Being the best we can be

By Anne Armstrong

The diverse topics studied this semester by our students in Religious Education from Years 9 to 12 can be synthesised into four areas of faith and human development: developing an ethic of virtue (Year 12); understanding and contributing to providing for human needs (Year 11); understanding the mission of the Church (Year 10); and recognising that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life (Year 9).

Each of those overarching understandings can also be linked to our Lenten practice of prayer, reflection, and developing compassion and sacrifice. Each understanding invites us to consider those behaviours that we should aspire to to develop a closer relationship with God and participate more fully in our communities. Some of these behaviours include:

• Becoming aware of and stopping cruelty and exploitation
• Encouraging others to do good
• Trying to be a human being who promotes the dignity of others
• Doing work that one considers worthwhile (developing an awareness of our vocation or calling)
• Taking on responsibilities
• Seeking truth
• Loving selflessly
• Being just
• Meditating on the wonder of creation
• Going to Mass more regularly and not just on Sundays
• Developing virtue

Virtue is not a trendy word in today’s world. Very often to describe someone as virtuous is to denounce them as a wowser, someone indifferent to having fun, enjoying life, and living in loving relationships.
Our own Catholic tradition teaches us to develop 7 virtues: the four cardinal virtues, from ancient Greek philosophy, prudence, justice, temperance (meaning restriction or restraint), and courage (or fortitude); and the three theological virtues, from the letters of St. Paul of Tarsus – faith, hope, and charity (or love).

Developing virtue is not confined to religious traditions. Modern Psychological perspectives from Abraham Maslow to the Positive Psychology movement also encourage us to see developing virtue as a means of fulfilling our human potential. Both movements focus on increasing well-being for the sake of improving people’s lives and improving society.

Maslow developed a concept called the hierarchy of needs. He saw our humanity as made up of five needs, which are “physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization” In other words, until the first physiological and safety needs are taken care of, we are not really capable of experiencing the joy of belonging, inclusion, love or the desires to learn and find meaning through achieving one’s potential and giving back to our community.

Jesus recognised this in the story of the Feeding of the Five thousand. You can’t evangelise communities on an empty stomach! St Francis of Assisi recognised this too and we can see in his recognition of this need, his transcendence in realising how he could meet the needs others.

During moments of self-actualisation and transcendence, Maslow says we have peak experiences: profound, life-altering moments of love, understanding, happiness, bliss. They are moments in which one feels radically more whole, more completely alive, more aware of truth, beauty, goodness. They might also be called epiphanies. Moments of grace. Through such moments we realize the need to go beyond ourselves and meet the needs of others.

Maslow’s characteristics of healthy people who are at the stage of self-actualisation are remarkably similar to the fruits of the Spirit described by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

During Lent, particularly, we can all engage in active development of virtues, fruits of the spirit and activities which call us to reach out to others. Above all, we can reflect on the Vatican 2 documents relating to Prayer and Eucharist. Prayer and Eucharist is called the source and summit of our existence. It is a profound understanding that reminds us that God gave us bodies to be nurtured (the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy) and souls to be enlightened (the final level of level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

The stories of the feeding of the 5000 and the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus remind us that if we to meet Jesus and others and evangelise, we must first recognise their physical needs. In Lent we promote Project Compassion, which does just that: supports the provision of the physical needs of others.

FURTHER READING para 1324 Prayer and Eucharist Source and Summit

Anne Armstrong
Religious Curriculum Coordinator

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