The word virtue: what a fate it has had in the last three hundred years! The fact that it is nowhere near so despised and ridiculed in Latin countries is a testimony to the fact that it suffered mostly from the mangling it underwent at the hands of Calvinists and Puritans. In our own days the word leaves on the lips of cynical high-school children a kind of flippant smear, and it is exploited in theaters for the possibilities it offers for lewd and cheesy sarcasm. Everybody makes fun of virtue, which now has, as its primary meaning, an affectation of prudery practiced by hypocrites and the impotent.
When Martiain – who is by no means bothered by such trivialities – in all simplicity went ahead to use the term in its Scholastic sense, and was able to apply it to art, a “virtue of the practical intellect,” the very newness of the context was enough to disinfect my mind of all the miasmas left in it by the ordinary prejudice against “virtue” which, it it was ever strong in anybody, was strong in me. I was never a love of Puritanism. Now at last I came around to the sane conception of virtue – without which there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Merton describes a Type that is found beyond the Catholics; indeed, I encountered quite a few during my own seminary journey (and likely have and still do fit this type myself much of the time):
How many there are in the same situation! They stand in the stacks of libraries and turn over the pages of St. Thomas’ Summa with a kind of curious reverence. They talk in their seminars about “Thomas” and “Scotus” and “Augustine” and “Bonaventure” and they are familiar with Maritain and Gilson, and they have read all the poems of Hopkins – and indeed they more about what is best in the Catholic literary and philosophical tradition than most Catholics ever do on this earth. They sometimes go to Mass, and wonder at the dignity and restraint of the old liturgy. They are impressed by the organization of a Church in which everywhere the priests, even the most un-gifted, are able to preach at least something of a tremendous, profound, unified doctrine, and to dispense mysteriously efficacious help to all who come to them with troubles and needs.
In a certain sense, these people have a better appreciation of the Church and of Catholicism than many Catholics have: an appreciation which is detached and intellectual and objective. But they never come into the Church. They stand and starve in the doors of the banquet – the banquet to which they surely realize they are invited – while those more poor, more stupid, less gifted, less educated, sometimes even less virtuous than they, enter in and are filled at those tremendous tables.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain