Why Virtue Ethics is so Empowering in Retreats

The goal of Christian faith formation retreat is to assist the participant to grow in discipleship with Jesus and in community with others so she/he is closer to living a fulfilling life of love.  Virtue Ethics with a Christian perspective is a very helpful in my work as a retreats facilitator because it engages retreat participants in a process of whole-person moral development which is very conducive to faith formation. 

The virtues are easily accessible anchor points for a broad range of participants especially given the time constraints of a retreat. The process of learning the importance of virtues from and alongside admirable, virtuous people gives retreat participants a whole-person method of moral development. The living of a virtuous life is respectable and this gives the retreat participant a sense of noble confidence and identity that transcends his/her material circumstances.  The vocation to build virtues into one’s character until they become habitual strengthens his/her resilience through times of failure, loss, change or confusion because there is room to learn from all our experiences and recalibrate our character to more closely align with the virtues.  In the final section of the essay, I will outline an example of how Virtue Ethics influences the retreat experience.

Virtue Ethics offers anchor points that give retreat participants an inner compass for their everyday choices and sense of identity.  Broad ranges of retreat participants readily acknowledge the value of virtues and this enables deeper reflection in the time-restricted retreat context.  The framing of personal moral development in terms of virtue is an inclusive and time-efficient pedagogical tool. Analytical discussion of Natural Law reasoning, Kantian theorising or Utilitarian arguments would be too onerous, academic, impersonal for a retreat setting and may even exclude a portion of the participants.   As Pope Francis emphasises in Amoris Laetitia, according to Bishop Robert Barron (2018), rules are good but on their own they are an insufficient formation process for moral development.  Virtue Ethics gives space to develop one’s character and sensitivities to relationships and circumstances, not just fulfil obligations or do one’s duty.

As an apprentice painter sits with, observes, imitates and learns from his teacher, so the retreat participant learns how to be virtuous by being educated by a virtuous community and by following virtuous role models.  In the retreat program, participants learn from a particular Scriptural story or passage that reveals the character of Jesus to gain a broader understanding of the reasons for the virtue, not simply how to apply the letter of the law.  The participants gain inspiration, encouragement, motivation and wisdom from the role models present in the program and from the stories I share of role models in poverty-stricken communities in rural Malawi, Africa, where volunteers and Canossian Sisters run kindergartens to give hope to the children.  The more connected participants are to virtuous role models, the more they will develop their own virtues and lead more virtuous lives. 

To be a person of virtue is a respectable and resilient identity, one which can carry the retreat participant through the good and bad times, losses and gains, rich and poor times of life.  This is a powerful message for retreat participants who are often searching for anchor points as they work out who they are and what they value.  Virtue Ethics is helpful because it offers a whole-person vocation to living a virtuous life and it has an inbuilt way of dealing with inevitable human flaws and failings.  A person can use times of failure as a way to learn the importance of the virtue due to its absence and recalibrate their position on how to apply the virtues to their circumstances (Braun 2019, Virtue Ethics Lecture).  By recommitting to the virtue and recalibrating one’s understanding and application of the virtue to the circumstances, a person is still able to become more virtuous and thus retain their sense of identity and confidence. 

Virtue Ethics involves the whole person because it requires the development of a rational understanding and application of the virtues and an application of the virtues into their personal character through experience with the aim that they become habitual (Andrews & Miller 2009, p 67).  This process supports with the retreat experience which also appeals to the whole person.

The engagement of the retreat participant’s rational mind involves the following on retreat:

  • We explore passages or stories in Scripture to find out what virtues Jesus is demonstrating and/or teaching and why they are important.  For instance, we look at when Jesus tells His listeners during the Sermon on the Mount that they are ‘salt of the earth’ (Matt 5:13).  The meaning we extract from this passage is that like salt we are to preserve the good in others (as salt preserves food), protect the vulnerable (as salt protects wounds from infection), develop our gifts and share them (as salt gives flavour) and be confident in our worth (as salt was used as currency at that time).  So we discover the virtues of beneficence (preserve the good in others), justice (protect the vulnerable), charity (be generous to share our gifts) and modesty (have appropriate self-worth). The reasons why these virtues are important are revealed in the way Jesus is calling His listeners (and us) on a holy vocation to be virtuous, salt of the earth people but the exact application to any given circumstance is not offered.
  • I share stories about kindergarten volunteers in Malawi who demonstrate the application of these virtues amidst very challenging circumstances of extreme poverty.  The above ‘salt of the earth’ virtues are demonstrated by these volunteers in their context and this offers inspiration and confidence to the participants.
  • The participants then hear a story from one of the role models present on the retreat about how they apply these ‘salt of the earth’ virtues to their day to day choices.  The participants naturally find this very engaging and motivating.
  • The participants reflect on their own lived experience to explore the importance of the virtues.  In small groups, they share a story that demonstrates when they learned why a particular ‘salt of the earth’ virtue matters.  E.g.  a retreat participant will typically recall a memory of a time where they were impacted by the virtues of an influential person in his/her personal life.

To develop their character on retreat, participants will:

  • Reflect on how virtues are safe in the middle, as opposed to being excessive or insufficient. For example, for modesty, participants will explore how an excessive emphasis on one’s value is egotistic whilst an insufficient view of one’s value is unduly self-depricating.
  • Choose one virtue that resonates with them as the most useful at the current time.  E.g. a teenager who is struggling with self-esteem will often pick ‘know my great worth’ because she/he wants to develop a stronger sense of identity and self worth. 
  • Commit to developing the virtue in their personal character. This is done in written and spoken reflection and symbolic artwork.  E.g. participants share their chosen virtue with a partner who then paints a symbol of that virtue onto a glass candle holder.  This special momento serves as a reminder to strive for and recalibrate back to the virtue.
  •  As participants extract virtues from their own personal stories, their self-confidence and resilience improves as they start to identify with the noble, moral life. 

The retreat offers several opportunities to develop the virtuous habit:

  • The participants are arranged into small groups where they have several challenges to accomplish such as team-building games and the respectful sharing of stories. 
  • They also have plenty of opportunities in all elements of retreat including meal times, free time and rituals.

The moral theory of Virtue Ethics is the most influential theory for my retreats because it engages the whole-person in moral development.  I find that integrating Virtue Ethics into the retreat experience to be a resilience-building, encouraging and motivating for a broad range of participants.

Reference List

Andrews, A & Miller, S 2009, Ethics in practice moral theories and the professions,  UNSW Press, Sydney.

Bishop Barron, R 2018, Bishop Barron on Pope Francis and Virtue Ethics, Word on Fire, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/video/bishop-barron-on-pope-francis-and-virtue-ethics/ visited 22/5/19  (comments on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia)

Braun, S  2019, notes from Virtue Ethics lecture in PHIL506: Ethics in a Faith Based Context, ACU Melbourne.