7 Ways of Growing in Holiness

Christian soul, we must be persuaded that the end for which we are living on this earth is to get closer to the divinity, to the divine idea of ourselves as individual members of Christ’s Mystical Body.  Let us remind ourselves of some of the basic means of sanctification that should ordinarily be at our disposal.  Do you want to be happy?  Do you want to make a difference in the Church and in the lives of others?  Do you want to save souls?  Do you want to achieve many and great things for God?  Begin by entering into yourself.  Begin and persevere in the way of the spirit.

Seven Means of Sanctification

There are seven basic means of sanctification I wish to bring forward that we will examine separately.  Firstly, desire, Secondly, resolution, Thirdly, prayer, Fourthly, trust in God, Fifthly, frequentation of the Sacraments,
Sixthly, spiritual reading, Seventhly, patience.  From desire we mount to resolution.  From resolution we enter into communion with God in prayer.  In prayer we learn to overcome all things, trusting in God and His grace which is sufficient for us.  Trusting in God, we go from strength to strength, by the frequentation of the Sacraments.

Supported by prayer, the Sacraments and trust in God, we feed our mind continually by the reading of devout books in which the Holy Ghost speaks to our souls and gives light, devotion, inspiration and renewed courage. Finally, by patience in the daily trials of life that come to us from the hand of God, our self-love is slowly burned away and being thus immolated, we reach union with God by pure charity.

The First Means: Desire 

By necessity and by fear it is possible to observe the Commandments and avoid grave sins.  It is possible to do what we are strictly obliged to and ultimately, to save our immortal souls.  We can respect authority and perform good works by taking command of ourselves and acting rightly, whether we feel like it or not.  But when it comes to our personal sanctification, we cannot become saints without ardently desiring it.  It just won’t happen.

We could spend all our lives going to daily Mass, receiving Holy Communion, listening to sermons, praying rosaries, reading the Bible and other pious books, being nice and friendly to people, thinking about holiness, dreaming about it and talking about it with interest and enthusiasm.  But where there is no genuine and strong desire, there are bound to be little or no results.

I could dream about what heroes do, read about them and converse with my friends about the great things they have done, but for all that, I might prefer to lead a comfortable and secure life myself when it really comes down to it.  So the first question is ‘what do I want?  Do I want to become holy?  For most people end up being the way they want to be.  If you must admit that you do not have much of a desire, pray for it.  For “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill” says our Saviour. (Matt. 5. 6).

The Saints became what they are because they knew what they wanted.  They desired union and identification with Christ.  So during their lives they made it happen and now they are perfectly happy, reigning gloriously with Him in heaven.  Great deeds are born of great desires.  But where desires are wanting, so also are their effects.  Hence why God abhors the lukewarm, because being neither hot, nor cold, they are content with the way they are and make peace with all their defects.  Whereas, if they are not Saints, God would rather they were opposed to Him, that He might make them go from being His enemies to being His close and faithful friends, as was the case with St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles.

But if they are indifferent, it is almost impossible for Him to reach them, since all the ordinary means of grace make but little or no impression on them.  And being unfaithful to ordinary grace, they are unfit and unworthy to receive those higher and more extraordinary graces that He is want to give to the more fervent.

How many a soul is left to itself in a certain sense, simply because God sees that it isn’t worth leading it into deeper spirituality on account of its carelessness.  He doesn’t bother about those who remain idle after He has said to them; “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” (Matt. 19. 21).  If sadly, they love their riches too much, that is their perishable goods, their attachments and their own will, and thus turn away and decline His invitation to better things, He doesn’t argue with them, but simply suffers them to go their way.

A desire is the longing for something that we have not yet attained and it leads to the consideration of all the means that we might employ in order to gain what is desired.  It is an impelling force, by which we resolve to take action and by which we are prepared to endure great hardships, to solve all problems and overcome all obstacles that stand in our way.  Thus for example, Our Lord desired to stay with the sons of men after His Ascension into Heaven, and so determined was He to have what He desired that He came up with the astounding marvel of the Holy Eucharist.

A wonderful invention of Divine Love!  This called forth incredible humility, unconquerable charity and ineffable power.  He worked out how it could be done and what it would cost Him, then He took action and gained His end.

God wants to see us desiring great things and wishes to come to our aid in the pursuit of them.  That is, He wants us to desire His glory and our own perfection.  And once we desire these things genuinely, He is already greatly pleased with us.  For we are thus desiring the good that He Himself wills for us and He would much prefer that we desire it than that we should be ignorant and indifferent about it.

Once we desire our best interest, there is hope that we can make sure progress to the greater honour and glory of God, to our own salvation and the salvation and progress of others.

The Second Means: Resolution

Desire as we have said, should lead to resolution.  By resolution we determine on action and such action may be both general and particular.  We may resolve to sanctify ourselves in a general and overall way, and we may also resolve on certain things that will be especially conducive to our spiritual progress and our neighbour’s good.  You should daily resolve in general to save yourself and to save yourself as a Saint.

You should also resolve to overcome yourself in that particular thing which serves as your biggest stumbling block to holiness.  It is a good and praiseworthy thing to think of how you may benefit your neighbour in body and soul, but your zeal in the first place should always be for your own sanctification.  He who is holy does great good for others.  But he who is less holy, does less good to others.

It is possible that you will continue to slip into the same old faults despite your resolutions, but as long as your heart is set on your progress, God is pleased with you and will come to your aid.  The Saints were careful to resolve on the practise of those virtues and on those particular mortifications that were naturally repugnant to their flesh and to their self-love.  Most of what they resolved on came down to doing violence to themselves and not seeking to avoid occasions of suffering.

Their constant striving was to overcome themselves in all things, so that grace might triumph over nature in them and subdue the forces of evil that are rooted in the soul.  They saw consolations as God’s business, whereas theirs was to bear tribulation and adversity.  “Now consolation is given,” says the Imitation, “that a man may better support adversity, and temptation follows, that he may not be proud of it.”  Real progress in holiness therefore, is one with bearing all kinds of painful things, great and small for the love of God.

Unless we are resolved to lead a dying life, perfection is not for us.  No, and that is why we find so few saints among us.  Because few are willing to lead a life that is so opposed to our natural softness, our independence, our vanity, our pride, our indolence and our superficial ways, our love of ease and comfort, our impatience, our sloth, our natural cowardice, our false security, our irritable dispositions and so forth.

Many fail to persevere in the perfect way of Christ, but those who do are worthy of God.  Those who are found acceptable to God, must all join His Son in the pains, sorrows and ignominies of His Passion and Death.

Let your resolutions be on the difficult things.  If you can’t keep up, at least try.  Aim high and you will reach higher than if you always aim medium or low.  Holiness is impossible without firmly rooted desire and resolution.  Where these are wanting, you will never get anywhere.  But with these, real sanctity is possible.  It is within reach.  For perfection depends chiefly on great and continual personal efforts, combined with the particular graces God gives to the individual soul.  This is only possible to those who are enthusiastic and determined.  All consists in leading with Christ a life of sufferings and self-conquest.  Wherefore Our Lord found no better formula for holiness than self-denial and the Cross.  “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16. 24).

Inconstancy is the great preventative of holiness.  It is best kept in check by daily resolutions.  Whether your resolutions vary or differ, they should be made daily and it is well to actually formulate and articulate that which you are resolved to do in warfare of the spiritual life.  Resolutions should ordinarily be part of your daily conversation with God.  Devout aspirations should often concern what you desire and what you are resolved on.

Thus for example, it is a good exercise of the spirit to speak to God and to say; “O God, how I desire to be like Thy Saints, to overcome myself and to grow in Charity!  Would that my love were purer, less carnal and worldly, less self-interested and more like to the Love of Christ and the Blessed Virgin!  I am resolved with Thy help, to control my tongue, to avoid hurting the feelings of others, to go out of my way to be of service to my neighbour, to do things without waiting to be asked,” and so on.  This way, the heart enters into what we resolve on and gives some passion and force to what we promise to do for God.  Do not think of resolutions as something very hard and painful.

He who sees coins of gold scattered all over a field, resolves to gather as many as possible and does not limit himself only to a few.  That which you resolve on is far more precious than gold, for with God, all is a question of riches that are spiritual and eternal.  He holds them out to us, and all we have to do is gather as many as we can, in order to become rich.

He who is resolved to sanctify his soul, is ready to do violence to himself in order to be faithful to grace, to constantly reach out beyond himself, to concern himself with the needs of others and to sacrifice what is dear to him in order to conform himself daily more and more to the Holy Will of God.

The Third Means: Prayer

The work of holiness is to combat what is opposed to union with God and to develop and deepen this union.  Mortification and patience under trial and interior purification serve to combat the things that obstruct the Love of God in the soul.  But the soul’s actual life is prayer.  Prayer is our means of contact and exchange with God.  Continual prayer is vital to a life of union with the Divine.  Prayer is an elevation of the spirit whereby we pass beyond ourselves and from being blind, ignorant and sinful creatures, we become enlightened and deified sons of God.

It seems that there are two essentials to real prayer, namely reverence and devotion.  That is, we must respect the Divine Majesty and enter into the work of Love, by interior dialogue that proceeds from the heart.  In other words, we must assume the attitude of young children, revering the father and being in communion with him, sometimes with words, sometimes by silence.  Prayer is being with God and not being absent from Him, it is entering into His thoughts and sentiments and making these more and more our own.

It is impossible to describe prayer adequately.  God has a way with every soul that approaches Him and this is so personal that the prayer of each individual is unique.  It is a relationship with the Creator which is secret and on a personal level.  Just as a Monarch living in a palace has a different relationship with all his subjects, loving some more than others and relating differently with each one whom he knows.

Some are more distant from him than others.  Some are more faithful, more hard working.  Some care more for his exterior service, others are more intent on him as a person.  Each one has his own disposition towards him and his own manner of relating with him.  All may seem quite the same as each other.

But the king himself can judge who is the better, who is the braver, who is the more loyal, who is the most gifted and who takes best after his own heart.  He demands certain things of this one and different things of that other, because knowing their capabilities, he disposes all things as best befits each one, thus bringing about what he judges to be the greatest good.

God knows us all by name, and the prayer He receives from one of us, is not the prayer of another.  We may speak of and describe prayer only to a certain extent, for eventually, it reaches a dimension that is all mystery and all wonder to us, such that they who attain to certain high states of prayer can do no more than hint at the kind of things they experience within themselves.

For there are as many secrets about prayer as there are secrets about each individual soul.  The interior movements of a sanctified heart are as the plucking’s of those finely tuned strings that make for the royal harp of the soul, and for which the Holy Ghost has a different melody for every occasion and for every child of grace.

What great lovers of prayer the Saints have all been!  Time spent without prayer seemed such a waste to them.  They gave every moment they could to delight themselves in it.  Speaking with the Highest Good was the most sublime and rewarding activity of their entire lives.  How eloquently and passionately they spoke of prayer!  Drawing other hearts after them in their discovery of God, Who dwells in the hidden depths of every man.

They would speak with some of the best language of the human tongue, with the language of advanced theology, and soaring up to poetical heights, they would teach by the language of the heart.  Many of their attempts to explain prayer have themselves become for us immortal canticles of mysterious praise.  They awaken in us emotions that lie deep, that hitherto nothing has been able to arouse from their quiet slumber.  And so even the great Saints have become like to tottering babes when endeavouring to be God’s mouthpieces; to give some utterance to the Divine Wisdom that sat quietly enthroned in their breasts.

We have now said something concerning the grandeur of prayer, but the essential point that is to be made here is how prayer is a means to holiness.  Practise and keep to that form and to those methods of prayer that are most appealing to you and that you believe to be most efficient in acquiring virtue.

The prayer of petition must hold a prominent place in prayer.  For to those who are yet much wanting in virtue, prayer cannot for a long time turn into Love, into deep and continual peace and a tender familiarity and constant awareness of God.  If we experience no closeness or intimacy with God, we must at least make a start.

Begin by weeping at His doorstep, begging for the refuse bits of His table, until, by perseverance, you are led further in and receive new, more delicate and more substantial things from His hand.  Perseverance is the key.  For the things of God are not for those who ask only once, or who ask amiss, but only for those who ask unceasingly and without growing faint.  If you would be sure to receive, be sure to ask, remembering those words of Jesus Christ that He spoke to the sons of men; “If you then, being evil know how to give good gifts to your children; how much more will your Father who is in heaven, give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:11).

The Forth Means: Trust in God

To enter into prayer is to see the countless defects that fill ones soul and the insufficiency of all human efforts to achieve union with God.  This should engender trust in Him and great confidence in His ever present grace.  Unbounded trust in God and in the Blessed Virgin, was one of the great sources of strength in the Saints.

To approach God is to experience our own weakness, the misery of which increases in proportion to the light we receive from on high.  St. John of the Cross speaks of God as the sun, observing how the closer it comes to us, the more we recoil and seek to turn away from it on account of its excessive brightness and warmth, which is hurtful to our weakness.

And yet, by flying from it, we are flying far away from our best interests, form our only real hope of wellbeing and blessedness.  The spiritual man knows that he cannot of himself approach the ineffable Sun of the Divinity, and so he relies on God to bring him there by His own power, while he has but to will the same as God wills.

There have been those who have risen to a certain holiness and mastery over their passions, but who on account of a secret confidence in themselves, have been allowed to fall.  And therefore, knowing the great weakness of mortal man and standing in awe at the hidden judgements of God, St. Paul spoke thus to his brethren; “with fear and trembling work out your salvation.” (Phil 2:12).   The man who is humble enough to trust God as a child trusts its mother, he it is who will stand firm in every wind and storm of tribulation and adversity.

We are naturally inclined to be our own masters.  Does God approve of this?  No, He is in fact very displeased and offended by it.  It is another big reason why so few attain to perfection.

For not seeing how fundamental it is to trust in God, man thinks to achieve too much by his own industry.   And therefore, although God loves man so mightily, He is nevertheless obliged to let him fall, lest pride should get the better of him, and he should think to become perfect by his own devices.  Some who could quite easily become Saints, spend their entire lives failing to reach perfection, because they never learn the essential lesson that God is in control, and that they must trust in Him and not in themselves.

Pray always for a greater trust in God.  Never think that you alone have the answer to your problems.  In temptation, try never to despair, remembering those words of Jesus to the Apostle when he sought to be free from the assaults of the flesh; “My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity.” (2 Cor 12:9).

He who would go on to spiritual things must have no opinion of himself.  He must see God as Omnipotent and himself as mere nothingness, weakness and sin.  Then will he have the light of grace in abundance and no difficulty will seem much to him because he draws all his strength from God.

The Fifth Means: Frequentation of the Sacraments

The spiritual life is a long and tedious journey.  One stands in need of being comforted, refreshed, rejuvenated, encouraged, admonished and forgiven.  It is always profitable to make humble, sincere and frequent confessions.  It is likewise a most beneficial thing to receive the Precious Body of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Holy Communion is real food to the soul, just as bread serves as food for the body of a pilgrim on earth.  “My flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed,” says Our Lord. (John 6:56).

Frequent confession makes us focus not on what we have gained but on what we have lost, what we have still to gain and what we should be were it not for so many failings on our part.  In a word, it keeps our head down, that we may walk in continual humility, lest raising our head in pride, we come to slip into grave falls.

Holy Communion is Christ’s supreme effort to unite us to Himself.  It is the consummation of the love He bears to us.  There in the host He is more humbled than He was in His Passion.  It seems He might be said to be more at our mercy, more self-abased and more pitiful in His appeal for love in this Sacrament than anywhere else.  It is truly amazing what He does to give Himself to us.

Man seems almost unable to appreciate such a thing.  It is Love making a fool of Itself for the sake of the object loved.  It seems pathetic, it seems ridiculous, it seems like madness.  Why does He do it?!  For what?!  How is it worth humbling Himself so far?!  How is it worth the unbelievable irreverence He suffers as a result?!  What of all the ignorance, the doubt, the blasphemies, the loneliness, the sacrileges, the indifference, the neglect?!  Is He not mad to institute such a thing?!

To bring about this Sacrament calls for the constant operation of Divine Power in an extraordinary way.  It is an unspeakable miracle, renewed every time a priest says Mass.  Not only is the Blessed Sacrament a miracle, but it is a whole chain of miracles.  To get the end result of being present under the form of Bread and Wine, and of being multiplied indefinitely, Our Lord has to work all kinds of wonders, not to mention give answer to the all the objections of His own divine Justice, in order to make it possible.

Here we see the great contrast existing between the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God.  His judgements are as far removed from ours as the heavens are from the earth.  The only explanation there is for the astounding marvels of the Blessed Sacrament is the excessive Love of Jesus Christ and His desire to enjoy union with us; “and my delights were to be with the children of men.” (Prov 8:31).  “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28).

Let us make good use then, of the Sacraments and therefore of the most wonderful gift of priests, who, besides serving us for spiritual guides, are able and appointed both to absolve us from sin, and to feed us with the Bread of Angels, with the entire Humanity and Divinity of the Son of God.  By a good and frequent use of the Sacraments, we will be able to wear down the strength of all the enemies of our salvation.

Sixth means: Spiritual Reading

If you would think spiritual and be spiritual, read spiritual books.  They are as letters from on High, in which God speaks to His servants, His friends, His wayward children and His lovers, and He does so under the guise of the written word.  What great things are hidden and waiting to be revealed under the cloak of writing!  What food for the mind!  What treasure for the heart!

In the world, reading is one of the chief means of acquiring secular knowledge.  But with men of God, reading can be a vital stepping stone to divine knowledge.  For what is obscure and what is hard to catch from the mouth of God in prayer, is often made known to us in great clarity through some good book.  There in the paradise of devout reading, we are filled with all kinds of inspirations, all kinds of incentives to fervour and there we learn so many truths and secrets about God, about His Saints and about the interior life of grace.

Lest your mind should constantly descend to base and mundane things, and lest your prayer life should degenerate into a few mumbled formulas, endeavour to keep the flame of spiritual fervour alive by having always a spiritual book at your side, or at least not too far away… and not too high up on your shelf!

But what books are especially to be recommended?  Again, as with particular forms of prayer, this must depend on the individual person.  Take up that book which you yourself find to be most appealing and most apt to sanctify you.  Whatever your own particular devotion draws you to is what is most likely to be the best for your soul.  However, I will here bring forward two books that are as common as they are spiritually beneficial.

For one may always recommend books to others, since this is part of promoting the written word of God.  The two I will put before you are ‘The Holy Bible’ and ‘The Imitation of Christ.’ The Bible should ideally have first place in our spiritual reading.  It is the inspired word of God and this we know to be true because the Church teaches it.  If you would hear God and relish the Truth, read the Holy Scriptures.  Besides this there is the Imitation of Christ which is worth commenting on.

The Imitation of Christ is an invaluable companion for all who wish to lead a spiritual and more fervent Christian life.  It focuses on the interior life and serves as an excellent guide to holiness and wisdom.

The best known version in English is the Richard Challoner translation of the book which was originally written in Latin by Thomas á Kempis, a late 14th to 15th
century German Religious of the Cannons Regular of St. Augustine.  He it was (as is most commonly held) who put together these four marvellous books which went together under the heading of De Imitatione Christi.  For over five centauries this work has inspired souls all over the world and its lessons are ever ancient and ever new.  Its popularity as a devotional classic has ranked it second to the Bible and there can be no serious doubt that its content is an inspired work of the Holy Ghost.  Again and again, its message comes home to the faithful reader, with a clarity, freshness and excellence that can only originate in the Master Mind of the Divine Author.

Read the Imitation of Christ; read a little each day and God will speak to you from the countless noble and weighty sentences of the book.  It is a book for all people of all time and after the Holy Scriptures, there is perhaps nothing that could be more conducive to spiritual progress as far as spiritual reading is concerned.  It is a book quoted and loved by numerous Saints and spiritual writers.

We find frequent references to it in the works of St. Alphonsus and in those of other spiritual sons of his.  It flowed in the very blood stream of St. Therese of Lisieux, for she is said to have known the entire work by memory.  There is more than enough for anyone who takes this most beautiful masterpiece into their hand with an end to the greater profit and wellbeing of their soul.

The Imitation however, is so weighty a book that one should not read more than a little each day.  Hence the reading of Saint’s lives and other devotional works are also to be recommended.

The Seventh Means: Patience

Finally we come to patience.  This is what constitutes the building blocks of all holiness.  It is by patience that men become Saints; “Patience hath a perfect work,” says the Apostle. (James 1:4).  For by ‘Behold,’ says the Imitation, ‘the cross is all and in dying thereon all consists, and there is no other way to life and to true internal peace but the holy way of the cross and of daily mortification.” (Im. Bk. 2 Ch. 12).

Once God finds a man acceptable to Himself and faithful to His Will, He sends that man all kinds of crosses, often small in themselves, but which are just perfect for the daily work of causing the man of sin to turn slowly into the man of grace.  Divine Love is ingenious in providing souls with means and occasions for overcoming themselves.

The patient man being but little afraid of pain, sorrow and temptation, is at great peace.  He is not set on saving his skin, he is not out to do his will, but to overcome it.  He does not have the restlessness and worry of one who is ever flying from suffering.  He uses all his sufferings to merit and to progress in the grace of God.  Patience serves as his purgatory in which he is purified more and more from the stains and effects of sin and seeing the great good it does him to bear all things with patience, he even prefers to lead a life of sufferings than to go without suffering.

The Cross gradually makes the creature like the Creator; sinful man becomes like to Jesus Christ.  We are at peace with our defects and so the removal of these defects is painful to us, since we have grown to love the darkness, the sickness, the sadness, the foulness and the twistedness of evil.

Sin is the cause of suffering and only because it withdraws us from sin, is suffering useful and desirable to those who wish to reform their lives.  It is more wholesome and more profitable to salvation to suffer for the love of God, than to pray and receive great consolation without suffering.  Be persuaded then, that the better you dispose yourself to bear the cross, the more wisely you act and the better off you will be.

Love yourself, not as you are but as God wants you to be and in view of what you could be by purity of soul, resign yourself willingly to all the daily crosses that go make you holy and pleasing to God.  This will help souls, this will edify your neighbour, this will bring you lasting peace that will endure as long as you are resigned to God by patience.

You can hardly pray for a better thing than to become more and more resigned and even pleased when God sends you adversity.  Pray to Jesus, pray to His Holy Mother and St. Joseph.  Pray to the Angels and Saints.  And remember that the Lord sends you far better crosses than you can ever invent for yourself.

Therefore, do not think that you shouldn’t suffer this particular trial or endure that particular insult or temptation, since God always knows better than you, and all that He suffers to befall you is intended for your sanctification and salvation.

“In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection from thine enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is height of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of sanctity. There is no health of soul, nor hope of eternal life, but in the Cross” (Im. Bk. 2. Ch. 12).

By these seven means of sanctification, may God lead you into the interior life and give you continual advancement and perseverance therein.  I pray that the blessing of Jesus and Mary will ever rest upon you.

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