Reviewed by Pat McCORMICK, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
Over the past two decades Christian Morality has been increasingly interested in the subject of virtue, and a growing number of scholarly texts and articles by the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Porter, William Spohn, G. Simon Harak, and James Keenan have been trumpeting the praises and importance of good habits in ways most Catholics haven't heard since the days of Aquinas.
More recently there has also been a growing bumper crop of more popular, accessible treatments of the role and place of virtues in the moral and spiritual lives of Christians. John W. Crossin's Walking in Virtue: Moral Decisions and Spiritual Growth in Daily Life (Paulist: 1999) offers a vision of Christian morality as a spiritual journey of disciples responding to a personal call to conversion and growth, and argues that we should see our daily choices as part of a deepening conversation with a God who invites us to intimacy and sanctity. And in James Keenan's engaging and useful little text Virtues for Ordinary Christians we are introduced to a series of narratives and examples illustrating the sorts of virtues all of us need to lead moral and holy lives as modern day disciples.
Keenan's text, which collects and builds upon a series of columns he originally wrote for Church magazine, begins by placing virtues in the context of our ordinary moral lives, journeys in which we find a variety of moral challenges and choices, and in which the habits and practices we develop and maintain shape our deeper response to the Christian call to grow towards moral maturity and holiness. Along these journeys, and in the often messy and ambiguous situations of our lives Keenan argues that it is not so much answers to particular ethical questions which we require of our church leaders and preachers. Rather, we need help in developing the gift of prudence and any other moral virtues which will assist us in discovering and doing the good to which we are being called. In this light he unpacks the importance of attending to and developing consciences that are sensitive, authentic, informed, and responsive to God's invitation to growth and conversion, the point here being that the Christian vocation is not just to obey the rules, but to grow into responsible and loving persons.
After this introductory section Keenan's text moves through a treatment of the theological and cardinal virtues (tailoring his lists a bit to fit the weave and warp of our daily lives) and then offers an additional menu of several other good habits which might enrich the lives of ordinary Christians and communities.
There are several things to recommend about this engaging and highly readable volume. First, the treatment of virtues is concrete and practical. Keenan the professional theologian (who has written more theoretically and abstractly on these topics in other places) has a sharp, clear and pastoral voice that is full of common sense and a self-deprecating humor. As a bedside or armchair text this collection of reflections on the virtuous life makes a thoughtful and sometimes playful companion to one's own personal journal. Second, the author's decision to treat the virtues not by defining or describing them, but by sharing a series of loosely connected personal stories about his own encounters with these good habits (in himself and others) effectively underscores his point that virtues only make sense when seen in the light of the larger narrative of our lives. A habit is really only a virtue if it helps us to draw closer to our vocation as Christians. Finally, while Keenan's book includes some of his personal heroes (like Josef Fuchs), he doesn't present virtues as the habits of saints and paragons only. Instead, he offers a set of stories about the good habits ordinary Christians need to live out their extraordinary vocations.