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BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (67) – How are motives and circumstances related to holiness?

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Rev José Mario O Mandía

The object of the act (finis operis), the intention (or motive or finis operantis) and the circumstances: these are the three elements of an act that we need to examine in order to judge whether the act is good or not. This fact has some implications in our spiritual life. Quite often, the three elements are used to analyze the seriousness of bad deeds, but we often fail to use them to assess good deeds.

From the point of view of faith, we are all called not only to avoid evil, or to try be “decent” or “nice” persons: we Christians are called to holiness of life. Many people take this to mean that the acts we do must be really “great,” “outstanding,” or “extraordinary” so that we can qualify for the race to heaven. When we talk of the saints, we often take notice only of their spectacular feats, forgetting that their daily lives were mostly as uneventful as ours. The best example of this is the life of Mary and Joseph. We have no record of any miracles they did while in Nazareth.

Yes, we have seen that an evil act can never become good despite the best intentions of a person or the circumstances surrounding the act. But we often underestimate what these two elements can do to convert an otherwise commonplace, unspectacular, or unexceptional but good action into something heroic, something holy, something “divine.”

INTENTION or MOTIVE. We have seen previously that the intention can influence the goodness of an action. Let me use a simple story to illustrate.

There were three men who were pushing wheelbarrows loaded with bricks in a construction site. A passerby asked one of them, “What are you doing?”

He replied, “Well, can’t you see that I’m carrying bricks?”

After thanking him, the passerby went to the second man and asked the same question.

“Oh, we’re building a church.”

Then he asked the third man, who replied, “You may not believe it, but I am actually praying. With every trip, I offer what I am doing to God, and I think he appreciates it!”

Same action, different intentions, different results.

This is why we should not judge actions by their “importance” in the eyes of others. Our intentions can make a great difference, even if what we are doing are just a series of little, unspectacular, humdrum tasks. Good intentions are not enough to turn a bad action into something good, but intentions can make a good action holy.

So, what’s the point? Lately, Pope Francis has reminded us of the responsibility to be “the saints ‘next door’” (Gaudete et exsultate 7) and we might have wondered how we are going to do that. We just have to remember three things: (1) be in the state of sanctifying grace; (2) do it to the best of our ability; (3) do it for God.

CIRCUMSTANCES. How about the circumstances? Circumstances can also increase or decrease the value or merit of an act. For instance, take two persons who have just become doctors. The first one was born into a family with no means, is just of average intelligence and worked his way to college. The other is a child of wealthy parents, is exceptionally intelligent, and had all the time to concentrate on his studies. Whom would we admire more?

Adverse circumstances are opportunities for growth. Difficult situations are occasions for heroism. “Bad times,” just like “good times,” increase our chances of being “the saint next door.”



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