Figuring out the weather during late autumn in this part of Connecticut can certainly be challenging. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly from one extreme to the next, with one day feeling like winter has arrived and the next feeling like we are back in summer. For most people this can pose a challenge in a variety of ways, such as figuring out the proper clothing to put on in any given day. (Thankfully Dominicans avoid that particular problem!) But these days of fluctuating temperatures can also provide a particular challenge to those who rely on a hot water radiator system for building heat, as we do over in the priory. With such systems, typically once you turn it on in the fall, it stays on until spring.
It was about two weeks ago that, once again, the friars at St. Mary’s faced that dilemma. We had that cold snap and after several days of finding my fingers growing increasingly numb from the cold as I tried to work at my desk, we finally made the decision to turn on the heat for the winter. And, as one could have inevitably predicted, by the end of that same week temperatures were up in the 70’s and we were all sweltering as our radiators poured out heat into our now far too warm living quarters. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. Sitting at my desk, fingers so numb from the cold I could barely type one day. Sitting at my desk, sweltering from the heat, trying to type and also wipe the sweat off my forehead another day. All in the span of less than a week! In looking back on that experience (one repeated seemingly every autumn), it was helpful for me to once again reflect on the truth that the radiator in my office is teaching me an important lesson about the spiritual life.
Human beings aren’t made for extremes. We flourish best when avoiding the extremes of either lack or excess. This is true of temperature. It is also true in the realm of virtue and vice, where this idea has been immortalized in the famous Latin phrase in medio stat virtus (“Virtue stands in the mean.”) It was a phrase used by St. Thomas Aquinas and highly popular in medieval scholastic theology, though having its origin in the writings of Aristotle. The idea behind this teaching is the truth that for (nearly) every virtue, there are extremes of both lack and excess that are vices. To take a simple example, courage as a virtue stands in the face of two extremes when it comes to facing danger: the extreme of lack of courage is called cowardice and the extreme of excess of “courage” is called recklessness, both of which are vices. Courage itself, the virtue, walks the “middle road” between those two.
The general truth of this idea goes beyond just the realm of virtue & vice. For example, consider the spiritually beneficial practice of praying the rosary. Your spiritual life will be much better served by regularly praying one rosary every day than it will be by not touching the rosary at all for the first twenty nine days of each month and then taking one day a month and going on a “rosary binge” where you pray rosary after rosary for eight consecutive hours! Or another example (for those who are married), which of these two is going to strengthen your marriage more: to make an effort every single day to say “I love you” and show your spouse some small tiny gesture of affection, and then when your anniversary date rolls around, have a relatively subdued celebration; or to wait for your anniversary day, throw the most extravagant, amazing, elaborate anniversary celebration imaginable…but then spend the remaining 364 days of the year never saying “I love you” or showing any affection to him or her?
The moral of the story is clear: our spiritual advancement is not served in wildly fluctuating extremes, but by the slow steady progress of standing in the mean and growing little by little every day. As you sit this weekend at home enjoying your heat (or your air conditioning, whatever the case may be!) I invite you to look at your own spiritual life and check to see if there are any extremes, of either lack or excess, that you might instead be able to replace with a small but consistent effort instead. More often than not, the lesson of the Tortoise and the Hare is also true in the spiritual life: slow and steady wins the race.
Fr. John Paul