Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Forgotten Virtue

I once wrote that Hope is more despised than Chastity, that if you're not cynical and disdainful, you're not hip and modern.

But there's a virtue that seems even less in vogue than Hope, and that is Magnanimity.

What is Magnanimity?  Well, even Wikipedia gets it right ...

Magnanimity (derived from the Latin roots magn- great, and animus, mind, literally means greatly generous [my note: no, its etymology means great of spirit or great of soul]) is the virtue of being great of mind and heart. It encompasses, usually, a refusal to be petty, a willingness to face danger, and actions for noble purposes. Its antithesis is pusillanimity.

Now pusillanimity is what I would call low-balling, or flying under the radar.  It's living your life as many men (and women) do, and as I did before my conversion, seeking cheap casual sex, easy money without hard work, comfort, and the means to satisfy your desires without getting noticed and without getting hurt.  It is a kind of cowardice of heart; while magnanimity is a kind of expansion of heart.

But think about it.  Who do we know in the spiritual life who is not more or less pusillanimous?  Lots of folks are bold and courageous when it comes to business ventures and other worldly endeavors, but how many Catholics do you know who are willing to risk their own private pettiness, their own pigeon-holed existence for something great?  How many Catholics really heed the Holy Spirit and set out into deep waters?  Do we all not typically grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) rather than heed the Spirit?

If there's anything I've seen over and over again, especially with young people, it's this desire to play it safe, to avoid big risk and big failure, to keep an uncircumcised heart, to be small-of-mind and small-of-spirit in a toy theater life they build and control.  This is true for Christians and agnostics alike, as a rule. 

And even Wikipedia makes the connection to C. S. Lewis, who was more perceptive about this subject than anything else.  Wikipedia writes ...

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, refers to the chest of man as the seat of magnanimity, or sentiment, with this magnanimity working as the liaison between visceral and cerebral man. Lewis asserts that in his time, the denial of the emotions that are found in the eternal, the sublime, that which is humbling as an objective reality, had led to "men without chests".
"In his time" and ours, Wikipedia.


I had a nominally Catholic actress who worked for me who was undeniably called to teach drama.  Of all things in her life, teaching drama to young people moved her, excited her, and yes, disturbed her.  That's the thing about our vocations - they are always a call out of our pusillanimous "comfort zones".  When you love something, when God has made you to do something and you get a whiff of your true identity in Him, when you are drawn to something that moves you, you approach the chasm of magnanimity - you are called to step forth in fear and faith. 

But this otherwise sweet young lady refused to get certified in drama and simply worked as a substitute teacher or as a volunteer assistant director for the school plays.  She found what she loved and she put it in a box on a shelf where it was safe.

There's a Kafka parable where a pusillanimous soul waits patiently before his destiny, represented by a giant door he is told by a gatekeeper that he must not approach.  And he waits patiently for years.  Then, as a dying old fool, half deaf, he is told by the gatekeeper, who bellows in his ear, "This door was meant only for you.  You have wasted your life by failing to go through it."

Likewise, there's the rather chilling Henry James story "The Beast in the Jungle" about a cowardly character who lives his whole life afraid of the very things he is most drawn to, including a woman who clearly loves him and whom he never seriously engages.

And there's the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, where the master scolds and condemns the investor who played it safe and buried his treasure in a hole.  I write more about that elsewhere.


All in all, playing it safe in matters of the Spirit is worse than tragic - it is pathetic.

May we all strive to be magnanimous - Great of Spirit - for the Lord.


Benjamin. said...

Why didn't she want to teach?

Kevin O'Brien said...

I think, Benjamin, because it hurt too much. She loved it so much that she had to use a damper on it, so to speak. She also came from a rather bizarre family, and I think other issues were in the way.

Sherry Weddell said...

Kevin - I have the privilege of knowing some truly magnanimous men and woman who are taking huge risks for the Kingdom of God. Some are Catholic, more are evangelicals (where dreaming big and taking risks for the Kingdom is more like to be considered to be "normal" , admired behavior.

I have been struck often by the eagerness of so many Catholics to stay "small" but now I realize that a good deal of that is the fact that most Catholics are not yet disciples. Therefore, the charisms of most Catholics haven't manifested. The emergence of a charism can quickly change things as in the area of one's giftedness, you tend to have an exceptional trust in God and suddenly risk-taking in that area is attractive and almost natural. But as I tell folks at every Called & Gifted workshop, our greatest fears can be wrapped around our greatest gifts and sometimes - like your young woman friend - we won't even go near the gifts because it is sooo important we can't bear to look at it seriously and discern if it is genuine or not. Here's where our failure to build communities of disciples really comes in because ordinary people feel much more comfortable taking risks if they know others are really with them and behind them. As it is, Catholics -especially lay Catholics- usually have to be absolutely heroic and risk everything without any net. And while a few of us are gifted to do just that, most of us aren't.

Neil said...

"She found what she loved and she put it in a box on a shelf where it was safe."

Well, sheesh, almost thou persuadest me to be an actor... or try, rather.