Orthodox America

Heroic Virtue

Sleaze and scandal, especially when found in high places, have long been popular with the media as guarantee of a captive audience. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the media ran hotly after Monica Lewinsky, whose alleged escapade with President Clinton saturated the airwaves and the nation's newsprint for days on end. What was surprising was how ready the American public was to let go of the affair, to dismiss the charges as a private matter, having little or no bearing on the presidential office. The blasé, "everybody-does-it" attitude says even more than the president's compromising behavior about just how corroded the moral and ethical underpinnings of our society are. In such an environment, to speak of Christian virtue as "heroic" is amply justified.

O Lord ... grant us to live chastely in word and act, that we may live a life of heroic virtue and not fall away from Thy promised blessings... (Evening Prayers)

Heroes are associated with feats of extraordinary courage, with valor and nobility of purpose; a hero is, by definition, especially "one who has risked or sacrificed his life" in the undertaking of such brave and noble action. It follows that "heroic" describes something "having or displaying the qualities of a hero"; it can also be used in the sense of "using extreme measures to affect a cure or save a life." We are accustomed to think of virtue as a static quality, as "goodness," or "righteousness," but when virtue is described as "heroic" it gains an active dimension, and we have a clearer sense of the effort required, both in the attainment and in the exercise of virtue.

Examples of heroic virtue abound in the lives of saints. A recent and most instructive example presents itself likewise in the life of Brother Joseph (José) Muñoz-Cortes, whose loss to us is still so keenly felt (see pp. 5-8). Here was a man who lived in the world, our world, with all the temptations this presented. He had, in addition, the weighty responsibility of caring for the wonderworking Myrrh-streaming Icon. His chosenness was a rare privilege, but it was not easy or "fun." He himself admitted that the frequent trips he made in accompanying the icon were physically taxing. People would crowd around him, anxious to tell him their problems and ask his advice, and with his poor command of English this took considerable effort and patience. But the weariness that told on his face came primarily from an intense engagement in spiritual warfare. Like a soldier on watch, he was consistently intent on spiritual matters, maintaining a concentrated devotion to the Mother of God, and daily fulfilling a lengthy prayer rule. As the icon's guardian, Brother José was exposed to inevitable church problems: jealousies, animosities, ambition, vainglory, apathy. His was a sensitive, God-loving soul, and all this must have been very difficult to bear. Being a very private person, striving in his humility always to be in the background, his struggles were known to very few. But one did not have to know Brother José well to recognize that he was a frontline soldier, nor can one help but feel a sense of disquietude at his being taken from our midst. We mourn the loss of a hero, knowing that we neither can nor will take his place.

Brother José's life compels us to ask, "Why is there so little evidence among us of heroic virtue?" He himself suggested an answer in an interview conducted just a year before his death:

In this world, three things dominate: money, physical lust, visual entertainment. They gradually destroy a person. We Orthodox Christians must guard ourselves from all of this. It is terrible to observe how the television idol brainwashes a person. ... This demonic apparatus accustoms us to sin, without showing us the disastrous results. The Apostle Paul says that the price of sin is spiritual death. We must always be prepared for physical death, but especially arm ourselves against spiritual death.

We all know how difficult it is to resist the enticements of the world, to resist buying what we want but do not need (how easily we take the former for the latter), to resist flopping down in front of the television and instead to read an edifying book. To keep ourselves-and our children- from being thoroughly corrupted by our dissipated society demands a concentrated effort that can only be called heroic. This is especially true of physical lust. Youth are particularly susceptible to its siren call, and we should all take the example of Brother José, who prayed daily to the Mother of God that Orthodox youth "become holy men and holy women," i.e., that they follow the precepts of the Church and not succumb to the "everybody-does-it" morality of our society.

To conquer lustful temptations is to bring other passions under control, as Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic explains in his homily, "On Danger," a commentary on the Scripture passage, Let your loins be girded and your candles burning (Luke 12:35):

Lo, between the loins is the home of the greatest physical passions. To gird the loins means to brace oneself by restraint and not to choke oneself with wilful passions. But the girding of the physical loins is not the goal but the means we use more easily to gird up our mind, heart and will. Physical restraint is the first lesson in the formation of our Christian character. ... The Kingdom of God, my brethren, is entered by the narrow way. Only in restraint of mind, heart and will can the candles of virtue be lit, the flames of which rise up before God.

It is evident why the overcoming of the passions of the flesh deserves to be called heroic, but in a culture that promotes self-centeredness, even such simple virtues as compassion, generosity and kindness acquire heroic stature. As indifference towards Christianity gives way to hostility, the act of making the sign of the cross in public, or speaking up against abortion, or defending the Church's teaching regarding homosexuality- these, too, will be defined as heroism. We have said that a hero often risks or sacrifices his life. Brother José said in his interview, "When the opportunity arises to be a confessor, we should not hesitate. If we lose our earthly life, we gain a heavenly one. We should not fear death for Christ."

If we cannot be frontline heroes like Brother José, we are still expected to be somewhere in the ranks. May God grant us His grace to lead a life of heroic virtue that we may inherit His promised blessings. Editor