What is virtue?

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering


While walking with my son this week, out of nowhere a shape descends upon us…

A dog. Not just any dog…

A pit bull.

Wriggling all over for joy, jumping up as if he knows us.

Begging to be petted and to play.

Glossy back coat, merry eyes, laughing face (yes really). Still a puppy, soft-mouthing our hands in greeting. Same as my older son’s pit, Henry, does.

“He is beautiful,” I say to my son. “He must belong to somebody.”

“I wish he was mine,” says my boy. Never mind that he already owns one of the mightiest breeds of all time: a dachshund.

The dog follows us home. We put him in our backyard until we can locate his owner. He doesn’t like being left alone. He cries when we are out of sight. He rejoices on our return. When we sit on on the deck chairs, he lies at our feet; when we rise, he rises to stand by, ready and willing to do whatever it is we are getting ready to do.

We learn from asking around the neighborhood that he’s roamed the streets before and that people shoo him away. Uninvited dogs, especially pits, are not especially welcome. I begin to think about harm that could befall him, aside from the danger of being in the street: What might a startled, frightened, or angry person do to him?

He raises his head as if he hears my thoughts. He looks at me with a wistful expression.

We find his owners. We send him home.

The next morning, he’s back. Curled up on our front porch mat.

Poor sweet boy. He shouldn’t be allowed to roam…or maybe he’s just an escape artist.

And I realize how powerless I am to do anything except hope for his safety and enjoy him whenever he should visit. He’s not mine and he’s disappeared again. I find myself missing him, looking for him.

He’s on my mind as Spiritual Journey Thursday rolls around; he seems, somehow, to be connected to the question, “What is virtue?” The four cardinal virtues of classical philosophy and Christian theology are Prudence (wisdom), Justice (righteousness) Fortitude (strength; overcoming fear), and Temperance (restraint; self-control). We usually think of virtue as people demonstrating goodness or excellence of character (the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31), or as the beneficial quality of a thing: patience is a virtue.

I cannot help thinking that this pit embodies virtue, too. He’s a good dog. He is loving. He is eager to share his affection and exuberant joy with whomever he encounters…he’s perceptive, willing to to serve, and, I suspect, highly trainable even if somewhat uncontainable at present. Above all, he’s one of God’s creatures.

Which reminds me that within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.

I am not sure of connections between the Virtues and the mass adoption of dogs during the COVID pandemic…just musing over shapes that heavenly comfort, courage, and sustained strength might take.

Most of all I think about the desire to serve, to do good versus harm in a spirit of fear and distrust.

Perhaps…perhaps virtue arises where it is welcomed, and when it does, it opens our eyes to the virtue of others.

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with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Linda Mitchell for hosting on this first Thursday in August. As it turns out, “virtue” is supposed to be theme for September. Today the group is focusing on “respect.” I caught this after I wrote the post, alas, which leaves me with a choice: write another one and save this for September or let this one fly, regardless. I’m choosing to post now. It is, after all, written from a place of respect for the cosmically happy adventurer we’ve taken to calling “Harold.”

Angel hair

Angel hair

Vintage 1960s Bradford Carillon Spire Tree Topper on eBay

We are decorating the tree.

It’s not a real tree. My mother opens the big cardboard box, pulls out the pole, sets it up. Then she takes the branch sections out. Spots of paint on the twisted metal branch ends match the spots of paint on the pole. There’s an orange row, a blue row, a red row, a yellow row, and then the top section, all in one piece.

The tree is together, whole. 

The string of lights has big colored bulbs. Red, green, yellow, blue. Most of the ornaments are Styrofoam balls covered in silky, hairlike strands. Red, white, blue, gold. They shimmer in the light. I am allowed to hang some of these on the tree.

The most beautiful thing of all is the tree topper.

It is not a star. It is a tall, pointed, gold thing. Three sparkling silver bells hang over a rounded part where gold bars make a swirly cage over a soft, bright, pinkish-coral ball of something.

“Can I hold it?” I ask. 

My mother places the topper in my hands. I can see the room, I can see us, reflected in miniature on the golden surface. The silver bells are frosty with glitter. I am entranced by the pinkish stuff. “What is this?” I ask, pointing.

Angel hair,” says Mama. “Don’t touch it—it will cut you.” 

She takes the strange, beautiful thing from my hands, then, standing on a chair, works it down over the tree top where it sits like a crown. 

I am thinking many thoughts. How can angel hair cut me? My own hair is so soft. It could never cut anything. Are angels so strong, so powerful, that their hair is somehow sharp? Why do angels have hair this color, like the sky at sunset? In every picture I’ve ever seen, their hair is blonde or white. Maybe even silver. I cannot picture hair this color on an angel, or what kind of face such an angel would have. I shiver. Angels are gentle and good, right? Don’t they protect children? A song is on the radio, something about falling on your knees, hearing angel voices . . . I am not scared, exactly. I am still. I am full of wondering. How did the angel lose the hair that is in our tree topper?

Then I think of another song.

Rock-a-bye baby

In the tree top

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

When the bough breaks

The cradle will fall

And down will come baby

Cradle and all.

—Why would a cradle be in a tree top? Who would put a baby in a place that was so dangerous? Why wasn’t the baby protected?

So many whys. So many things to wonder about. 

My mother shows me how to toss little handfuls of icicles, long silver strings, on the edges of the branches so they’ll catch and hang there until the entire tree shines with make-believe ice and magic.

All the while, I keep looking up at the angel hair. 

Wondering.

* * * * * * *

If I could speak to my little self, if my voice from my vantage point now could reach across the vista of decades, I would say: There will be many angels in your life, with skin of many colors, real  hair of many colors, not spun glass, They will not cut you or harm you. They are the people who bring healing when others bring harm. They will bring comfort and joy that outweigh pain and loss. They will pull the scattered pieces together when things fall apart, so you will feel whole. Things will not always look  as expected; people who should protect make perilous choices, but there will always be better angels who step in when needed most. Always. 

Be strong. Believe. Be the better angel, whenever, wherever you can.

Merry Christmas, child that I was.

And Christmas grace to you, my reader in the here and now, to the child you were and to all of your angels.

Remember. Let the wonder live anew.