ICWG Virtues and Spiritual Growth

By Francis Fernandez
Virtues and holiness

You will show me the path of life; the fulness of joy in your presence, O Lord. [1147]

Jesus uses different images to teach us that the path that leads to Life, to holiness, consists in the full development of the spiritual life. He speaks of the tiny mustard seed which grows into a great tree; in its branches the birds of the air come to rest. He speaks of the grain of wheat which reaches maturity and produces rich ears of corn ... That growth, not without its difficulties and sometimes seeming so slow, is in fact the increase of virtue. If we are to sanctify each day, we have to practise many human and supernatural virtues: faith, hope, charity, justice, fortitude – industriousness, loyalty, optimism ...

The virtues demand the repetition of acts in order to grow, because each act disposes the soul to perform the next one more easily. For example, if a person lives the ‘heroic minute’ when he wakes up, thus overcoming his laziness from the very first moment of the day, [1148] he will find it easier to be diligent in going about his other duties whether they be large or small. In the same way, the sportsman improves his physical fitness by training, and acquires a greater aptitude for repeating his exercises. Virtues make a man more perfect, and at the same time they make it easier for him to perform good works and to respond at every moment to God’s will in a prompt and fitting manner. Without virtues (those good habits acquired through the repetition of good acts, with the help of grace), it is difficult to perform any meritorious actions, and in any case such actions will be no more than random or isolated incidents. Without virtues it is easier to fall into imperfections and sins that widen the gap which separate us from God. The repetition of acts in a single direction leaves its mark on the soul in the form of habits which increasingly dispose the soul to behave for good or for evil in the future, depending on whether it is good or bad habits that are being formed. We can hope that a person who habitually acts well will continue to do so when he is confronted with difficulties; that habit, that virtue sustains him. This is why it is so important that we blot out the remains of the sins of our past life through penance. We must not allow them to incline us towards evil ever again. The more serious the falls and the longer a person has been separated from God, the more intense the penance should be, because the residual mark left by such sins will be so much the more difficult to erase.

The practice of virtue shows us at every moment which path it is that leads to God. When with the help of grace a Christian endeavours not only to avoid occasions of sin and resist temptations with fortitude, but also to reach the holiness that God asks of him, he becomes ever more aware that the Christian life demands both an increase in virtue and purification from past sins as well as from failures to correspond to grace. Especially during Lent the Church invites us precisely to grow in virtue: that is, in habits of doing good.

Human virtues and supernatural virtues. Practising them in everyday life.

Holiness consists in the exercise of the virtues, one day after another, in the environment and in the circumstances in which we live. The human virtues provide the foundation for the supernatural ones. These in turn provide us with constant encouragement to behave in a more truly human way. In either case, it is not sufficient merely to ‘want’ to have these virtues. We have to learn how ‘to practise’ them. ‘Discite benefacere’ (Is 1:17), learn to do good. We need to make a habit of exercising each virtue, by actually being sincere, truthful, balanced, calm and patient ... for love is proved by deeds, and we cannot love God in words alone, but ‘with deeds and in truth’ (1 John 3). [1149]

The work of sanctification belongs entirely to God in his infinite goodness. Nevertheless, He has willed that correspondence on the part of human beings is necessary, and has consequently placed in our nature the capacity for disposing ourselves towards receiving the supernatural action of grace. Through cultivating human virtues – resilience, loyalty, truthfulness, affection, courtesy – we prepare our soul in the best possible way for the action of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is easy to understand that it is not possible to believe in the sanctity of those who fail to live even the most elementary human virtues. [1150]

Christian virtues are what we must put into practice in our everyday lives, and in all circumstances, whether these be easy, troublesome, or very difficult. Today, as yesterday, heroism is expected of the Christian – a heroism in great struggles, if the need arises. Normally, however, it will be heroism in the little skirmishes of each day. [1151] Just as a plant derives nourishment from the earth in which it is rooted, so too in the supernatural life the virtues of a Christian spread their roots out in whatever part of the world he is immersed in: work, family joys and sorrows, good and bad news ... Everything must help him to love God and do apostolate. Some occurrences are more likely to encourage acts of thanksgiving, whilst others will call for acts of divine filiation. Particular circumstances will bring about a growth in fortitude, others an increasing trust in God. If we bear in mind that the virtues form a single tapestry, a seamless robe, we can see that growth in one means a step forward in all the others. Besides, it is charity that gives unity to all the virtues that make a man perfect. [1152]

We cannot wait for the arrival of ideal circumstances in order to seek sanctity and do apostolate ... When a Christian carries out with love the most insignificant everyday action, that action overflows with the transcendence of God ... Stop dreaming! Leave behind false idealisms, fantasies, and what I usually call ‘mystical wishful thinking’ (If only I hadn’t married. If only I didn’t have this profession. If only I had better health. If only I were young. If only I were old ...) Instead, turn seriously to the most material and immediate reality, which is where Our Lord is. [1153]

Waiting for what we consider to be just the right situations and circumstances to arise in order to seek holiness would be the same as allowing our lives to pass us by in a meaningless and empty way. We can make use of our prayer today to ask ourselves in God’s presence: Do I really want to identify myself more and more with Christ? Do I really make use of the actual happenings of each day to practise the human virtues, and, with God’s grace, the supernatural virtues? Do I really try to love God more, doing the same things better each time and with greater rectitude of intention?

God always gives us his grace to live the Christian faith in all its fulness.

God doesn’t ask anything impossible. He expects all Christians to live the christian virtues in their entirety, even if they find themselves in environments that seem to be moving farther and farther away from God. He will give the graces necessary for being faithful in such difficult situations. Furthermore, the good example He expects of all of us will often be the means of making Christ’s doctrine attractive to others, and of evangelizing the world once again.

Many Christians, as they lose their supernatural outlook, and hence the real influence of grace on their lives, seem to think that the ideal proposed by Christ needs to be modified and adapted if ordinary people of our day and age are to be able to live it. They do not know how to stand their ground when confronted with moral dilemmas at work, or when discussions arise on the morality of marriage. They allow themselves to be influenced by the atmosphere of permissiveness and sensuality surrounding them. They give in to a more or less generalised pursuit of comfortable well-being, etc, just like everyone else. We must teach people through our own lives (we will have our faults but will be trying to overcome them), that the christian virtues can be lived in the midst of all honest undertakings, and that being understanding towards the defects and errors of others is not the same as lowering our own standards and sitting loose to the demands made by the Gospels.

So as to grow in the human and supernatural virtues, as well as in grace, we need to make a personal effort to develop the practice of these virtues in our everyday lives until we acquire authentic habits, and not only the appearance of virtue. The facade appears full of strength and resilience. But how much softness and lack of will-power there is within! You must hold to your determination not to let your virtues become fancy dress but clothes that define your character. [1154]

St John Chrysostom urges us to struggle in our interior life like little children at school. First, says the saint, they learn the shape of the letters. Then they begin to distinguish the strokes; and thus, step by step, they learn to read. If we divide up the virtues into different parts, we can learn first, for example, not to speak badly of people. Then, passing to another letter, we can learn not to envy anybody: we can learn never under any circumstances to be a slave to the body: we can learn not to give way to gluttony. Passing on from there to the spiritual letters, we shall study continence, mortification of the senses, chastity, justice, and scorn for vainglory. We should try to be modest and of contrite heart. Let us link virtues together and write them on our souls. We have to do all this in our own home, with our friends, with our wives, with our children. [1155]

What is important is that we should make a definite and loving decision to strive after virtue in our everyday affairs. The more we practise performing these good acts, the easier we will find them to do next time. In this way we will identify ourselves more and more with Christ. Our Lady, Model and school of all virtues [1156] will teach us to achieve our wish if we turn to her for help and advice. She will make it easier for us to reach the target we have set ourselves in our particular examination of conscience, in which we will often decide to aim at the acquisition of a very specific virtue.

[1147] Communion Antiphon, Ps 15:11

[1148] cf St. J. Escrivá, The Way, 206

[1149] idem, Friends of God, 91

[1150] A. del Portillo, On the Priesthood

[1151] St. J. Escrivá, Christ is passing by, 82

[ 1152] St Alphonsus Liguori, Practising the Love of Christ

[1153] Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá, 116

[1154] St. J. Escrivá, Furrow, 777

[1155] St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Psalms, 11:8

[1156] St Ambrose, Treatise on Virginity, 2

Francis Fernandez Carvajal was born in Granada in 1938. A graduate in History from the University of Navarre, he also hold a doctorate in Canon Law from the Angelicum in Rome. He is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature. Since his ordination in 1964, much of his pastoral ministry has been with university students. For more than ten years he was editor of he montly magazine PALABRA. Among his published works are   Lukewarmness- the Devil in Disguise, Overcoming Lukewarmness,Through wind and Waves, and Commentaries on the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke

His Series In Conversation with God can Be found Here

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