The Character of Virtue:
Letters to a Godson
As the Boy’s head dipped down into the water I thought about joy. The Boy, my friend’s son, wide-eyed in the midst of sacrament, upside down in baptism, stared at the ceiling with that wild wonder all children have in new experiences. His head came up, rivulets running onto his small, strong shoulders. He did not cry. The sign of the cross was marked on his forehead, invisible and eternal. The sacrament, holy and piercing through time, was put in words. It was our turn. My wife and I, up before the expectant faces of the congregation, were asked if we would do our part, to support and encourage the the Boy in the life of faith. We said yes. It was why we were there, honored and nervous and brimming with love.
And now it is a year and change later. Stanley Hauerwas, the noted theologian and ethicist from Duke University, has published a book called The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson. In sixteen letters over sixteen anniversaries from his friend Samuel Well’s son’s baptism, Hauerwas offers wisdom in the form of virtues. He writes Laurie, Well’s son and his Godson, about joy, truthfulness, simplicity, temperance. There are other virtues. Fifteen in all (the first letter is a sort of introduction). With each letter and each virtue I wonder if I can figure out how to relate what little I have with the Boy. To share your story with someone you love is a massive, ungainly thing.
I am not a parent. I haven’t yet had to scrape together some sort of ethic for raising a small human from the jumbled experience of my past. So, when I look at the Boy, a year old and ready to take on the world, I am aware of how very little I have prepared. Hauerwas writes to Laurie about kindness in his one-year letter. He encourages Laurie to live kindly, and accept kindness from others without regret. “To be kind,” Hauerwas says, “is the willingness to be present when nothing can be said or done to make things better.” These are profound foundations for a one-year old to build from. What do I have? Do comic books and fantasy novels count as wisdom?
And then in his writing on Patience, from the fourth anniversary of Laurie’s baptism, Hauerwas roots the virtue into his love of baseball. Learning to love this “slow game of failure,” he says, reveals a deep hope in the American ethos. If we can be patient through a slow, long season of mounting loss sprinkled with the shortest glimmers of greatness, we can start to understand that “speed is often just another name for violence.” Patience is the antidote. Baseball is nonviolence practiced with peanuts and beer.
In crowded suburban kitchens at parties where I know just enough people to be there, but not enough to sit down, I’ve leaned on many doorframes and droned about baseball. With the milled wood digging into my shoulder blade and my beer bottle pinballing the air in front of me, I talk warm summer nights with the city around me and the diamond below. Or I talk books, or backpacking, or board games. It doesn’t matter the subject specifically, we humans preach what shifts our story around. We are the evangelists of our persuasions.
The wisdom that comes from Hauerwas the theologian in The Character of Virtue is not some lonely thing, divorced from Hauerwas the man. When he writes of justice, of constancy, of character, he does so because his life up to that point has showed him that those virtues are important, especially for a young boy who will one day become a man. But his life has also shown him that baseball is important, that the lessons from your father seal themselves inside you, that great wisdom is found in books, and that Scripture holds truth.
While he may shape these letters into digestible treatises on virtues, Hauerwas seems want little more than to share his life with his growing godson. Year by year he is using virtues as tools to divine how to hand his story over, timidly resting it on his outstretched palms. These letters seemed so private at first. He speaks of Laurie’s family, of their beloved family dog. Hauerwas mourns the death of his own family pets. The depth of family relationships are shared; as are stories of Hauerwas’s father: a wise, hardworking bricklayer.
And yet in the final letter, Hauerwas explains that these writings, for Laurie alone for so many years, are soon to be published, and he “hope[s] widely read.” This last letter is almost bashful. It is hesitant in a way the others are not. These were for Laurie, and now they are for everyone. Maybe they were always for everyone, and Hauerwas didn’t realize that himself until he was deep within the ritual of writing them.
And maybe the best way that we have to share our story is by working with those we love to create a lens to sharpen and refine it. Who better to tell ourselves to – and through – than those whom we love. Love, mutual love, must necessarily shape those involved. When we love someone we are asking them to write a small part of our story and if we, in turn, can write some of theirs. Hauerwas wants to share wisdom he has learned on how to live well among others. This wisdom came from the many things he loves and the many people he loves, and from his studies of Biblical text and Christian community. He offers Laurie this wisdom and himself, conjoined, inseparable.
It is no easy thing to encapsulate yourself into words and pages. We are complex and we shift and change and all those shifts and changes add together to make up who we are in each moment, and all the moments after that. And we do this alongside thousands of other complex beings, some of whom we may get the impossible pleasure to mingle our stories with and even to love. In his letter on justice, Hauerwas writes to Laurie, “You may well think, ‘This is pretty heavy-duty stuff to lay on a six-year-old.’ And it is, just as growing up is pretty heavy-duty stuff.” Each moment we have is heavy-duty stuff. We’re molding our story from what we take from others and the world around us. Who we are and who we are shaping ourselves to be is tied into everyone else. We’re writing this big, heavy-duty story together. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a poem that is one of Hauerwas’s favorites, says it better than I ever could:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.