“If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit” (Gal 5:25)
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He warns: “Beware of false prophets… by their fruits you will know them. Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit” (Mt 7:15-17). How can we be “good trees” bearing “good fruit”? What is the “fruit” that Jesus speaks of? St. Paul provides us with guidance here as he aligns the fruit of the Spirit with the virtues, characteristics that enable the concrete imitation of Christ in the world. As sharers in the Life of Christ by virtue of our baptism, we are commissioned (cf., Mt 28:19) to be His Hands and Feet in the world making disciples of all nations. Therefore, by cultivating the virtues we are not only imitating Christ, but we are also participating in the reconciliation of all things to Him (cf. Col 1:20).
The Fruit of the Holy Spirit as Virtues
Paul tells us that Christ has called us to freedom (Gal 5:13) and this freedom in Christ compels us to “serve one another through love” (5:13), and writes that loving our neighbor as ourselves is the whole of the law (5:14). Paul, here, says that the “flesh has desires against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh” (5:17). It is important to note that the Church does not support a false dichotomy between the body and soul for we recall that God Himself took on the fullness of human nature for our salvation (Phil 2:6-11). The body is good to be sure. Therefore, what Paul has in mind is not a condemnation of the body in se, but rather what the later Tradition will speak of as concupiscence, i.e., our inclination toward sin, that exists within us because of the fall (CCC 405). Paul writes that we can observe the “works of the flesh… immorality, impurity… hatreds, rivalry, jealousy… acts of selfishness… occasions of envy… and the like” (5:19-20). Likewise, we can observe the fruit of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23). As members of the mystical Body of Christ, our “flesh with its passions and desires” have been crucified with Christ (5:24) and we are called to live by the Spirit (5:25).
Putting on the New Self
To be crucified with Christ is to “put away the old self” with our corrupted vices (Eph 4:20-24) and “put on the new self” by imitating and participating in Christ’s virtues. In his instruction to the newly baptized, St. John Chrysostom comments, “… those who have dedicated themselves to Christ have nailed themselves to Him by this dedication and have jeered at the concupiscence of the body, just as if they had crucified themselves together with those passions and desires” (Baptismal Instruction, 77). Continuing, Chrysostom challenges the newly Christians “Since we have become Christ’s and have put Him on… let us train ourselves to live as men who have nothing in common with the affairs of the present life” (ibid.).
Notice the instruction to “train ourselves.” Indeed, we can affirm the hard and consistent work of breaking the habits of sin and cultivating new habits of virtue. For example, when we are passed up for a promotion or a local competitor is experiencing more success than we are, what is our reaction? Are we jealous? Do we wallow in self-pity? The culture would respond that either of those reactions are normal or natural, which is not entirely incorrect. The culture is identifying a truth here: our inclination toward sin. But, due to our fallen human nature, our inclination toward sin is a sub-natural, a “less-than” human response. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore are called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Although perfection is not fully realized this side of eternity, we work diligently to grow in perfection (see Phil. 2:12). Each moment, each interaction with another, affords us the opportunity to choose what we love: vice or virtue. Augustine says in his commentary on Galatians 5, “it is clear that we live according to what we have followed, while we will follow what we have loved” (54). Therefore, to love Christ is to imitate Him.
The Dominican Theologian Yves Congar writes in his tome I Believe in the Holy Spirit that the fruit of the Spirit as described by Paul are manifestations of love: “presenting the reader with a fragile imitation of Christ who was ‘gentle and lowly in heart’ (Mt 11:29), a man given up to God and a man for others, free, truthful demanding, merciful, recollected and open to all men. The opposite portrait would be one of violence, aggressive self-assertion and a refusal to be available to or to accept others … The Christian is open and dedicated to God, to his brothers and to the world at the same time” (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Part II: The Breath of God In Our Personal Lives,138-139).
The Divine Gardener
So far we have discussed the virtues as fruit of the Spirit as described by Paul. Now let’s turn briefly to the “good tree”. What is the “good tree” Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount? The obvious answer is that we are the “good trees”. But, we did not plant ourselves and we don’t even sustain ourselves. God created us and sustains our lives even now, but more than this, as members of the mystical Body of Christ, sharers of His Life, we are given grace. The sacraments impart grace upon us in a very particular way as they incorporate us into the Body of Christ.
At Baptism, God infuses us with the virtues by the power of the Holy Spirit, sending them deep into the soil of our souls so that, with our cooperation, we might make the life of Christ manifest to the world. Let us nurture these virtues and, by cooperation with His grace, allow the Divine Gardener to cultivate the fertile ground of our hearts so as to bring forth fruit, not only for ourselves, but also for others. In our practice of Christ’s virtues, such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (5:22), we make His love present to others, nourishing their hearts, and in a very real way reconciling all things to Him (Col 1:20).
Your sister in Christ,
A previous version of this post was first published on 5-20-21 at Catholic Women in Business