Adventures, and the discoveries attained in those adventures, require certain male virtues. The word “virtue” or “Virtus” in Latin does not mean “goodness;” it means strength. To practice the virtues strengthens a man. To commit vice enfeebles him. The very word “virtue” comes from the word vir or “man” in Latin, as in “virile.” So etymologically, the word virtue means “manliness.” Here are three male virtues.
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Prudence is not mere “safety” or fear of failure. Prudence is the application of our skills within a calculated risk to attain an objective. Consider this definition from a business website: “Prudence is good judgment or wisdom gained from experience and knowledge… it is not the same as grave caution or wariness concerned only with preserving the status quo. If there is no real cause for fear, prudence avoids excessive deliberations in the readiness to sacrifice today's gain for tomorrow's greater gain.” When a man wants to make as much money as he can, he must make prudent investments, meaning that he must sustains the greatest possible risk that will yield the greatest possible profit. Risking too much will lose money, but so will risking too little. Prudence finds the mean between action and inaction. If we take prudent risks with our money in order to make money, how much more should we take prudent risks with our lives to live more fully.
Prudence balances risk with achievement. Charging into danger without a plan is stupidity, but refusing to ever face danger is cowardice. Jesus asks what king would go into battle with 10,000 men against an army of 30,000. Jesus himself entered the desert precisely to engage Satan, but he did so armed with the weapons of prayer and fasting. Saints sometimes fail to exercise prudence, but they learn from their mistakes. St. John Vianney, for example, did such severe penances as a young priest that it ruined his health for the rest of his life. In his later years he admitted that it was a mistake but the Church holds him up as the patron and model for parish priests, who, I’m sure, take too few risks. Mother Teresa walked out of her safe convent in the Entally section of Calcutta, out into the streets alone, in what many told her was an act of madness. But she did this only after ascertaining that it was the certain will of God, and after four years of preparation, obtaining the blessing of her religious order, her archbishop, and the Holy See. She suffered great risks and self-denials, but only through this great adventure of hers did the grace of God build the most dynamic religious order of the 20th century.
A second male virtue is discipline. “Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things,” St. Paul writes, “and that only for a crown that withers.” An Olympic gold medal is mighty fine but certainly not eternal. In forty years Michael Phelps’ 28 Olympic medals will be useless to him. Self-denial wins us the capacity to lead ourselves, and we must be able to lead ourselves before we can lead other people. All of us, men and women, will be called to lead others at various points in our lives, and so we should prepare for that task by first gaining self-possession through personal disciplines. The body is at war with the soul, St. Paul wrote, and so the soul must gain possession of its faculties from the outset. Jesus called this “denying oneself,” and the desert fathers called it ascesis, the Greek word for training or “exercise.” St. Paul described ascesis in I Cor 9:27: “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” St. Ignatius, the soldier who founded the Society of Jesus, instructed his men to agere contra, to “act against” their own will, or at least the first impulses of their will. Without mortification, wrote St. Philip Neri, nothing spiritual is possible. Nothing great was ever attained without discipline and self-denial.
A third male virtue is community. A woman creates a home, a kind of human nest. A man builds a community, a human village. Of course men have their irreplaceable role in family life, and no village can exist without the female charisms. But men are uniquely called to be statesmen, the “Philosopher Kings” of Plato’s Republic.
We begin in childhood by forging bands of brothers, both in organized sports teams and in spontaneous family adventures. In the old days, men would hunt in groups. You can’t bring down a mastodon by yourself. Fraternity is in our blood, for reasons of survival if nothing else. The 3rd best selling book of all time, and the top-selling book of the last 100 years, is the Lord of the Rings. It’s the story of a brotherhood, the “Fellowship” of the Ring. Only a team could succeed in delivering the ring to its place. At the very point of decision, at the “cracks of doom,” the Ringbearer, who had come so far, fails in his task. In the end, another has to help Frodo complete the task, and it turns out to be Gollum, his longtime enemy. In God’s providence, even your adversaries work for the good for those who love God, and are willing to accept his help. God made even us men, we who like to dwell in caves and refuse the help of others, to work as teams. Sea voyages, space voyages, political achievements—all the greatest works of the human race are the work of bands of brothers (or sisters).
In our time the pressure to isolate ourselves is strong. Technical devices, from phones to automobiles, allow us to keep apart. We men, more than women, are tempted to be lone wolves. We must overcome that temptation to isolate. We must build fellowships. The most successful businesses know this. I visited one of our young adults at his Salesforce work environment two years ago: hundreds of people, not in cubicles but at workstations, interacting in generously appointed public spaces within the building, thinking and working together. From the Salesforce Corporation my young friend entered an even deeper community, the brotherhood of St. Dominic. He is in his third year as a Dominican friar in Oakland.
Conclusion: Captain Your Ship
God has given every man a particular bridge to build and a particular ship to captain. For his own reasons, God gives some men great responsibilities: I think of Winston Churchill, whom God made not only the Prime Minister of the British Realm in 1940, but the leader of the free world against Japanese, German and Russian dictatorships. I think every man should read a good biography of Churchill: a man of many flaws, but who stood alone before an army the rest of Europe thought invincible. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” One man said those words to a weak and cowering British Parliament on June 4, 1940. One man breathed new strength into the British People at their darkest hour. One man gave hope to the people of France who had had all hope beaten out of them. One man challenged the United States who, like King David, wanted to stay home, wanted no part in this war, and declined to commit. One man stood up to Hitler with virile conviction.
God has entrusted the command of a ship to each one of us men here. Some of us have families to guide through stormy waters. Some have parishes to steer, or businesses, or classrooms, or public trusts. Some of us have no more than ourselves to captain, to maintain serene self-possession in the face of assaults from within and without. In the end, gaining and maintaining self-possession is the fundamental task of every man. If we can captain the ship of our own personal lives, we can captain any other ship in life. To stay the course from birth to death, from earth to heaven, in the ways of God, is all God asks of a man.
Now for your homework. If not every member of your family is at Mass every Sunday, get them there. Begin with yourself, of course, taking your place at the Supreme Sacrifice, every day if you can. Captaining your ship begins with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and if you don’t lead your family and friends in this one thing necessary, you can expect no one else to do it. Christopher Columbus assisted at the Holy Mass almost every day of the two months he was at sea, receiving Holy Communion devoutly. And if you don’t know where you are going at times, and the seas of life seem endless and dark and uncertain, it is in the Holy Mass that God will tell you where to go and what to do next.