In a period of history where religion and politics have again sadly become one, American Catholics are left fighting for social causes and political saviors, trusting in many promises that their present sacrifices will be rewarded with future benefits. Unfortunately, the benefits that will come through victory on the socio-political battle field, if they do in fact turn out to be victories, are not the kinds of benefits that will actually bring us closer to heaven as individuals.
Our duty, according to our Lord’s own teaching, is to “Seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God”. These two foci were presented to us not in lieu of worrying about contraception or pornography, but in lieu of being anxious about food and clothing–necessities of life. We were told to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and to note their simplicity–and how generously God provides for them. Then, being freed from all cares of this life, to seek God without any hindrances.
We are called to be holy. Even more, we are called to be like God in holiness, even to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. We are warned that “unless your righteousness exceeds than that of the [1st century] scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.
This is to be our concern in this life and to those of you who (like me) are not interested in running after the latest socio-political crisis or trying to tell other people how to be good before you’ve taught yourself, I’d like to share some very helpful wisdom from holy men of the past who, if living today, wouldn’t be talking politics or worrying about what sinners are doing somewhere far away. Let us learn how to become holy individuals.
THE EIGHT PRINCIPAL FAULTS
If we are going to become holy we must rid ourselves of whatever it is that makes us unholy and replace it with true holiness. We call “Saints” those individuals who had finished this work of purification, which of course begins, progresses and ends with a collaboration of God’s grace and our effort: both–not one or the other. We either desire to be holy or we are content to be unholy. God does not will that some people be holy and others be worldly, for St. Paul himself said, “This is God’s will–your sanctification.” No, God isn’t happy that we are who we are. We are told by God to be someone we are not. We are told to be like God. Working to become like God is God’s will for us.
What it is that keeps us from being like God is sin. Sin can be defined simply as that behavior which makes us unlike God. Now, we need not get lost here in useless discussions about those characteristics of God which we cannot imitate, for they are not essential to holiness. God does not ask us to be omnipotent (all-powerful) or omniscient (all-knowing) or to have no beginning. Those characteristics do not make God holy and they are not the characteristics we are commanded to cultivate. We are to be like God in those characteristics which are, through the graces God is ready and willing to supply, within our reach as praying human beings, those characteristics which are possible for us because man was made in the image and likeness of God and was intended to be holy like God.
Holy men in the early Church taught very plainly how men were to become holy. They identified eight principal or fundamental faults which made us unlike God. By studying these and learning to recognize them in ourselves, we can understand what we are fighting against and then, with the help of holy teachers, we can learn how to overcome them completely. John Cassian, in the 5th century wrote:
First, Gluttony or the pleasures of the palate; secondly, Fornication; thirdly, Covetousness, which means Avarice, or, as it may more properly be called, the love of money , fourthly, Anger; fifthly, Dejection; sixthly, Accidie, which is heaviness or weariness of heart; seventhly, Kenodoxia, which means foolish or vain glory; eighthly, Pride.
Now, unless you have been living in a cave, you are certainly familiar with some of these. I say familiar because we have to enter into this study without assuming we know more than we actually do. One of the marks of a foolish person is that they are confident that they know things that history’s wisest men labored to study. Let our study of the masters determine whether we truly know these things or whether we are merely familiar with them as we are with space shuttles, lions and black holes. I am sure we all have much to learn and I recommend, as St. Benedict did, that you read John Cassian’s Institutes, beginning in book V.
What should also be noted is how rarely these eight faults are spoken of in modern Christian circles. We don’t hear bishops complaining about fornication in their dioceses, or priests speaking out against gluttony. We talk about abortion and contraception as though women are spontaneously conceiving! ”You know, Mary, if you don’t get yourself some birth control pills, you’re gonna wake up pregnant one day.” We’re arguing about health insurance as though the diseases many Americans are suffering from just popped up one day. “I was out gardening one day, as usual, when all of a sudden, ‘bam!’ lung cancer came up and bit me. Now, I have to figure out how to pay for whatever the doctor says needs to be done. It’s terrible!”. That’s really not how life works in most cases. Our problems normally begin with sin–whether ours or someone else’s–and our lives are confused morally and spiritually because we’re listening to people whose minds aren’t aren’t working in the light of true faith. We’re spending our time and energy on symptoms and after-effects of sin rather than the sources of sin and pretending that we’re really going to beat these evils without God or in spite of Him. These superficial efforts are, of course, ineffective. A glutton who marches against abortion isn’t a holy person and, no matter how “friendly” he may be, the people he’s marching against are looking at him saying, “What a hypocrite!”. A man who is a slave to the impulses of anger isn’t holy, whether he receives Communion every day or only once per year. We can’t pick and choose which sins we’re going to attack and which ones we’re going to allow ourselves to practice. We are called to be holy, not relative to sinners around us, but as God Himself is holy. The rule of holiness is perfection. Jesus taught us that.
ALL OR NOTHING
The biggest problem with our battle against the eight principal faults is that we must either go to war against all of them, or we will ultimately lose to all of them. This is why Our Lord set the bar at perfection. That is the only possible bar, for the moment we lower it to allow some vice, that vice works to let other vices in. It is like the boy Sinon in the story of the fall of Troy, who was used by the Greeks to trick the Trojans. They sent the boy to the city gate pretending that he was cast away by the Greeks after they sailed away from Troy. He was received by the Trojans and cared for, yet it was he who unlocked the Trojan horse and let the warriors out who then opened the city gates and let the entire Greek army in. We cannot accept any Sinons in the battle against sin and we must either pursue all or nothing.
Of course, people will disagree here and begin justifying and excusing their own faults as being “less serious” than those they attack in other people, but Our Lord did not agree with them. First, they know He taught Christians to remove the log from their own eyes before they appoint themselves critics of others. Second, he taught those of us who are ahead of our peers are probably ahead because of influences outside of our control. We did not necessarily merit our superior moral standing and therefore cannot take any credit for it. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Thus, anyone who wants to justify their faults by comparing himself to others is deceiving himself. Jesus said perfect….period.
THE WORK OF HOLINESS
Before there is any study of the eight individual faults, we must establish the foundation on which a holy life must be built. Without this foundation, any talk of holiness will be a bunch of hot air–and you’ll hear people talking all the time who do not become more holy despite their religious or moral busy-ness.
The foundation is taught by every saint in every generation and most of us understand a lot more about holiness when we are lying in our beds alone at night or correcting our children than we pretend to known when talking to other adults. The difference between a person truly seeking holiness and one just blowing smoke is that some follow the rule and some do not. Some imagine that they will just go on doing whatever they please with their time and attention and somehow end up like those who do otherwise, but time proves them to be false.
The foundation of holiness is cultivating a mind that is constantly fixed on three things:
1. By God here we mean God’s perfect holiness. Close your eyes and think about God’s perfect goodness, His perfect wisdom, His perfect power to do whatever He wills. Think of all the good God is constantly doing everywhere in the world. Think of how patient God is with evil people. Think of how faithful God is to His own children in the world, how millions of Christians can narrate their experience of God’s provision and care. Think of God’s glory, set in the midst of an infinite host of angels and the spirits of all the saints. Meditate on His perfect control of all things–from the creation of the universe down to the growth of the petals of every flower on earth. Now, keep your thoughts there for the rest of your life.
The best place to learn about God is by studying Sacred Scripture. There is no easy way to do this, but the difficulty is a test of your desire for it. You don’t deserve to possess what you aren’t willing to work for–you know that–and if you want this knowledge of God, you have to compare your efforts to those who have attained it. Think, for example of David who said:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
Now, you’re either like that man or you’re not, and you shouldn’t be surprised by the consequences of being what you are. If you’re reading every book but Scripture, you’ll know everything but God. Moreover, Sacred Scripture is not some cheap novel on the NY Times bestseller list. It is divine revelation, in which your Creator wishes to speak to you through history, poetry, biography, commandments, proverbs and more. Sacred Scripture has a power to convert your soul, enlighten your mind and sanctify your affections. It was given by God to be your life’s principal reading and study, and you are to study it for what it is–the word of God–and not the mere words of men as may be found in all other books. In Deuteronomy 6, God commanded parents to “drill it into their children” and to write His laws on their walls and doorposts to keep them constantly before “their eyes”. These are God’s words–words of perfect wisdom and everlasting life!
You should cultivate the habit of what is called lectio divina or “contemplative reading”, which is different from normal academic or leisure reading. We read the Scriptures not to write a review when we’re finished or finish a research project. We read to be transformed and made ready for heaven, ready to overcome every obstacle in this world, ready to find out and avoid every false judgment in and around us. Again, you’ll reap only what you have sown, so don’t expect anything you don’t work for. Don’t waste your time looking for the perfect Bible or Bible reading schedule–just remember Psalm 1: “on His law he meditates day and night“. Sacrifice your leisure, sleep, night out, TV time, etc., and study the Scriptures. This is God’s word! These words must be in your mind and in the minds of your children. You know that no other activity, study or entertainment can compare with it for value in your life. Therefore, give it the time and attention it deserves and don’t deceive yourself.
2. By virtue we mean perfect virtue. Again, you’ll need to learn about these, but Christian teachers have divided them into two groups: Cardinal Virtues and Theological Virtues.
The Cardinal Virtues are: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. These virtues have been named and studied since ancient times and you can find them discussed by Aristotle, Cicero and all ancient philosophers. Think–pagans studied these things in pre-Christian pagan societies and worked to practice them! How can Christians neglect them?! Through Christian teaching, the perfect definitions of these virtues and–more importantly–the power needed to achieve perfection in them have been made available to us. From these four virtues, the Theological Virtues–Faith, Hope and Charity–have spring as fruits from a vine. Our mind must be constantly fixed on these virtues, for they are our target morally and should ultimately define who we are. Imagine, at your funeral, a holy man standing up to deliver your eulogy and defining you as a living model of all virtue. Think of the perfect praise and glory that so many saints receive today–and imagine your name added to that cloud of witnesses for future generations. That is a worthy goal and you must think on these things constantly. (Don’t worry, fake virtue for the sake of praise won’t get you into that crowd.)
The most efficient place to begin learning about these virtues is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In pararaphs 1803-1845, you will find the best available definitions for each of the virtues and very enlightening explanations. Commit the definitions to memory. Then, once you know them, begin looking for them in your reading of Scripture and in your study of yourself and those around you–all with the goal of improving yourself. You’ll find that these virtues explain the significance of much of what you’ll see and will become more clearly visible in the lives of the great men and women who have followed God throughout history. Remember to always study virtue in human beings relative to when they lived and what knowledge and grace was available to men. For example, Joseph lived around 1700 years before Christ and yet demonstrated incredible temperance in resisting the advances of his master’s wife for fear of God alone. David showed incredible fortitude in standing against Israel’s enemies, trusting that God would deliver him from them all. Solomon taught the world prudence, speaking on all subjects with penetrating understanding and ruling his kingdom with wisdom that was famous throughout the ancient world. Our Lord demonstrated unprecedented charity–offering his life for the redemption of his enemies. Meditate on the greatest example of the virtues and aim at nothing less than perfection in your own life. Remember, you can’t be saved with the virtue of men who have had less privilege and been given less grace than you have. ”To whom much is given, much is expected.”
3. When we speak of heaven, we mean the perfect happiness of heaven, but even more importantly–that its happiness is unchanging and eternal. Look around you at everything breaking down and dying–” where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal”. Think of all the waste and filth that pollutes the earth and ruins the beautiful natural resources that God once freely gave to man, pristine and perfect, to cultivate and share. It can be and should be depressing to think about. Then, imagine that place where God dwells with all of the angels, clothed in light, free from all stain of evil, all thought of death, disease or decay, entirely free from the curse and consequences of sin and all confusion–remaining in a perfect state for ever and ever and ever. Imagine all of the departed saints, there receiving the everlasting rewards for their sufferings and sacrifices on earth. Think of Our Lord’s satisfaction, receiving there the everlasting joy on which His mind was fixed during His time of earthly suffering. Think of the joy of the martyrs who gave up everything–including their lives–to have what they now possess forever and will never have to fear losing. Think of that experience of seeing the Lord, after having worked and suffered for His sake as a good and faithful servant until the day of your death, then being received by Him with joy and being given your rewards, which you will enjoy forever. Think of the fellowship, the mutual love and festivity of all the victorious saints there, most of whom endured terrible loneliness in the world while they lived, longing for heaven–imagine the freedom of their celebration and worship! Lastly, think of heaven’s knowledge of your life–God, the angels, the saints, all capable of knowing you, your desires, your needs, your deeds. You are one of their family members still at war–if you desire to be–how eager would they all be to help you win, knowing intimately, from their own experience, all that you must endure and overcome! The constant thought of heaven must remain with you.
Once you know (to some degree) what is the foundation of a holy life, there will necessarily be practical questions of how to do this. If you think talk about holiness and sin is rare, talk about practical steps toward holiness are even more rare. The challenge, as we said, is to develop and maintain a mind that is unmoveably fixed on God, virtue and heaven–not to keep up with the latest headlines or newest fads. They will never stop coming. For the past 2,000 years, holy men and women have been creating resources to help you focus on that which is steadfast and immovable, but you must know where those resources are and you must be willing to procure them at any cost and exhaust them.
PRACTICAL DETAILS: STUDY
All of the saints recommend to you sacred reading. That begins with the Bible, which you must own and use. If you’re an English-speaking Catholic, that means the New American Bible, the Revised Standard Version or the Douay-Rheims Bible. In addition to the Bible, you should own a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church–the big green book. In addition to these, you should build a small library of spiritual classics which you will read and re-read for the rest of your life. These include the Institutes of John Cassian, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales and True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. These are must-haves to get started and you could spend the rest of your life with only these books and do well. In addition to these, you have access to the writings of the Church fathers, which should be next on your list. Don’t worry, there is nothing being written today that will prove to be better for your soul than what was written many years ago. In fact, most of what is being written today is unnecessary for our spiritual lives.
In addition to spiritual reading, I recommend sacred music, but not just any music made by Christians. As our mind should remain on God, virtue and heaven, our music must promote that focus. It may take time for you to cultivate a taste and appreciation for the finest music, but you must keep your library simple. I recommend to you music that was created by men who understand this focus and sought it in their works: Ambrosian chant, Gregorian chant, Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, and so on. I recommend that you take the CLAA’s Music History course and listen to the CLAA’s online radio station which plays this music. Moreover, I recommend sacred art that was created to stir these affections in us. Once again, I recommend to you the CLAA’s Art History course which will introduce you to the best Christian artists and their best works. Make use of sacred statuary and sacramentals that are offered to us for this very purpose: to raise our minds and hearts to heaven. Visit holy places where all of this is on display.
PRACTICAL DETAILS: PRACTICE
We opened this article by sharing the Lord’s command that we “Seek first the kingdom of God and the righeousness of God”. This study we have been describing is the first part of this seeking, for even in Latin, the word for study studium can be translated as “zeal” or “pursuit”. We seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God by making the study of them our chief pursuit but also by making the practice of them our chief priority. In the “Sermon on the Mount”, Our Lord explained what this pursuit looks like in detail. You have to study the Sermon on the Mount. Did you hear that? You have to study the Sermon on the Mount. In your Bible, you’ll find this sermon in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapters 5-7. Having studied this carefully, go on to read the rest of the Gospels and the Book of Acts to see what this life looks like in the examples of Our Lord and His holy Apostles. They show us what this life looks like.
Our Lord draws our attention to three basic duties which He calls our “righteousnesses”. These are Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. These duties not only merit for us treasure in heaven, but also teach us true holiness. You will find it very, very hard to practice what Jesus teaches. It is very hard to pray…in secret. It is very hard to fast…in secret. It is very hard to give alms…in secret. You’ll find out quickly how shallow your faith is and how must you seek human rewards from your good deeds rather than their true heavenly rewards. You’ll find out how faithless, out of control and vain you are as you begin to practice true righteousness. You’ll understand what motivates all heretical teaching, including Protestantism. You’ll see how far you have to go to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Church has recommended to us the system of prayer known as the “Divine Office” or the “Liturgy of the Hours“. You could wing it and throw together your own devotions, but you won’t maintain the constancy of mind that devotion is supposed to supply. That’s the problem with “personal devotions” and the greatest advantage of the Divine Office. The work of organizing the daliy readings, music and prayers has already been done. The system has already been tested and proven effective. It simply needs to be entered into with devotion and, once again, we will be tested by the challenge of daily–hourly!–prayers.
I’ll warn you in advance that as you enter into the heavenly mindset, your mind and heart will begin to soar. However, you will soon find great discouragement from all sides–even close friends who don’t necessarily mean to discourage you. You will be sacrificing and working yourself to exhaustion every day to have someone look at you and say, “The Church doesn’t require any of that–we’re laypeople, after all.”
No, the Church doesn’t require anyone to pray like St. Monica or fast like St. Thomas More or give alms like King St. Louis of France–but it canonizes and honors them as its best and brightest members, doesn’t it? It doesn’t canonize or commend to us the lives of laypeople who didn’t do these things in history. “Ah, today is March 5th, the feast day of Mr. Jones, the electrician who had a restored ’67 Corvette and was a big Packers fan–oh yeah, he was a Catholic.” No, no Mr. Joneses in the Church’s memorials, only crazy people whose lives resembled Our Lord’s life more than their pagan neighbors’ lives. Don’t allow anything to discourage what you resolve to do in your best moments.
As your interests turn towards leading others to the faith, your duty consists simply in creating in others the mind you are working to create in yourself. If you must think constantly of God, virtue and heaven–so must your children. If your sanctification depends so much on what you’re thinking about, the things you speak about, which influence what others think about, should be the same. You can help sanctify everyone around you by making holy whatever environment is in your control and by always injecting heavenly thoughts into whatever conversation you participate in. St. Paul said, “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth; but that which is good, to the edification of faith, that it may administer grace to the hearers.” As others discourage your sanctification, so should you encourage theirs.
You must be prepared for discouragements–and all the saints have faced them. At times, these discouragements have come from priests and even bishops, but that was often because of honest misunderstandings. Realize that priests and bishops almost alway want what is best for Christians in their care, but they face a lot of nonsense from wacky people who are always discontent with what the Church offers and imagine that, while they fail to exhaust what is available, their salvation hangs on some obscure devotion or new resolution that they will not keep. If your priest rolls his eyes at you, first think whether there might be a reason for him to do so. He may think that you’re speaking of things you don’t understand, or that this is a new zeal that will quickly run out of fuel. If your motivation is right, you will not be discouraged by these kinds of fatherly chastisement, but will benefit from them and become more resolved in your spiritual life. There are no excuses for your spiritual failures and God has not only ordained your life and salvation, but also has arranged for you to be under the care of your specific bishop and priests. “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He shall exalt you in due time.”
Holiness is not a spiritual gift or an innate talent. It is not attained by luck or genetics. As you can see above, holiness is a quality of life that is attained through study and practice. That which can be gained through study and practice is (in the classical sense) called an “art” and therefore we must constantly remind our self in a society of self-labeling, self-justifying, self-excusing, self-deceiving and self-defeating people, that we must study and work to become holy and–no matter what anyone says–”without holiness no one will see the Lord”. While others around you will eat, drink and make merry, remind yourself that St. Paul, who is now in heaven, told you to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Choose for yourself whom you will follow.
The key to holiness is to cultivate the mind today that you will have in eternity, and to allow that mind to renew every area of your life. Refuse to to “go with the flow” but examine, question and test all things. Socrates, another virtuous pagan who shames many Christians, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” and too many Christians are living unexamined lives, imagining things to be necessary evils that could, like a sinning hand or eye be cut off and cast away in a moment. We cannot imagine that we can just throw a coat of whitewash on a fundamentally flawed philosophy of life and call that “good”. Our Lord was referring to this when He told the hypocrites that their attention to the outside of the cup was pointless while the inside of the cup was unclean. He spoke of deceived Jews who happened to avoid the acts of adultery and violence (perhaps because they lacked the opportunity), but had the minds of adulterers and murderers and pretended that all was well.
We must do what St. Paul explained to the Christians living in Rome: “Do not allow yourself to be formed by the people and customs around you, but be formed by heaven, by the renewing of your mind.”
and to the Colossians: “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth”,
and to the Ephesians, “Rise, you that sleep, and arise from the dead and Christ shall enlighten you!”.
Our Lord said the same thing when He said, “Do not seek the things the pagans seek….but seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God”.
The problem, of course, is that so long as this remains wishy-washy Bible talk and not real-world action and habit, it will bear no fruit. St. Jude described such men as, “clouds without rain, blown along by the wind”. St. Paul said they are “always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”. St. James said they are men who “look at themselves in a mirror, then go away and forget what they looked like”. Our Lord said they are like ships “tossed to and fro by every wind of teaching”. We all know that life too well, don’t we?
Let us resolve, then, to cast away and trample underfoot every distraction and obstacle that stands before us and simply do what Our Lord told us to: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That is the standard of the Christian life. I’ll leave you with a quote from John Cassian to conclude:
A man will despise all things present when he has securely fixed his mind’s eye on those things which are unchanging and eternal, and contemplates in his heart the blessedness of the heavenly life that awaits him.