Mortar of Love
It is reassuring to work at a place that is supportive. I know enough about engagement studies to know that good relationships at work not only are more pleasant, but also it enhances productivity. While productivity is often measured in economic terms, there are also other measures. When I think about my own job of teaching spirituality to college-age folks, it is difficult to measure my productivity in economic terms. While I would like to think I am effective, I doubt there is an economic measurement that would confirm my effectiveness.
Part of the joy of my work is having folks help and encourage me. One of those people happens to be president of my institution. I was not surprised recently when I received an email from him. What did surprise me a little was the content of the email. It is worth noting that, although I do not work at a Catholic institution, my president is Catholic. And he knows how much I value the Catholic tradition and how much, particularly, the monastic tradition has informed my own faith and spirituality.
The email began with his acknowledgement that the Catholic calendar of that particular day happened to be the feast of St. Peter Damian. I had to smile. I am sure he is the first and only president I ever had who would know this particular piece of information. And perhaps, he is the only president who would have cared! Although I am not a specialist in medieval spirituality, I know a few things about Peter Damian.
I know Peter Damian was an eleventh century Italian. He was a serious young man---a kind of John the Baptist type. His approach to religion was pretty rigorous and, some might say, severe. At one point he became a Benedictine monk. Peter felt called to reform the Church. He was strict in what he wanted from people, although he was capable of being merciful to those less fortunate souls. But there is no doubt, he felt called to help people “shape up.” I was intrigued that in preparation for his day, my president would be reading this saint.
His note indicated that he had come upon a sentence from Peter Damian that he knew connected with my interests and some of my work. I was touched by this connection and appreciated the fact that he not only thought about me, but actually took the time and made the effort to share this sentence from Peter Damian with me. Listen to Damian’s words: “Let the entire edifice that you are constructing from the living stones of the virtues be strengthened with the mortar of sincere love.”
Without doing extensive research on this passage from Damian, let me offer my own interpretation or commentary. In the first place I think the “edifice” about which he is talking is his life and our lives. I believe he is correct to suggest that we construct our edifice. We make our lives by what we think, feel and act. There is much choice in the way we build our lives, although obviously there are also things beyond our choice. But one thing we do have a choice is whether to live life according to the virtues.
I am intrigued that Peter Damian describes the construction of the edifice of our life from the living stones of the virtues. This makes a great deal of sense to me. I have written on what I call the seven classical virtues: love, justice, faith, prudence, temperance, courage and hope. As Aristotle well said, virtues “aim at the good.” If you put together a life of virtue, you have crafted a life of character. And character-based living is a worthy goal of every living human being.
I second Peter Damian in extolling each of us to create just such an edifice with the living stones of virtues. I appreciate his image of a virtue as a living stone. Of course, most of us do not think rocks live. But the virtues are “living” in the sense they form our life but also motivate us to live virtuously. They are not merely ideas or principles. They are the motivation to live a worthy life in real ways in our real world.
And Damian concludes this sentence by describing how all this hangs together. This virtue-based life is integrated---made one---by the mortar of sincere love. Simply put, Damian says it all works because of love. I am attracted to the image of love as a mortar. That mortar surrounds each particular living stone of virtue and unites it to the other, single living stones. This fits very well with the idea that God is love. Doubtlessly, Damian had this in mind.
The last thing I notice is the adjective Damian chooses to modify love. The adjective is “sincere” love. We all know the messy situation with our English word, love. People love their kids, pizza, their cars, etc. While I like pizza and care about my car, I cannot say either involves “sincere love.” Sincere love is a virtue and unites all virtues. It is the love we have for God, ourselves, others and our planet.
With sincere love, we are inclined to bring all the other living stones---the virtues---to bear on any situation. In sincere love we take justice seriously when it comes to dealing with the poor, disadvantaged, etc. I know my own edifice is still a work in progress. I am thankful to Peter Damian for helping me think about constructing my virtuous life and for his encouragement to make it the kind of edifice that will be hospitable to all who come to my life as a visitor.