Difference Between Routine and Virtue
Authentic Catholic Spirituality
Having the opportunity to walk with people in their spiritual life, you begin to witness common mistakes in the spiritual life. When we use various terms, we sometimes use the common parlance which is now disconnected from the original meaning associated with those terms in the Church’s life. For instance, today we speak about freedom, but often conflate it with liberty. Christian freedom is an interior reality, while liberty is an exterior type of freedom. It’s a dangerous thing to not know exactly what the traditional terms mean, and to conflate them with the popular notion of them used today.
We might think that Christian Freedom is the same thing as legal liberty. And this is dangerous because liberty (the ability to do as we please) can limit and at times enslave us to sin, thereby inhibiting interior freedom. The addict is perpetually exposed to temptation, enabled, and ultimately surrounded by a culture that cheers on such behavior. Meanwhile, having a good parent who says “no” out of love, sets up a boundary that enables us to not be overcome by perpetual temptation and the availability of what is evil.
With smart phones in the pockets of many, we know all too well that this liberty often leads to all sorts of impulsive abuses on social media and the abuse of the internet. For those addicted to various things on the internet, it’s as if an alcoholic is perpetually harassed by a liquor store in their pocket.
The same error of language occurs around the meaning of Virtue and Good Habits. We often have our own concept of what these terms mean, but at times mislabel them. One particular example is where we conflate routine with habit. These terms do not mean the same thing. In this case, the conflation tends to be with a reduction of a habit to a merely external activity (i.e. routine). Routines themselves are not bad, but they are only the matter of an action; they do not reveal the inner disposition. St. Thomas Aquinas would not define a habit apart from a disposition.1
Exterior actions can be associated with interior dispositions, but that doesn’t mean that such interior dispositions are actually present. For instance, just because a person feeds the poor doesn’t mean they are loving the poor. Perhaps they are virtue signaling or resentfully doing some work they believe is merely a matter of duty (i.e. deontology). Such an action is not praiseworthy and in fact can be sinful – i.e. it is not a virtue. A person who regularly goes to the gym for their own vain reasons does not have virtue.
Let’s consider the essence of a practical virtue. When we see the four cardinal virtues what we do not see is a definition about concrete instances of such virtues. We hear of being prudent, but in all circumstances, not in a particular rigid adherence to a routine. Prudence is not reducible to some particular physical and exterior act, but is a disposition that is applied to a great variety of circumstances.
While a person may have great routines that have benefits, they can experience all of these things without a good spiritual disposition. Think of a warrior who is skilled at battle, but fighting for some horribly nefarious purpose. He does not have the virtue of courage, justice, temperance or prudence, but rather a vice. Saul had a great zeal for persecuting the Church, but he didn’t have the virtue of righteousness/justice.
To St. Thomas Aquinas “habits” are different than routines, because habits strictly “belong to the intellectual powers of the soul.”2 Anything else that arises as a type of habit in our sensory appetite (i.e. desires), is really just a type of effect or extension of the intellectual habits. Therefore, a person who feeds the poor often, may do the activity well, but their pride in serving themselves by using the poor, is what drives them to smile, and offer the pretense of hospitality and care. The sensory type of habit really is a type of wolf in sheep’s clothing: “I like feeding the poor because people think I’m a good person.” It looks good, but it is rotten fruit.
Herman Reith writes of the danger of a routine (conflated with virtue) and he calls such things “habitudes.” “The advantages of habits are sometimes counteracted by the routine and lack of spontaneity which habits seem to endanger.”3 If the habits we speak about, termed virtues are intellectual acts, they are a type of regular movement of the will toward what is good. To St. Thomas Aquinas there was a distinction between the general motive of the intellect and the means to accomplish that task. That is to say, if a prideful (general disposition) person wants to act pious for vain reasons, the general motive is oriented towards evil, while the means to accomplish this is an exterior act used as a supposed demonstration of interior piety.
A person who consigns themselves to a routine often does so because there is a comfort and ease in doing the same thing over and over again. Yet, such an ease becomes the purpose for that behavior rather than the good. Ease and pleasure is meant to be a side-effect to what is done in service of the good. Thus we run into people who become entirely disgusted and angry when their routine is interrupted. We know, however, that God does ask us to pick up our cross, daily. This means that the whole person must carry the cross, which is not merely an external act, but one that requires an interior death-to-self.
Clinging to routine as a type of attachment to exterior behavior makes it an end in itself, rather than a means to preserve or build virtue. And this is where we go wrong. Perhaps we find ourselves fantasizing about what a life of holiness looks like, exteriorly. We dream of being seen as holy and righteous, even by ourselves. We are so entirely preoccupied with what holiness looks like that we fail to be aware of the very moment of our own will. Our prideful movements of the will become so automatic that we don’t realize that when we cry out “Lord, Lord” in our spirit we are actually using His name in vain.
To put it briefly, I might suggest that we look at virtues as interior habits of the will. There is a reason why Temperance, Prudence, Courage and Justice are terms that are vague. It’s not as if we’ve defined a virtue in such a narrow and specific way such as “going to the gym regularly” or “saying this writ prayer 10 times a day.”
Virtues sometimes require us to interrupt our routine. It is often prudent to change our plans, even when our plans promise us comforts. Virtues may involve a detachment from the routines we have become attached to. They may, for instance, demand that we stop holding onto the mode of Christendom and adjust to something more similar to an Apostolic Era. They may demand that we consider the Church as it struggles today, rather than reacting to the problems of yesterday. All in all, virtue is able to comprehend what must be done in the “now” according to what God’s Goodness demands.
What we learn from St. Thomas Aquinas, here, is exactly what the late Pope Benedict taught about the virtue of faith. It is not merely a part of the person assenting to God, but it is the whole person assenting to God. It is the mind, will and subsequently the heart assenting to God. True virtue therefore cannot be seen as some mere constant, exterior activity. As such we find ourselves being labeled by Christ as a whitewashed tomb.
I say all of this to expose to the self what is really at stake when discussing virtue. When people are struggling in growing in various virtues, we cannot therefore consign ourselves to the mere behavior associated with virtue. But we have to do the harder work of moving our will and mind in the direction of what is good. It is the interior habituation that leads the way. If all we do is escape into an awareness of exterior acts with a neglect to our disposition, we essentially are attempting to overcome sin as though sin were merely an exterior act. We know better than that. We know that sin comes from our will and mind consigning itself to evil and disorder. Will the good, love God and your neighbor with your whole self. Avoid pretense. Be detached from routines.
Herman Reith, An Introduction to Philosophical Psychology. Prentice Hall INC, N.J., 1956, pg 197
Reith, Philosophical Psychology. pg 203