This term I am undertaking a placement at Hatfield College, Durham. For the choral evensong services of the Epiphany term, the college are following a series on the 7 heavenly virtues (the 7 deadly sins were the theme of last term’s services). Dr Bash, the Chaplain and Senior Tutor invited me to speak at the first service of term and provide an introduction to the series.
This was a challenging but fun sermon to write – I haven’t preached without a set bible passage before and the congregation is mostly academics and students – so a bit of a different setting from what I am used to.
Here is the sermon:
“Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use? The seven heavenly virtues.”
I heard that last term you had a series looking at the 7 deadly sins. So when I met with Dr Bash to discuss my placement here he suggested I do the first sermon of the Epiphany term. “Oh good”, I thought, “I wonder what topic that will be on – sounds like they do racy topics at Hatfield”. Then he told me – ‘now we’ve done the 7 deadly sins, we’re going to move onto the 7 heavenly virtues’. I’m a bit embarrassed at my initial lack of enthusiasm for the subject. Why does it sound so uncool? Isn’t it curious that the word virtuous is nearly always used in a pejorative way? Maybe you’ve said it a few times this month already ‘oh he’s being really virtuous, he’s not drinking for the whole of January’. Always used in a negative way – it implies ‘that person thinks they’re better than me’. We rarely commend another person on their virtue. It sounds, well, old fashioned. Even the title of the sermon given to me phrases things negatively: ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good’.
I shared an article the other day on Facebook about awful ‘pink princess’ marketing towards little girls. There was one objection that a friend had to the article. The journalist wrote:
‘The Harrods Disney experience, complete with sparkly makeover and deluxe princess dress, is aimed at girls aged three to 12 and culminates in an oath where princesses’ vow, among other things, to be “kind and gentle”. Perhaps not the best advice for future boardroom battles or climbing the steely managerial ladder, but of course, those aren’t the sort of roles one would expect a princess to aspire to.’
My friend asked ‘what’s wrong with promising to be kind?’
It got me thinking: particularly when I discovered that kindness is one of the 7 heavenly virtues.
So, we’d better start at the beginning. What are the 7 heavenly virtues and where do they come from?
Initially it was the ancient Greeks that came up with a list of virtues – these are temperance, justice, courage and wisdom. The early Christians, the educated of which would have been taught these, added 3 further theological virtues taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – faith, hope and charity. This list of 7 became known as the ‘cardinal’ virtues – from the Latin word ‘hinge’ – giving the idea that these virtues are what everything else hinges on. The 7 heavenly virtues, however, came a little later with the publication of a poem in the 4th century by the poet Prudentius called the Psychomachia – translated into English by HJ Thomson (in the only version I managed to download for free from the internet) as ‘The fight for mansoul’ – mansoul being one word which I found rather quirky! This text became incredibly popular in the Middle Ages and it is from this that we get the lists of the 7 deadly sins and the 7 heavenly virtues which are their counterparts. The 7 heavenly virtues are chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility and temperance – I’ll let you work out which are their opposing vices!
I was wondering why on earth a poem written in the 4th century by a Roman Christian became so popular in the Middle Ages. Then I read it. It’s brilliant! The poem is a graphic account of the battle that takes place in our soul as we try and live well. Prudentius personifies the 7 vices and virtues as warrior women engaged in a vicious fight. It reminded me quite a lot of Game of Thrones (both the books and the TV series) – it’s very racy, let me read you an extract:
Next to step forth ready to engage on the grassy field is the maiden Chastity, shining in beauteous armour. On her falls Lust the Sodomite, girt with the firebrands of her country, and thrusts into her face a torch of pinewood blazing murkily with pitch and burning sulphur, attacking her modest eyes with the flames and seeking to cover them with the foul smoke. But the maiden undismayed smites with a stone the inflamed fiend’s hand and the cursed whore’s burning weapon, striking the brand away from her holy face. Then with a sword thrust she pierces the disarmed harlot’s throat, and she spews out hot fumes with clots of foul blood, and the unclean breath defiles the air nearby. “A hit!” cries the triumphant princess. “This shall be thy last end; forever shalt thou dare to cast thy deadly flames against God’s man-servants or his maid-servants.”
Is that what is going on in your soul? Does it ever feel like life is a battle that ferocious?
This doesn’t sound like ‘heavenly minded’ stuff. This sounds like very earthly stuff to me. And that is the challenge of Christianity. We have just celebrated the great feast of the Incarnation – Christmas. What that feast tells us about the Christian God is that He is not ‘up in the clouds’ aloof from the world but right down in the dirt, violence and pain of our world. Living life to the full – as Jesus challenges us to do in John 10:10 is a messy business – and a lot of that messiness goes on for us internally – within our very souls.
I would suggest that there are two main reasons it’s going to be worth us spending some time this term looking at the virtues. Firstly, a worldly reason. Our society is struggling for lack of focusing on the right things, on the common good – what we would call the virtues. The biggest issue facing us in the UK at the moment is the recession. What caused that? It was the greed of the banks and the belief that it is possible to undertake banking without thinking ethically. You might remember back in 2011 all the problems at St Paul’s Cathedral with the Occupy movement? Following that, the Bishop of London commissioned Ken Costa, an investment banker to help the banking sector rediscover its moral compass. Since then we have had a new Archbishop of Canterbury who has put the focus back onto ethics in banking in challenging Wonga and payday loans and we’ve had the Pope directly challenging trickle down capitalism in his first papal encyclical. This was so shocking to business leaders in America that they absurdly threatened to stop giving money to the church because of the Pope’s “outrageous” views. I don’t know what courses you are all studying, but I know many of you will go on to be business leaders, lawyers, politicians and government workers. Perhaps your generation can heal the mistakes made by the current generation of leaders that have lost their ‘moral compass’? You will influence society for good or ill when you leave this place – so it’s probably a good idea for us to look together at the virtues – it will help provide you with a framework for the way you live your life.
The second reason I think it’s worth us spending time looking at the virtues is for our own selves and personal growth in Christ. Plato and Aristotle – and later on Thomas Aquinas – believed that the virtues could only be learnt through practice. There is something to be said for repetition, we are very forgetful people. This seems appropriate for a new year – think of these next few weeks of choral evensong at Hatfield as a training academy for your soul. When John Wesley set up his Methodist societies – groups for people to attend to encourage each other in the faith – he charged each person to have someone ask them each week
‘how is it with your soul?’
It is a piercing question is it not?
Perhaps you feel like your soul is in a raging battle – like the one described by Prudentius in the Psychomachia. Or perhaps you feel a bit like me, to be honest, I haven’t given much attention to my soul recently – it’s been a bit dormant. So let’s try and wake up, let’s wake up to what is going on in our soul. I want to get spiritually fit this year as well as physically fit. Let’s ask ourselves each week this term, ‘how is it with my soul?’ and let us learn together how we can truly live life in all its fullness with the help of the Holy Spirit. Amen.