St. Vincent dePaul’s Warning Against an Excess of Virtue

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of my great heroes, St. Vincent dePaul. Growing up, I knew nothing about St. Vincent, except that I had some vague knowledge that he had something to do with the large St. Vincent dePaul Society collection bins in our schoolyard into which we periodically deposited old clothing and other items for the poor. However, during my fourteen years on the faculty of St. John’s law school in NY (where I was before moving to Minneapolis), I learned much about Vincent from the Vincentian priests who were, in one way or another, part of the university community and I grew to love him (and them).

One of the things Vincent understood was that while zeal is a positive trait, every virtue “has two vicious extremes” that “we must pass directly between.” For Vincent “virtue always lies in the happy medium.” In an address he gave to seminarians, he spoke a warning of the excess of zeal.

And yet we must realize that even though God has commanded us to love him with all our hearts and with all our strength, all the same his goodness doens’t mean that in our exuberance we should go so far as to impair or ruin our health; no, no, God doesn’t ask us to kill ourselves for this…Very often the devil tempts us in this way. When he is unable to persuade us to do evil directly, he gets us to undertake more than we can manage and overlaods us until we are weighed down by too great a weight, too heavy a burden.

This is an important warning and something St. Ignatius also spoke about. For those of us following a spiritual path, the temption will not be to do some viciously evil act. As I sometimes joke with people during programs I give, it is not like we’re going to walk outside after doing our morning prayer and feel a temptation to rob a bank or to bop a random person walking past us on the head. Rather, the temptation will be disguised as something that looks admirable and good to us. So, we need to be on guard to ensure that our virtues do not turn into vices by a failure to avoid extremes.