Excess of Virtue

Preachers are probably delighted if we recall the gist of anything they say even twenty-four hours after their homilies. I remain spell-bound by a sermon I heard more than twenty-four years ago.

It happened in the late 1980s on a Sunday in Spring when I happened upon Peter J. Gomes preaching at Memorial Chapel on the Harvard campus. It would be fair to hold Rev. Gomes to a high standard – his positions as University Chaplain and professor of homiletics were endowed appointments.

I hear his message as if it were yesterday: An excess of virtue is more dangerous than an excess of vice! (pregnant pause) Yes, an excess of virtue is more dangerous than an excess of vice… because virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.

Rev. Gomes went on to explain that for good people trying to live good lives – and we’d be on safe ground presuming any who’d show up at church on Sunday would qualify – too much of a good thing is just that, too much! It leaves us feeling exhausted, dissipated and “on empty”.

We have likely all been there. Teachers, ministers, those in the helping professions and most parents seem to be especially vulnerable. Of course, we need to evaluate on a case by case basis. But, I personally believe that women are still socialized in our culture to be at higher risk than men.

So, why is this if we have all felt the dire consequences? … because virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience. The practice of virtue is a good thing… Right? Not always! Human conscience best functions as a moral “alarm system” for right/wrong behaviors. It is not well calibrated for right/right choices or modulating virtuous actions.

So what’s a person to do? This week I happened upon Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island. Perhaps Rev. Gomes was prompted by Merton’s observation: The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods.

Merton understands and commiserates with our dilemma. His prescription is nothing more than what Moses and the Gospels prescribe: to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself (cf, Deut.6; Matt. 22).

Yet, Merton nuances these truths with a wisdom born of a life of honesty and humble virtue: “It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. When we do this we will be able first of all to face and accept our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be ‘as gods’. We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in ourselves for the lack in another.” 

Even the great preacher and apostle, Paul struggled to learn what Christ labored to teach: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  (2 Cor 12:9)

Why do I still recall Rev. Gomes’ sermon these twenty-four years later? Perhaps because, after more than 63 years, Christ’s lesson is one I still need to embrace!


See a rich assortment of quotes from No Man Is An Island [here].


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