By: Franci Williamson

Temperance. What a bizarre old word. I immediately imagine an 11th century guy, clad in full knightly regalia, making some sort of vow in front of a court of solemn frowns and suspicious eyes. Totally crazy. Totally unrelatable. Totally necessary for my happiness.

Why? Well, unlike what the dictionary tells us about temperance, which is abstinence from alcoholic drink, temperance really lies at the heart of freedom and therefore at the heart of love and therefore at the heart of happiness – basically without it being in your heart you’re in a bit of trouble.

Temperance means moderation, self-control and is so vitally important because it provides balance. Now that Lent is long past, and Eastertide is over – we are in ordinary time. Back to normal, back to balance, the fast and the feast are done. We need to be intentional about cultivating this virtue. So much so that it ranks as one of the four great virtues, right up there with justice. That is how seriously we should take it. Self-control is a cardinal virtue, meaning it is a “hinge” virtue – that other good habits depend upon it (cardinal means hinge in Latin). In fact, I think our very happiness depends upon whether we have this hinge working or not.

How so? It goes back to asking that fundamental question – what are we created for? And the answer has been succinctly given to us in one power-house sentence (thank you Baltimore Catechism) – our purpose is to know, love and serve God in this world in order to be happy with Him in the next. So that’s it: to be happy with God. At the very core of our being is the desire to be in union with Our Lord, why? Because that is where we will be happy. Our ultimate purpose is to be happy. This happiness is not the jovial exuberance of a Disney character, it is something far greater. It is our interior harmony, a deep joy that nothing can shake, a profound peace – that same peace that we wish for each other at every Holy Mass when we say, “Peace be with you” or the “Peace of Christ”.

So how do we achieve this? How do we become happy? Knowing, loving and serving God. How do we do that? By becoming saints, by sanctifying ourselves and drawing closer to God, closer to Love Itself. For that is what God is, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and that is our greatest joy – when we are loving and being loved.  We need to learn to love as Jesus loves; to love unconditionally and freely.

What does all this have to do with temperance? Exactly that – love freely. Because what is necessary for love is freedom, and what is necessary for freedom is self-control. Hold up – freedom and control in the same sentence?? Surely using them together is breaking some sort of philosophical law of noncontradiction or something? No. A huge big fat resounding NEGATIVE. Because freedom is not doing what we like, but rather having the capacity to do what we ought. It is being able to choose the good. And this is where temperance, where self-control, is so fundamental. Because freedom isn’t just knowing the good – knowing that I deserve to be treated with dignity, knowing that I have infinite value and worth, knowing that it is wrong to unjustly punish me – real freedom is being able to act on that knowledge. That is what self-control gives us. That is temperance’s gift to us.

St Thomas said, “temperance is the disposition of the mind that binds the passions”. That our passions, our desires, don’t direct us, but rather we direct them. That we are masters of ourselves. And therein lies our freedom, and therein our happiness.

That is what Jesus came to give us – freedom, not from oppressive systems of government, or physical chains, but real freedom. The freedom to love. It is all very well to know how to love, how to sacrifice, how to choose the best for the other, but without self-control we can never achieve that.

That is why temperance is so important for unity of life. A human person is both intellect and will. Mind and heart. Reason and emotion. And we are flourishing our best when both our faculties are working in harmony towards the same project. Often our most painful experiences are when our mind and heart are not in agreement. When I love this thing, but know I shouldn’t. And it should be painful – because that is not how we were designed. We are created for harmony – for unity. Intellect and will both working together. And self-control is about getting our will on board, it’s about freeing ourselves to be able to choose the true path to our happiness and having to lament less and less with St Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15).

Self-control is a necessary stepping stone to love – our goal. St Peter tells us,

“…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:5-8).

As the great fisherman suggests, there is a sequence in order to be able to love properly, and self-control is right near the beginning. We need to be able to recognize goodness, know, love and want it. Without that we cannot know when temperance and self-restraint are called for. We need knowledge of the good. Where do we find that? Through Jesus Our Lord. He is Goodness itself, by knowing Him we come to know what is good. And we come to know Him by reading His words in the Gospels (the Good News) and spending time with Him in prayer.


This all paints a pretty picture, the roadmap is clear – in order to be happy, love. In order to love, be free. In order to be free, know the good and have self-control. Great! Done – saintliness here I come!

Except, I tell myself this almost every day. Yet I do not love perfectly. I have not rid myself of my selfishness. I still “do the very [multiple] things I hate”. So how do we foster temperance? It is so individual, that there is definitely not a one-size fits all solution here. Because how we nurture self-control is by practising self-restraint and we practise self-restraint by small acts of mortifications. And yes, it’s the small ones. Not giving up all food for a week or sleeping on the floor. Those sacrifices certainly have a place, but it is in the details that virtue is found. The small, continuous, nobody-even-notices little acts. It’s waiting 3 seconds after your phone has gone to read the message, it’s getting up after the first alarm without snoozing, it’s only having one helping of food, not buying a treat so deliciously displayed at the tills, sleeping with one pillow instead of two. There are so many ways to practise mortification and what is a struggle for one person may not be a struggle for someone else.

Always the best mortifications are the ones that make life easier and better for others. Taking the furthest parking bay at work so someone else can park closer, not finishing the hot water in the cafeteria at tea time, smiling and greeting everyone before your morning coffee – placing others before ourselves. And our daily struggles should never be other’s: if it’s your turn to cook, because you are fasting from salt doesn’t mean the rest of the house should suffer and have tasteless food. Our struggles should always improve the lives of others.

Be intentional. We don’t just offer up struggles out of the blue (at least, we don’t if we are normal). So, we need to actually think really hard about it. Write them out, make a list, hold ourselves accountable. And check in every few weeks. Maybe what was a struggle a month ago is not anymore – then it’s time to get a new one.

Pray. As obvious as this is, sometimes we forget to bring the seemingly small things to Our Lord. Self-control is a continuous struggle. And by continuous, I mean a rest of our life, never ending struggle. We never get to the point where we can sit back and pat ourselves saying, “Yeah! Nailed that”. When it seems overwhelming and we just keep failing – Begin and begin again. Every day. Every few moments if you’re like me. And always remember, “my grace is enough” says Christ (2 Cor 12:9). He’s got our back.

Ask the Holy Spirit. Let’s ask Him to help us along, He is the great Helper, the Comforter, the One active in our world. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). We enjoy the fruits of something when we position ourselves close to it. We cannot have the fruits of the apple tree if we are far away from the orchard. Let’s keep close to the Holy Spirit, ask for His intercession, for a renewal of the gifts we received at our baptism and confirmation.


“Do you know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. An athlete exercises self-control in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor 9:24-25)

About Author: Franci WilliamsonFranci_TCC_Photo

Tea, rainstorms and great literature are what make my world go round. When I’m not enjoying one of these I am a teacher who is in love with her job and the chance to help form young minds. The really and truly NEVER ending discovery of the joy of living the faith as a daughter of God constantly surprises and sustains me. I hope to always be enthralled by God, make perfect carrot cake, live in Rome and learn to play Dylan on the guitar.