July 5th, 2012The Forgotten Virtueby Kevin O'Brien | http://www.thewordinc.org

I once wrote that Hope is more despised than Chastity, that if you're not cynical and disdainful, you're not hip and modern.

But there's a virtue that seems even less in vogue than Hope, and that is Magnanimity.

What is Magnanimity?  Well, even Wikipedia gets it right ...

Magnanimity (derived from the Latin roots magn- great, and animus, mind, literally means greatly generous [my note: no, its etymology means great of spirit or great of soul]) is the virtue of being great of mind and heart. It encompasses, usually, a refusal to be petty, a willingness to face danger, and actions for noble purposes. Its antithesis is pusillanimity.

Now pusillanimity is what I would call low-balling, or flying under the radar.  It's living your life as many men (and women) do, and as I did before my conversion, seeking cheap casual sex, easy money without hard work, comfort, and the means to satisfy your desires without getting noticed and without getting hurt.  It is a kind of cowardice of heart; while magnanimity is a kind of expansion of heart.

But think about it.  Who do we know in the spiritual life who is not more or less pusillanimous?  Lots of folks are bold and courageous when it comes to business ventures and other worldly endeavors, but how many Catholics do you know who are willing to risk their own private pettiness, their own pigeon-holed existence for something great?  How many Catholics really heed the Holy Spirit and set out into deep waters?  Do we all not typically grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) rather than heed the Spirit?

If there's anything I've seen over and over again, especially with young people, it's this desire to play it safe, to avoid big risk and big failure, to keep an uncircumcised heart, to be small-of-mind and small-of-spirit in a toy theater life they build and control.  This is true for Christians and agnostics alike, as a rule. 

And even Wikipedia makes the connection to C. S. Lewis, who was more perceptive about this subject than anything else.  Wikipedia writes ...

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, refers to the chest of man as the seat of magnanimity, or sentiment, with this magnanimity working as the liaison between visceral and cerebral man. Lewis asserts that in his time, the denial of the emotions that are found in the eternal, the sublime, that which is humbling as an objective reality, had led to "men without chests".

"In his time" and ours, Wikipedia.


I had a nominally Catholic actress who worked for me who was undeniably called to teach drama.  Of all things in her life, teaching drama to young people moved her, excited her, and yes, disturbed her.  That's the thing about our vocations - they are always a call out of our pusillanimous "comfort zones".  When you love something, when God has made you to do something and you get a whiff of your true identity in Him, when you are drawn to something that moves you, you approach the chasm of magnanimity - you are called to step forth in fear and faith. 

But this otherwise sweet young lady refused to get certified in drama and simply worked as a substitute teacher or as a volunteer assistant director for the school plays.  She found what she loved and she put it in a box on a shelf where it was safe.

There's a Kafka parable where a pusillanimous soul waits patiently before his destiny, represented by a giant door he is told by a gatekeeper that he must not approach.  And he waits patiently for years.  Then, as a dying old fool, half deaf, he is told by the gatekeeper, who bellows in his ear, "This door was meant only for you.  You have wasted your life by failing to go through it."

Likewise, there's the rather chilling Henry James story "The Beast in the Jungle" about a cowardly character who lives his whole life afraid of the very things he is most drawn to, including a woman who clearly loves him and whom he never seriously engages.

And there's the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, where the master scolds and condemns the investor who played it safe and buried his treasure in a hole.  I write more about that elsewhere.


All in all, playing it safe in matters of the Spirit is worse than tragic - it is pathetic.

May we all strive to be magnanimous - Great of Spirit - for the Lord.

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