Do we ever change for the better? Become more virtuous? Certainly, but it is always under the sign of struggle, of the Cross. Augustine’s memoir of his life’s journey, Flaubert’s St. Julian, Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, Dostoevsky’s Idiot or Dmitri, Shakespeare’s penitent Lear, the innumerable testimonies of Alcoholics Anonymous – the religious world is full of true examples of positive virtue, but only as the fruit of guilt and grace, suffering and realized limitation and confession and repentance and chest-beating and those rare, incoercible moments of knowing you are known and loved, sinner and righteous, fallen and redeemed.
As the love of Christ is the starting-point, so it is also the end. Virtue itself is good, but virtue development is self-conscious and therefore disingenuous. Like Daphne, it turns still and lifeless the moment you try to grasp it. In practice, focusing on your own ‘character’ tends to undermine the realities of bound wills and spiritual frustrations that must always be the starting points of grace. And though virtue may persist into the new creation, but there is only one that Christ himself says will not be taken away: the “one needful thing” (Lk 10:42) – to know oneself to be justified and loved as sinner by God himself and, God-willing, to “see his face.”