be not judged".

It is almost impossible not to judge ourselves especially when we frequent the sacrament of reconciliation that requires us to examine our conscience. Here are a few thoughts and questions that perplex me.

1. I want to love God and neighbor but I know I am far from the man he wishes me to be. As my relationship with God grows (an uncertain perception), so does my sin and guilt grow because I know him yet offend him. If this is supposed to humble me, it is working.

2. When I frequent confession, I often ask myself: Do I fear hell more than offending God? Why do I not value the love of God and neighbor more than my selfishness, my desire for pleasure, and sin? If God's grace is sufficient for my salvation, why I am alwaying sinning? 

3. While I do not want to sin, the result of my weak and imperfect striving will cause me to sin in the future (almost a certainty as far as I am concerned). I will always need the sacrament of reconciliation even at the hour of my death.

4. I do believe in the mercy and grace of God. I know he wants me to be with him in heaven some day, but all my sinning will mean a long purification process.

As my parish priest said "I would be happy to spend time in purgatory because it is only temporary." I am trying to stay positive, but joy is not the word that comes to my mind about my eventable purgatory.



Thanks to all for a rich thread. A few comments:

One thing that struck me about the compassion study was its insistence that a "spiritual" practice (I assume it had no explicit religious referent in the study, as does most Christian meditation,) was evaluated by a "moral" quality. Sometimes in CHristian tradition we separate Jesus' twofold commandment into two distinguishable loves, when I believe they are far more intertwined. As Ann observed, people who meditate are sometimes seen by those around them as easier to live with.

As to Aristotle and theoria and the rest of the virtues, he takes pains to show how different they are, at least in the part of book X of the Nicomachean Ethics where he discusses that question. But I also feel like Book X, at least all the material on theoria, feels tacked on anyway--more like a philosopher defending his profession than a logical highest human endeavor to conclude the Ethics. But I yield to any and all Aristotelians on this matter.

What makes a virtue a virtue? Great question, and harder than it appears on first glance. Living virtuously IS living happily, and flourishing to the extent one can given one's situation (moral luck plays a role, definitely.) But we are easily led to wrong notions of human flourishing, (Aristotle's list of virtues provides Exhibit A--virtues that look like those of a free Athenian male, so culture bound, androcentric, and all the rest.) And here in the US we virtue-ize vices all the time--individualism, e.g., and consumerism.

However,there seems to me to be not enough of the interconnection of prayer and good living. Any prayer practice, like any moral do-gooding, can make us worse as well as better. Aristotle/Aquinas thought that doing virtuous things makes us virtuous, so that then we tend more naturally to do virtuous things--the "virtuous circle" Crystal and Joe K. described. But there has to be a practice of personal reflection and a community to which one is accountable. As Aristotle also noted practicing the lyre makes both good and bad lyre players. Likewise, perhaps, but more difficult to assess, with spiritual practices, where the moral effects are always indirect.

I have yet to see a theololgy that integrates fundamental moral theology, virtue and Scripture. We have a virtue ethics but most of this is abstact (what exactly is doing just things mean?). We have fundamental theological ethics per Aquinas, but there are profound disagreements about his holistic moral theory and whether the proximate end of the act of choice or the ulterior intention-to-end of the agent is the sole and overriding moral factor giving specification to voluntary human action. We have Scripture, especially the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, but these are not absolute moral norms for there are circumstances that subject the application of such texts to reason (e.g., Thou shalt not kill makes sense, but killing in self defense, in a just war and in defending the common good and justice or capital punishment is permitted).

The good news is that some theologians are attempting to reframe theological ethics and a new way of viewing virtue into a more theological holistic theory with some practical applications.  

Until then, spiritual practices are one way toward perfecting the love that God implants in us and expects us to respond to as we live our lives. However, spiritual exercises or spiritual theology is different than moral theology. We need an understanding of both if we want to think and act morally.



"Living virtuously IS living happily, and flourishing to the extent one can given one's situation "

Lisa --

Well, Socrates would have us believe so.  But I don't think that's necessarily true.  Too many good people have to live those lives of quiet desperation.  I would think that they are among those for whom prayer is terribly important.  Without prayer, how could some of them survive?

I agree that prayer -- and certainly some forms o meditation -- can be bad, confirming the holier-than-thou in their misapprehensions.  And mindfulness meditation as practiced by some American Buddhists (not all) just seems to aim at "feeling good about oneself" and learning to easily tolerate one's guilt and responsibility for sin.

Just checked my recently aquired Introduction to the Devout Life of St. Francis deSalaes.  He doesn't seem to be interested in individuals judging their spiritual  progress.  Maybe he assumes that people have spiritual directors for that.

By the way, another reason to ordain married men and women would be to provide more spiritual guidance.  Few priests have the time these days.


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