What is Heroic Virtue?

“Our culture has a very confused sense of heroism, often applauding the biggest, strongest, loudest, or wealthiest,” writes Catholic commentator Bear Woznick in his new book, Deep Adventure: The Way of Heroic Virtue (Sophia Institute Press). In response to this distortion, he has drawn upon his own daring life of surfing Hawaii’s waves, skydiving, and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, to examine insightfully the seven cardinal virtues.

Woznick counters the modern exaltation of braggadocio with courage’s mundane basis. Thus “true heroism -- the kind that saves lives, preserves dignity, and protects the most vulnerable -- is a determined, steadfast power, under control and directed toward the good with the clarity of purpose that comes with humility.” “Heroism is developed over time, one decision after another, moment by moment, formed by a deliberate, chosen, and habitual response to life,” he adds.

“Heroes are not made by a spider’s bite or on an alien planet,” Woznick clarifies. “A hero is just a common person, like you and me, choosing to do an uncommon thing.” Virtue forms such a hero, as Woznick notes its root in the Latin word “vir,” which “means ‘manly.’ True manliness is the pursuit of virtue.”

Justice stands at the beginning of Woznick’s analysis of the virtues:

The virtue of justice in its classic sense has two focuses: justice toward God and justice toward others. Think of the vertical beam of the cross as being justice toward God and the horizontal beam as justice toward others. Where the beams intersect is where we are called to live.

Prudence, meanwhile, vitally concerns the surfer Woznick. “Many people think big wave riders have a death wish, but the opposite is true. Their go-for-it attitude is really a life wish. They want to live to the fullest,” he notes. “Without prudence, we cannot fully experience God’s plan for us. Without prudence, we are lost beneath the crushing waves or, worse, left sunning ourselves on the shores of mediocrity,” Woznick analyzes. “Abandoning yourself to God’s will requires a prudent boldness… If you are going to stay inside your comfort zone, you don’t need prudence at all -- you just need a footrest.”

Woznick wisely distinguishes between earthly and heavenly desires in his discussion of temperance. “The virtue of temperance is the self-mastery to enjoy pleasure without craving it. It is moderating our appetites so that we control them instead of them controlling us,” he observes. By contrast, the “only thing we can infinitely desire is an infinite being,” namely God; “If we desire God first and foremost, we will never fall into the trap of wanting more.”

“Fortitude is the determined pursuit of the good,” Woznick writes as he reaches the last of the natural virtues, and “is the courage to do violence to our own weak will and say no to the easy way that leads to defeat.” Faith in God creates fortitude’s foundation, for “can there be any fear when we are with God? God is love, and perfect love casts out fear,” Woznick observes. “I know that whether I live or die or push forward in prolonged suffering, God is with me.”

From fortitude, Woznick transitions to the supernatural or theological virtues, beginning with faith. “Faith is dynamic, like a pent-up energy wanting to explode. Faith without action is dead,” he intriguingly states, for “God is calling you to continually move out in faith. He is calling you to do the impossible, every day.” “Every time I jump out of a plane, I feel the same rush that I feel when I take a leap of faith in response to God. Jesus challenged Peter to exercise his faith and to step out of the boat.”

True faith banishes worry and demands a confident sabbath rest amidst God’s security, Woznick explains. “When we worry, we are actually trying to exert our will over His. Making anything other than God and His will our goal is ultimately idolatry,” Woznick observes. “Trust. Rest. And try easy,” is his motto.  

Hope arises out of the deep desire for God. “The yearning to connect with beauty, to intimately share our lives with someone, and to seek perfection comes from the very core of our being because it is actually the deep longing for intimacy with our Creator,” Woznick notes. Accordingly, “[t]o pursue that longing -- to seek the knowledge of God -- is to have the virtue of hope.”

Hope entails giving control to God. “Once we’ve turned our back on the land and abandoned our will to God’s, we’ve given up all control,” Woznick writes. “Even so, we wait in hope and in prayer for the presence of the Lord.”

Woznick concludes with a similarly energetic understanding of love. “Love isn’t about feelings. Who has warm and fuzzy feelings for an enemy? No, love is about action. It’s the committed desire for the good of another and enacting it,” he writes. “Jesus commands us to make the choice of love, even for those who don’t deserve it in our opinions.”

As with Woznick’s pious mother in her long deathbed struggles, love often involves suffering. He points to God’s wrestling with Jacob in the Old Testament as an example. “If we desire true intimacy with God, we can expect that there will be times when God will drive us into the dark night and will wrestle with us as we try to cling to the world, the flesh, and the devil,” Woznick notes.   

The ocean blue provides the perfect setting for Woznick’s journey “ever deeper into the wild and untamable adventure of God’s love.” Woznick’s penetrating study of the seven cardinal virtues shows that they are not the stuff of mere academic discussions, but principles for a life both well-examined and well-lived. Woznick will not leave readers in their armchairs the same.

Image: Alexander von Bensa

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