If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
My mother’s sons turned their anger on me,
They made me look after the vineyards.
My own vineyard I had not looked after!
(Song of Solomon, 1:6)
The purpose of Our Lord’s mission is that we may have life more abundantly. One of the instruments which He offers to us in pursuit of this goal is the practice of virtue, that is, the keeping of His commandments. The promise is that if we do so not only shall we enter into His presence forever at the end of this mortal existence (which, to be sure, is a great assurance itself) but that even now, in this present time, we will experience an overflowing abundance of life.
How does that work? What is the connection between virtue and a life lived in primary colours? Catholics can offer an answer to these questions on two levels, that of Natural Law and that of Revealed Truth. On the first, where we use Reason unaided by Revelation, we can argue that virtue is intrinsically good and the source of good for each individual human person. Superadded to that we can argue from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition that a person in a state of grace receives, and gives to others, a degree of good from the practice of virtue which eye has not seen and ear has not heard.
In classical Greek philosophy it was argued that the practice of the virtues was necessary in order to achieve Eudaimonia. This is a concept often translated as ‘happiness’ but it has a richer depth of meaning than that. It carries an idea of ‘human flourishing’ and ‘fulfilment’ as well. We might think of it as having life abundantly. Aristotle in particular saw virtue as the perfect mean between excess on the one hand and defect on the other. Or, to put it in Goldilockian terms, virtue is that porridge which is neither too hot nor too cold but ‘just right‘ (I’m Scottish and writing this on St Andrew’s day, hence the porridge reference.)
Since the mean is in itself a form of perfection it follows that it must be nearer to a state of eudaimonia than any form of imperfection. More profoundly than that in order to consistently pursue such a path we must previously have secured a permanent victory in our internal civil war. Aristotle saw, with good reason, each person as being a house divided against itself. Within us we have three principle aspects of our human nature which can be understood hierarchically. At the least uniquely human is the desiring aspect which we share with the animals, from this proceeds lust, gluttony and the like. Above this is the irascible aspect which combines thought with desire, from this proceeds anger, envy, malice and the like. Top of the tree is the intellective aspect which is governed by Reason and is what makes us most distinctively human in relation to visible creation (though Reason is also a characteristic of angels.)
To be virtuous, then, and thus to enter into life, it is necessary for the intellective aspect of ourselves to battle with, and gain the mastery over, our appetitive and irascible aspects. Which brings us to the vineyards of Solomon. If our mother is the earth then the sons of the mother are of the earth earthy. That is, the passions which spring up from the lower part of our nature draw us away from the cultivation of our intellect which is of its Father, spirit not matter. In tending to the passions, nourishing them and lending our intellect to justify and rationalise their excesses and defects increasingly our own vineyard becomes, as Hamlet might put it-
…an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely
(Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2)
Yet, to experience life fully we should use that which is most characteristically human in us, the intellect, to its maximum extent. We can thus control and direct our lower aspects, desire and irascibility, so that they function to their full potential as part of a creature which is rational. Neglecting the vineyard of the mind does not mean that it cannot function at all. If we cut through the weeds and brambles we can still harvest a crop from it but they will be, to coin a phrase, sour grapes. Enough to intoxicate us perhaps, or bring us to oblivion but not of a nature to gives us the pleasure of their taste or the delight of a wine which gladdens the heart. Therefore, we should direct our energies towards the vineyard of the mind so that a rich vintage can be harvested from it. One whose taste we can enjoy while drinking it and whose effect will not be frenzy and distraction but mellow pleasure shared with friends.
What does Revelation add to this picture? The Orthodox Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote-
The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments… Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it.
Which means that one who obeys the commandments for the sake of the Kingdom receives within themselves the Ruler of that Kingdom. Christ Himself dwells within those who fulfill His Will because He is His Will as He is Love and Truth and Justice and Mercy. And where the Son is so to is the Father and the Holy Spirit whose Temple we become if we do the will of the Son, as we do the will of the Son because we have become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. From Revelation we can deduce that the difference between the eudaimonia of the rationally virtuous and the abundancy of the Christianly virtuous is that the one is energised from within, by ourselves, and the other is energised from without, by the Blessed Trinity, which becomes a within by the power of the descending Holy Spirit and the indwelling Logos of God. Or, to put it another way, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
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The stock picture is of a vineyard in Napa