The Power of the Keys

OClavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O key of David, and Sceptre of the House of Israel; that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house, and him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.
– English from Divine Worship: Daily Office


The reader is perhaPS expecting an essay on the Virtue of Temperance and we will, in fact, get to that, but first a discussion of Cardinal.

Cardinal refers to the four directions on a compass: West, North, East, and South. With these four directions, you can go anywhere except up or down. According to Christian understanding, these four virtues are available to all, Christian or not. They are, if you will, “natural” although they require an effort to acquire: man cannot come to perfection at all without God’s grace since we are all subject to Original Sin, but even non-Christians have access to these virtues and can move towards their perfections. If you imagine them on the compass around you, you can navigate all over the natural world. They are there and available even for those who openly reject God. Yet if you deny the very beingness at the core of all being, eventually even the cardinal points of navigation fall away. Rip out the center and the boundaries will fall. If you deny the existence of truth, per se, then any point of reference becomes pointless. If there is no Truth, then even “my truth” becomes silly, meaningless. This whole thread on Twitter is about how people literally do not understand that Truth must have a reason beyond “feeling good about it:”

Although it’s possible to approach perfection in the Cardinal Virtues, they are only fully knowable to someone entering into a relationship with the actual truth behind these qualities (that is, God’s Logos, Jesus). The mere sentiment of wanting to “be good” or even of wanting to “feel good” won’t pull you through. And, when times change, the meanings can change: ask those for whom “my fellow humans” only includes certain races or, for whom certain races were OK one day – but not the next. Wonder how our nation lost her way on 8 Dec 1941. So, although these are the common ground of all mankind, they are not enough.

To the awareness that the Cardinal virtues are not enough, let’s add one further realization: it’s possible to move through life in the world without ever needing or using one of these virtues. While they are required for Christian formation at all, they can be entirely ignored in the World and one can still move through the World’s system and be – by the World’s standards – very successful. If one is willing to “do one’s own thing” then it’s possible to move through the World entirely on one’s own terms. One does so, then, without any virtue at all. Those who are without virtue can often get very far ahead in the World. In this way, they appear to be successful even though they are without any but the most basic formation of humanness. To be and to be in communion are the same thing, as Fr Alexander Schmemann says. In rejecting their virtues these folks are not even in communion with each other. Their only communion is in their vice – the opposite of virtue – they fail to become even adolescents, let alone adults. This is the source of many problems we see in the world today: those without any sense of maturity or adulthood, without any communion, without any human beingness, manage to make quite a lot of money. But there’s no there there.

They are the ones sitting in darkness in this antiphon – they are a sign for all of us. For even the one who is working on the acquisition of the virtues is still in darkness to the degree that he has not yet acquired all seven of them. Yet it is the one who rejects even the possibility of truth, the possibility of virtue, that is most in darkness.

For him the power of the keys is most needed; together with temperance.

I’m just going to lay out the full paragraph from the Wiki here…

“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.”[30] The Old Testament emphasizes temperance as a core virtue, as evidenced in the Book of Proverbs. The New Testament does so as well, with forgiveness being central to theology and self-control being one of the Fruits of the Spirit.[4] With regard to Christian theology, the word temperance is used by the King James Version in Galatians 5:23 for the Greek word ἐγκρατεία (enkrateia), which means self-control or discipline (Strong’s Concordance, 1466). Thomas Aquinas promoted Plato’s original virtues in addition to several others.

Within the Christian church Temperance is a virtue akin to self-control. It is applied to all areas of life. It can especially be viewed in practice among sects like the AmishOld Order Mennonites, and Conservative Mennonites. In the Christian religion, temperance is a virtue that moderates attraction and desire for pleasure and “provides balance in the use of created goods”. St. Thomas calls it a “disposition of the mind which binds the passions”.[4] Temperance is believed to combat the sin of gluttony.

Wiki article on Temperance (Virtue), retrieved on 10 Dec 21

So here’s a surprise for you: Temperance, in her most basic meaning, is a very common virtue in our world. There is hope. As wild and crazy as this world is as messed up and prideful, as sexual and sinful as it gets, anyone with the self-control to go to the gym every day or to say on a diet, can – through grace – figure out the need for the other virtues. Anyone with the presence of mind to work the 12 steps, or to sacrifice for a political cause, or to give up some pleasure for the sake of “the marriage” or “the kids” or even “my job” has the very root beginnings of this virtue. So there is hope. And from the very root of “Temperence” the rest can arise if the Key of David will only unlock the doors, open the floodgates of grace as the man does curls at SF Fitness or at the Y, or as the kid willingly sits down to playing scales with an eye towards Julliard. The Girl who figure skates her way to the Olympics knows the virtue of Temperance even if she doesn’t know anything about truth-telling or humility.

The compass is well begun with only one direction – but it will balance wonderfully with all four!

This principle is well known in the Orthodox East where ascetic practices are very common among the laity. Fasting at Lent and during Advent involves avoiding meat, fish, dairy, eggs, wine, and oil. The point is not that those items are sinful or even overindulgent. Rather, through constant denial of the body’s desires for these things, it is hoped that the Christian can learn to deny other urges in the body for things that are sinful. Through temperance other virtues can be discovered.

As Fr Schmemann said in his final homily– “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” Let us modify that a little bit: “Everyone capable of temperance (even at the gym) has taken the first steps on the path of the virtues and so can be saved.” That’s not to say they will do so, but well begun is half done. It’s up to the keeper of the keys to open doors – and close others. We doors close we tend to throw tantrums. Did you ever accuse someone of “ruining Christmas”? Did you ever ruin Christmas for someone else? The door to some memory was thus closed – and that memory was more important than the present reality. Closing the door can be very painful indeed. It is very hard to give up other things for the sake of one thing that has become important. But it’s possible.

These posts begin with the discussion of why is there evil but there is evil for the same reason but there is virtue and vice: human beings are free to make choices. It’s hard to hear this for most of us enjoy freedom in the first person without ever wanting there to be freedom in the second or third person. I want to be free, you should be nice, but they must be stopped. Freedom is an ontological reality of human being. It is not possible to force you to acquire the virtues oh, it is not possible to force you to grow up. It is not possible to force others to focus on themselves it is only possible to do so in the first person. Furthermore, only in the first person can we control reactions to others. Your vices become stepping stones for my virtues if I am willing to let them be such.

But this is not the only reason. God is playing a much longer game. Until we must discuss the next three virtues.

We’ve now discussed four Cardinal Virtues, the Four Points of our compass that navigates us through the World. The next three virtues, the next 3 antiphons require Grace not only to acquire or perfect but even to begin. The first four virtues are natural the next three are theological. They will help us to explain the problem of evil and the problem of human Freedom as well.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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