The word “virtue” comes to us from a Latin word for courage and moral strength. The ultimate root is the Latin word “vir” meaning “man” and giving us words like “virile,” but we can also think of vir in terms of not just being “manly,” but in being “truly human,” no matter how hard that might be.
There are many virtues — ranging from courage to being on time. They are good habits that we seek to develop in ourselves and in our children. But the church recognizes three special virtues that are not traits we can develop by ourselves, no matter how hard we try. God has to “fill them up” first.
These three virtues are called “the theological virtues.”
Theo is a Greek word meaning “God” and the theological virtues relate to God. These three theological virtues are faith, hope and love (charity). They are also called “supernatural virtues,” because they deal with something beyond what we can experience in the natural, everyday world.
Of course, we all want to be more faithful, more hopeful and more charitable. However, unlike the other virtues that we can get better at all on our own — like the virtue of justice by repeatedly doing what we know to be right as well as learning it from other people who act justly — we can’t succeed at becoming more theologically virtuous without God’s help.
Yes, we can learn how to be faithful by watching faithful people, but that’s not enough. We need God’s grace to start with and more of God’s grace to be able to hold on to our beliefs, no matter what happens. So God “infuses” us with these virtues — he injects them, by grace, into us through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Think of this infusion from God to us as a tea bag — a tea bag is put in hot water and left to sit until the dried leaves are “infused” with hot water and become good, refreshing tea. When we get steeped in God’s grace, we too can become a good tea full of faith, hope and love. And just as tea refreshes a person, when we are filled with the theological virtues, our soul — and the souls of those around us — become refreshed.
What are these virtues and how are they supernatural?
Faith is knowledge, but not natural knowledge (like science or math) that we can measure or prove. There is no chemical test or computer program that can give us knowledge of God. That is knowledge beyond the natural world, into the realm of faith. We cannot see, touch or taste God with our human senses, but faith tells us God is truly there.
“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Scripture says. The symbol of the virtue of faith is the cross. It is by grace — God’s divine love — that we have faith (we know) that the cross, once a symbol of death, has become the doorway to eternal life.
The theological virtue of hope goes beyond knowledge into trust. Hope believes that something better lies ahead of us. Hope gives us the desire to push onward, to reach for that something better – which faith tells us is God and God’s eternal kingdom. By God’s grace, we cling to that desire and are able to go on hoping in the face of the worst circumstances. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says that hope allows us to trust the promises of Jesus and rely, not on our own strengths and courage, but on the Holy Spirit (n. 1817).
The symbol most often connected with the virtue of hope is an anchor. An anchor digs in and hangs on even in deep, rough water. The virtue of hope is the anchor that God throws us to hold on to even in “the dark valley.”
Charity is the virtue that allows us to love God first and above all other things. Charity, traced back to Latin and Greek roots, means to deeply love and desire God as a heartfelt companion, even though we cannot see or touch God as we can see and touch other people. The theological virtue of love impels us — fuels us — toward God, “who is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Even when natural love fails — a marriage ends, friends betray and death separates — supernatural love remains and surrounds us. By grace, we can believe and trust in that love, feeling God’s presence no matter what.
Charity, or love, is the pinnacle of all the virtues. As Paul tells us, love perfectly binds together all the other virtues and all our good works (Col 3:14). Love fills everything up in our lives and tops it all off.
It is love, of all the virtues, that endures into eternity. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (parenthetical entries added), “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror (we hope), but then face to face. At present, I know partially (we have faith); then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (loved) (1 Cor 13:12).
In the end, we shall be fully known and fully united with love itself. We shall be completely filled up — with God.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Catechism of the Catholic Church”; and etymology online at etymonline.com