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Structures can help us to grow in virtue in at least four ways. They are: practicing, protecting, probing, and pointing. 


Structures can help us to grow in virtue in at least four ways. They are: practicing, protecting, probing, and pointing. 


As a prelude to explaining these four ways, first note that if we are going to attain our genuine fulfillment, we need to do the kinds of acts that contribute to it. This is why we are cultivating the virtues, for they are the heightened abilities to do these fulfillment-fostering acts, as we explained in the section on the virtues. So, the more virtuous we are, the more able we are to do these acts that lead to our genuine human fulfillment. 


But notice that the way that you build up an ability to do something is through practice. Thus, if you want to improve your ability to play the piano, you must practice playing the piano. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. The same is true for the virtues, since they are abilities. To be more and more able to do fulfillment-fostering acts, such as hoping in God, loving your neighbor, and discerning what is right vs. wrong, one must practice these acts.


Practicing. This brings us to one way in which structures help us to cultivate the virtues. It is by being occasions for practicing fulfillment-fostering acts. For example, the structure of putting aside 20 minutes every morning to read the Bible prayerfully is an occasion to practice the act of praying to God. And the structure that stipulates giving a certain amount of one’s income to a charity every month provides an occasion to practice the act of loving one’s neighbor, so that one grows in the virtue of charity. 


It is worth noticing here how easily we neglect doing fulfillment-fostering acts. For example, one may find the time to check social media frequently or watch hours of programming, but one does not find time in the day for prayer or for reading thoughtful literature. Or one may have more financial resources than one needs, but rather than give generously from that surplus to the needy, one spends it on things that one wants but does not need. Who has not been guilty of such neglect at times? There is a name for this tendency to neglect the activities that truly give life. It is called “sloth.” By providing us with occasions to practice the acts that contribute to fulfillment, structures are offering us supports for doing these acts against our slothful tendency to neglect them.

Protecting. Just as practicing fulfillment-fostering acts builds up the virtues, so the practice of fulfillment-hindering acts weakens them. Structures can also help us here by protecting us from doing bad acts, which diminish the virtues. 

For example, suppose Carlos spends too much time on his smartphone. This hinders his fulfillment, for it scatters his mental focus and energy and, as a result, he loses his zeal for doing good things. In response to this, Carlos may follow a structure that limits his use of his smartphone, such as not allowing himself to use it before or after a certain time. Structures that keep one busy can also serve to protect the virtues. This is because being idle sometimes leads a person to fall into bad habits, such as pornography or substance abuse. So, when structures keep a person constructively occupied, they protect against falling into these vices.

Another example of structures that protect the virtues are boundaries. Observing a boundary keeps a person from doing something that may not be bad in itself, but that can be a stepping stone toward a behavior that is bad in itself. One draws a line short of the actual bad action, so as to protect oneself from doing that bad action. For example, drunk driving is a bad action and to keep oneself from even coming close to that bad action, one may keep the boundary of not drinking alcohol at all when one is going to be driving. 


A final example to offer here of a structure that protects the virtues are structures of self-denial. These structures include fasting and intentionally doing something disagreeable (e.g., taking a cold shower), in order to subdue disordered desires or tendencies. By pushing back against the greediness of our desires, these structures help to protect a person from giving into wayward desires.


Probing. Deception hinders our efforts to be virtuous. If we are deceived into thinking that we are more virtuous than we truly are, that prevents us from doing the work that remains to be done in virtue-acquisition. After all, we fail to see the work that still remains to be done. Some structures help in this regard by probing our hearts, testing us, as it were, so that we more accurately see the extent of our virtue. Spoiler alert: the extent of our virtue is less than we think. 


For example, by observing a structure that requires us to give to the poor regularly, we may find that we are hesitant to give away our possessions and, thus, we see that we are more attached to our possessions than we realized. Further, we may think that we are not attached to the comforts of eating, but when we fast, we find that we become cranky. This shows that we are attached to the comforts of eating. Another example is when we keep a structure that requires us to spend time with others, such as to eat meals together or to do a common activity. Although we thought that we were fairly patient, it may turn out that when we spend time with others, we find that we are brimming with impatience.


Being shown up in this way is a good thing, for it humbles us with the truth. Therefore, when it happens, do not fight it, but acknowledge that you are still wanting in virtue. In turn, you are now able to take up anew the work of conversion that still needs to be done. God is pleased by the humility to acknowledge our faults and the resolve to work on conversion.


Pointing. We all need reminders, for we forget things, even important things. We can even forget God, that is, we can be unmindful of Him. We forget or cease to be mindful of other things as well, such as our dignity as human beings. So again, we need reminders, that is, things that point us to truths that we need to keep in mind, if we are to live virtuously. Some structures work in this way to point us to what is worth remembering.


One example is abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent. This reminds us of, that is, points our awareness to, the sacrifice of the Cross. It also reminds us of our identity as Catholics, since this structure is especially associated with Catholicism. Moreover, wearing a wedding ring reminds one of one’s vocation to marriage and of the one’s spouse. Wearing a religious habit reminds a religious of his or her consecration to God through the profession of vows. Observing the memorial of a saint on the liturgical calendar points to that saint, to his or her example, and to his or her intercession for us.


Many structures concerning food, clothing, and rituals work as pointers, or reminders, in this way. In recent times, many are looking to incorporate such structures into their lives—especially families that are eager to foster a religious culture in the “domestic churches” of their homes.


The virtues are not mindless. Rather, they depend on remaining mindful of God and of what matters to God. By staying mindful of these things, our hearts are stirred to do the activities that contribute to genuine fulfillment and we keep in mind the things that truly matter. 


In sum:

  • Structures can serve as occasions for practicing fulfillment-fostering acts, so that the virtues are built up.

  • Structures can protect a person from doing bad acts, which diminish the virtues.

  • Structures can probe the heart, to show to what extent one has grown in virtue.

  • Structures can also point to things of which we should be mindful, in order to be virtuous.

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