HOW NOT TO USE STRUCTURES

Let’s look now at how NOT to use structures. Consider three incorrect ways. They are out of anxiety, out of attachment, and out of pretense. In all these cases, the use of a structure is separated from the virtues they are meant to foster. 

 

Let’s look now at how NOT to use structures. Consider three incorrect ways. They are out of anxiety, out of attachment, and out of pretense. In all these cases, the use of a structure is separated from the virtues they are meant to foster. 

 

Out of anxiety. The first wrong way to practice structures is out of anxiety—in particular, an anxiety that blinds one to the goal of structures, which are the virtues. The following two examples both involve a structure that is obligatory for Catholics, namely, the rules of fasting and abstinence during Lent. 

 

Wally keeps the norms for fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, so that on each of these days he abstains from meat, has one full meal, and has two smaller meals that do not equal the full meal. Anxious that his two smaller meals not exceed the full meal, Wally buys a food scale to measure the exact amounts. Here anxiety makes Wally so preoccupied with keeping the structure itself of fasting that he runs the risk of losing sight of the larger aim, which is to cultivate the virtues. This is what anxiety can do: make people short-sighted through a preoccupation with particulars, so that they lose sight of the larger scheme of things. Fasting offers many ways to grow in virtue, such as by teaching us to be less preoccupied with food and more mindful of the kingdom of God, but here anxiety causes Wally to become so focused on the very structure of fasting that he loses sight of the opportunity that fasting offers to grow in the virtues. 

 

Another example is Susie who receives a phone call from her friend, Janet, in the evening of Ash Wednesday. Janet is sobbing and is genuinely distraught, and she says that she needs to talk with someone. So, she asks Susie to meet her for a late dinner at a local diner. But Susie has already had three meals that day and she is worried about not keeping the fast for Ash Wednesday. So, Susie says that she cannot meet Janet at the diner. But perhaps Susie’s anxiety about keeping the structure of fasting on Ash Wednesday is blinding her to the larger issue, which is what virtue demands in the present case. Since structures are to serve the virtues, it follows that if omitting a structure would actually serve the demands of virtue in a particular case, then it should be omitted. Most structures, after all, admit of cases in which they may be excused from. To be sure, one should not lightly omit the Ash Wednesday fast, but one may do so if one sincerely judges that this is what virtue demands. Susie needs to make this judgment with a sound mind, deciding whether the virtue of charity demands that she have something to eat with Janet, since Janet is in distress and needs to be consoled. But anxiety gets in the way of making such a judgment with a sound mind and, therefore, it can make a person practice a structure when it should be omitted for the sake of virtue.

 

Out of attachment. Structures may also be incorrectly practiced out of attachment. Here one clings to structures excessively because of some consolation that they afford. Consider an example that concerns another obligatory structure in the Catholic Church, namely, going to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. 

 

John is a devout man who enjoys Mass, for it brings him peace, especially when he receives the Eucharist. But one weekend John comes down with the flu and he still goes to Mass, because he does not want to miss the consolation it brings him. This is wrong, for he risks getting into a car accident, since the flu makes him less alert, and he also risks giving the flu to others, since it is contagious. The virtuous thing would have been to stay home (and note, the Church sees such an illness as a valid reason to excuse oneself from attending Sunday Mass). To avoid misunderstanding here, notice that the consolation that John experiences when attending Mass is not wrong. It is not the problem and may even be a gift from God. But John’s attachment to that consolation is wrong. Due to it, his focus is not on the virtues (which call for him to stay home); instead, his focus is on the consolation of the structure. 

 

Out of pretense. Finally, a person wrongly uses structures out of pretense. This happens when one uses structures for the sake of looking good. Jesus Himself gives examples of this.

 

“[W]hen you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men…. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men…. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:2,5,16). Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are “righteous deeds,” says Jesus (Matthew 6:1), and He speaks of “when” they are done, not “if” they are done. So, we should keep structures concerning prayer, self-denial, and helping the needy. But when one observes such a structure, in order to “be praised by men,” then the focus is not on the virtues, but on looking good before others. This is wrong.

 

Sometimes doing a structure out of pretense is not in order to look good in front of others, but to look good in one’s own eyes. Consider another example given by Jesus: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:10-14) The Pharisee kept structures regarding fasting and tithing, but he was doing it for self-admiration. This is wrong. Just as when one keeps structures to look good before others, so too when one keeps structures to look good in one’s own eyes, the focus is not on acquiring genuine virtue, but on appearing to be virtuous. In His strong criticisms of this, Jesus makes it clear that this must be avoided when we practice structures.

 

We must be careful of these wrong ways of using structures. Sometimes when we have the wrong motives for employing structures, we fall into certain traps, such as trying to incorporate too many structures into our lives or thinking that we can merit salvation simply or mainly by keeping structures. Avoid these occupational hazards of using structures!

 

The fact that structures can be practiced wrongly does not mean that they cannot be practiced rightly. In fact, it is our view that we need the help of structures (granted that they are practiced rightly) to sustain our growth in virtue. Four ways in which structure can help with virtue-acquisition are given in the section on how to use structures.

 

In sum:

  • Structures are wrongly practiced whenever their observance is separated from the virtues.

  • We therefore want to avoid keeping structures out of an anxiety that is so preoccupied with the structures themselves that we lose sight of the virtues they are meant to serve. 

  • We also want to avoid practicing structures out of an attachment to some consolation that the structures afford, for then we are more focused on the consolation than on fostering the virtues.

  • And we must avoid practicing structures out of pretense, for then it is about appearing virtuous rather than about being virtuous.