Most people, said Scott Fitzgerald, would accuse themselves of at least one of the cardinal virtues. He was writing in 1925 and I'm not sure if it is still the case. Prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance: we older folk had them beaten into us in school - the names and definitions of them at any rate. All of them are meant to be for all year round, but temperance gets a special outing in Lent.
The word temperance doesn’t have a very inspiring ancestry; it comes from the Latin 'temperare', which means 'to mix', and it is related to the word 'tamper'. How can it be a virtue at all?
St Paul mentions it as a 'fruit of the Spirit'. "The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, trustfulness, meekness and temperance" (Galatians 5:22). (We oldies call it 'self-control'.) Notice that it is the last in the list. There is great wisdom in that. You have to have ingredients before you can mix them! You have to have some other virtues before you can hold them in a right proportion. That proportion, when you settle for it (if we ever settle long for anything) is called your 'temperament'.
Temperance, then, means a mixture, a proper proportion of virtues. How important a sense of proportion is! Everything destroys itself by its own excess. Courage in the absence of love, for example, becomes just bluff and bluster and a huge ego-trip. It is the same with all the virtues: they need one another if we are not to destroy ourselves and everything around us.
In my childhood temperance meant in practice 'giving up' sugar or sweets for Lent, and we felt very heroic when we did it. Nowadays we want to make everything sound very positive, so we say, Don’t 'give up' something but do something positive instead. Very good, but I would fear for someone who never had the experience of 'giving up' anything. There are all sorts of things I can do without. I can easily become a collector. I have a very serene friend who taught me a useful practice: she is quite poor, but she likes to walk through big shopping malls, looking at everything; and she says, "How rich I am! I need none of these things!" I've tried it, and in its small way it is a wonderful liberation.
"To many, total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation," wrote St Augustine in the 5th century. As if they were having a chat about it by the fire, Meister Eckhart in the 14th century replied, "Sometimes it is harder to keep silence about a single word than to cease speaking altogether. And sometimes, too, it is harder for a person to endure a single word of reproach, which means nothing, than a fierce blow that he was prepared for; or it is much harder to be alone in a crowd than in the desert; or to abandon a small thing than a great, or to do a small task than one which is considered much greater."
Temperance, as I said, is one of the fruits of the Spirit. These are (sort of) fingerprints of the Spirit. Wherever you see love, joy, peace, and the rest, you know that the Spirit has been there, and still is - hiding, as the Spirit likes to do. The Spirit hides very well in the virtue of temperance. You expect some sort of ecstasy or exuberance when you think of the Holy Spirit. At the personal level, temperance is a quiet and modest virtue. But the need for it in society becomes very clamorous if we lift our eyes from our own private lives and see the reality of global poverty, while the western world indulges in spectacular consumption. This is a challenge to every Christian. It is common decency that makes us want to raise funds for groups such as Trócaire or Concern during Lent. We know by instinct that our religion and moral life are not purely private matters - even though that is the modern pitch. The message, as someone expressed it, is “love till it hurts.”
Donagh O'Shea OP