When picking up this book, my first question, since I had never heard of it, was: what is the Marianist Method of Virtues? A footnote in the introduction answered this question. It is inspired by the teaching of Marianist founder, Father William Joseph Chaminade and is proposed not to be an imitation of Christ’s virtues so much as a union with Him through the virtues. The participant works in collaboration with the Holy Spirit and Mary to follow a three-fold plan of growing in virtue: preparation, purification and consummation.
In the preparation segment, the participant is made aware of places in life where virtue may be lacking, places that need to be cleaned up before real progress can be made. These areas are words, signs, mind, passions, imagination, recollection, obedience and mortification. The author makes use of psychological understanding of the ego to explain how we must root out our sense of self to “put on the new self” as St. Paul instructs. The ego, or our need to have the world see us in a certain way, gets in the way of a true self in tune with God. The instructions and meditations in this segment ask the participant to do things like moderate use of speech, fill the mind with truth, recognize negative passions, and discipline imagination. The author calls these the “silences.”
In the purification segment, the author explains that there are some obstacles that cannot be overcome and must be attacked differently than the preparation virtues. It is explained like this in the book:
“In preparation we dominate obstacles or get rid of them; in purification we live through them and grow into new life and achievement. Trying to get rid of unavoidable obstacles ends up in frustration or giving in to defeat. The work of purification accepts the obstacle, but strips them of their negative influence and, in fact, makes them work for our good (page 98).”
In this method, six obstacles are presented, three that come from within (limitations, tendencies to evil, doubts), and three that come from outside (opposition, suggestions to give up, temptations). The corresponding virtues that work on these obstacles are reliance on God, confiding everything to God, and taking recourse to counsel; and, developing enduring patience, perseverance, and performing acts opposed to the temptations. When I started this section I was skeptical, thinking that we should not stop trying to overcome obstacles. But this little treatise shows how that ends in defeat; there are so many things out of our control. This section became the most insightful to my own personal situation.
In the last segment, consummation, the participant, having prepared and been purified, at last shuts the ego completely out of the picture and arrives at a new level of spiritual life. The virtues at this level include humility, modesty, total abnegation of self, and complete detachment from things of this world. It seems to me that this may be a lifelong process, one that we are closer to or more distant from at different points in our lives. They are the kind of things that are not attained by merely reading this book, or any book. The author claims that you must be ready to live on this level to achieve these virtues, but even if you feel you are not ready, you can still gain a lot by going through them in this book. The book ends with a list of things to remember while trying to make progress in the life of virtue.
The book is intended to be used in “faith sharing” groups. Each chapter includes themes for meditation and questions for group sharing. I have never been very comfortable with those kinds of group sharing situations, but did gain quite a bit from pondering the questions myself. Personal narratives giving real-life examples of the kind of sharing that could happen using this book are sprinkled throughout the text. Also, at the beginning of each chapter there are introductory remarks from “Mary” as the mother of Jesus and your guide to this method. These could easily be skipped and still get the full effect of the method.
Our final goal in Christian virtue development, the author asserts, is to act “habitually with the faith, hope, and love of Jesus.” While this book doesn’t have all the answers, it is good starting place and full of fruitful themes.
This book is also the basis for “The Virtue Tree” by Sandra Garant which is included in the Middle School Lessons Plans from Catholic Heritage Curricula. It is not necessary to read this book in order to use the “The Virtue Tree,” but it does help to understand the author’s purpose and frame of reference. Each level, preparation, purification, and consummation, is presented in a format deigned for children. The virtue is explained and then there is a list of suggested activities to engage the student in the topic. It is written for and placed in the 7th grade section of the Plans, but could easily be used by younger children. In fact, we are using it with a group of 4th and 5th graders. A parent will want to supplement this with other things, perhaps making the analogy of growing a tree more vivid, for example, using some graphic illustrations. Draw the ground with mulched soil (preparation virtues), put in the roots (the sacraments); draw a trunk and branches on which to hang the virtues. You may also want to combine it with the reading of stories on the virtues or lives of saints who have achieved the consummation virtues. For my older students, we are referring back to Growing in the Virtues of Jesus quite a bit for a more in-depth look at the process. “The Virtue Tree” gives you the framework for a program of virtues.