Pastoral Direction for Those Striving to Grow
in Virtue and Holiness
Father James Chelich – April 2009
1. Growing in Faith and Holiness Is Not Optional!
The business of being a Christian is to grow in faith and holiness. Jesus said:
Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Luke 9:23-24
Saint Paul emphasized it…
You must lay aside you former way of life and old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. You must put on that new man created in God’s images, whose justice and holiness are born of truth. See to it then that you put an end to lying… If you are angry, let it be without sin… The man who has been stealing must steal no longer… Never let evil talk pass your lips, say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them… Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as the Lord has forgiven you in Christ. Ephesians 4:22-32 …
again and again:
Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires, and that lust which is idolatry… You must put aside now: all the anger and quick temper, the malice, the insults, the foul language. Stop lying to one another. What you have done is lay aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new man, one who grows in knowledge as he is formed anew in the images of his Creator. Colossians 3:5-10
A Christian’s transformation from the old self to a new man or woman in Christ is not a self-help program. A fundamental premise of Christianity is that we cannot do it by ourselves. No matter how well intentioned we may be, we just don’t have what it takes to “pull off’ the change consistently. Saint Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans:
The desire to do right is there but not the power. What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend… My inner self agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members another law that is at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. What a wretched man I am. Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Romans 7:18-25
Saint Paul found the answer that all Christians find:
All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:25
There are three elements to the dynamic by which a Christian’s life is transformed:
1) to die with Christ to your Old Self,
2) to rise with Christ to a New Self,
3) to live each day with Christ as the source of your strength.
The earliest Church proclaimed it in this way:
If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him;
If we hold out to the end we shall also reign with Him. 2 Timothy 2:11-12
And we continue to proclaim it today in our worship at Mass:
Dying you destroyed our death. Rising you restored our life!
This fundamental dynamic for transformation is the same for all Christians:
- We strive to be aware of the presence of Christ with us in any given moment.
- We strive to be conscious in that moment of the sacrifice he paid for the redemption of our lives and the undying love he has for us.
- We train ourselves to call upon his name in temptation and die with him to the sin that wants to grip our lives.
- Clinging to him daily in this way, we rise with him to a new life – a life of virtue lived and justice done.
Growing in faith and holiness is the business of every Christian. The fundamental dynamic by which it takes place is the same for us all. But every Christian does not wake up to growth in faith and holiness at the same time or in the same way. The apostle John got “on board” with faith and holiness early on, as a young man. He was transformed through a very tender relationship with Jesus and with remarkably few humiliations. The apostle Peter got on board very slowly, through many humiliations and struggles with great weaknesses. He had to be clobbered over the head with grace, but he always recognized it and received it with a humbled heart after it hit him. The apostle Thomas, had a huge burden he carried in his heart. He labored with it and did not succeed in breaking through to the full power in Jesus until a week after the resurrection.
Neither does every Christian grow in faith and holiness in the same manner, through the same pattern of spiritual exercises, or at the same pace. And for that matter, if you only look at a person on the outside, growth in faith and holiness in one Christian may not look at all like growth in faith and holiness in another. One thinks of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Saint Luke 10:38ff:
A woman named Martha welcomed Jesus to her home…Martha was busy with all the demands of hospitality… She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words…
Though it was the same Jesus with whom they needed to enter a living relationship and from whom they needed to learn to draw their strength, Martha’s way of growing in faith and holiness was not Mary’s way. But it would be a terrible mistake to think that they could just dismiss one another. Their lives as Christians would have fallen apart without each other. Martha, went on to learn much from Mary. She did not become “another Mary,” but found her own way to the wealth of Mary’s faith and holiness – and it enriched her own (see John 11:1-44). There is good reason to believe the same about Mary with regard to Martha. In our community at Saint Thomas, Martha reminds me of those exercising their faith and growing in holiness through Justice advocacy and Mary reminds me of those exercising their faith and growing in holiness by developing a rich piety. They are not mutually exclusive. They have much to say to each other and much to learn from each other. Without each other their spiritual integrity would fall apart and we, as a Christian community, would be spiritually poorer because of the loss.
2. How People “Take”
Someone Beginning to Growing in Faith and Holiness
Frankly, some personalities take them well and some take them poorly. Some people are capable of rejoicing in another person’s growth in virtue and holiness. They affirm it and encourage it. Others cannot help but translating another person’s grown in holiness and virtue into a statement about themselves – a commentary about their own state of holiness and virtue, and a judgment on their own state of soul.
Think about this… A woman has been going out with her friends on Friday nights to a downtown bar for years. They enjoy each others company and the ability to “let their hair down” at the end of a work week. But as time passes, they increasingly drink more each time they get together. The conversation gets progressively more and more raunchy as they begin to comment about the men in the bar, and their use of foul language increases. No longer are just the tensions of the work week released, but now, a record of bitterness about life and resentment toward people and things is played over and over again. The woman comes to the conclusion that this is just no good for her any more. She does not like who she is when she gets home on Friday night and she does not like how she feels about herself the next day. With no intention of cutting her friends out of her life, and without any “preachy” commentary about the Friday evening sessions, she just politely withdraws. She continues her other regular contacts with these friends during the week. What do others in the Friday night circle do? They begin to comment on her withdrawal. They suggest that she now considers herself “too good for them.” They accuse her of being judgmental. They call her attitude, “Holier-than-Thou.” The mere fact of the woman’s withdrawal strikes the conscience of the others – even though she never makes a commentary about the Friday night gatherings, and attempts to maintain her other regular contacts with them.
The lives of us all “speak” to each other. I think God designed it that way. A choice to grow in virtue and holiness – all by itself – strikes the conscience of those who live and move around the person making the choice. And, quite honestly, it isn’t at all bad to have your conscience stirred by another person’s quiet but very evident growth in virtue and holiness. To say that we don’t want anyone changing and growing in virtue and holiness around us because it troubles our conscience about ourselves is to shut down any hope of progressing toward a better human world. It is completely absurd in a Christian community. Some personalities, however, become very self-conscious and sometimes defensive about their own progress or lack of it in regard to virtue and holiness when someone they know begins to change and grow. Sometimes they even become actively oppositional toward someone who is growing and changing in a way they are not.
If an individual growing in virtue and holiness were to become judgmental in their verbal commentary about others, holding themselves aloof from friendly interaction and collaboration with others in the fellowship and ministries of parish life, or were engaging in rivalries based upon a conviction of being superior to others, this would clearly be wrong and it would be destructive of Christian community. My intention in writing this is to talk about the right and the wrong way to “wear” holiness and virtue. But before I began, I wanted to be clear that a person is not “judgmental” just because someone decides to start saying that she or he is, nor is a person creating divisions based upon a conviction that he or she is superior to others just because someone says he or she is.
3. The RIGHT Way to Wear Holiness
Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience.
Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you.
Over all these virtues put on love
which binds them together and makes them perfect.
This text is a wonderful tool to help us understand the right way to wear virtue and holiness.
Clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy…
I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant, as I dealt with you? Mathew 18:32-33
You do not know what is happening in someone else’s life: how many scarred memories they carry, how many hardships they bear, or how many weaknesses they struggle with.
- Virtue and Holiness, rightly worn, always assumes that another’s yoke is not easy and that their burden is not light (ref. Matthew 11:30. This creates a heart-felt compassion for others.
- More than wanting others to engage in the same exercises of virtue and holiness that he himself does, a man or woman rightly wearing virtue and holiness wants others to be drawn closer to Jesus in whatever way possible for them.
Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see…Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. Matthew 6;1,4
- A man or woman rightly wearing virtue, does works of mercy “secretly” – quietly and without drawing any attention or seeking any praise. (The Corporal Acts of Mercy: To Feed the Hungry, To Give Drink to the Thirsty, To Shelter the Homeless, To Clothe the Naked, To Visit the Sick, To Visit the Imprisoned, To Bury the Dead)
Clothe yourselves with kindness…
- Your light must shine before all so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father. Matthew 5:16
- Virtue and holiness, rightly worn, is genuinely concerned for another’s good.
- While it will not allow itself to participate in another’s lack of virtue or sin, neither will it withdraw its care and friendship from them.
- A woman or man rightly wearing virtue and holiness acknowledges the integrity of others and values them as a person, even those who are unpopular or ignored.
- She shows the same respect for the personal dignity of those who may not live as virtuously or holy as she does.
Clothe yourself with humility…
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn. Psalm 51:19
A man or woman rightly wearing virtue and holiness remembers that he has not always grown in virtue and holiness. There was a time when he didn’t even think about it, or in any way want to. Even now, when he examines his conscience, he sees that he has a long way to go. He and God know that there are still some sides of him that are not virtuous or holy at all.
- A man or woman rightly wearing virtue prays every day: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13) I am just as much in need of Your mercy and patience as anyone else.”
- He prays daily for the needs of others, especially those who struggle in any way. Your adornment is…the hidden character of heart, expressed in the unfading beauty of a calm and gentle disposition. 1 Peter 3:4
- A woman or man rightly wearing virtue and holiness gives a personal example of virtue and holiness. She doesn’t talk about it; rather, she lets others see it lived in herself – filling her words and shining through her deeds. If others ask her about her way of holiness, only then does she talk about it with them, for she has won them over by her example (See 1 Peter 3:1)
For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. Luke 14:11
- Virtue and holiness, rightly worn, never boasts of its virtue or its religious practices – to anyone!
Clothe yourself with meekness…
Extend a kind welcome to those who are weak in faith. Do not enter disputes with them. Romans 14:1
In his own efforts to grow in virtue and holiness, a man or woman rightly wearing holiness knows how hard it is for him, even now, to yield his stubborn will to God, when God wants to teach him something more about virtue and holiness.
Virtue and holiness, rightly worn… “…is not jealous, it does not put on airs, is it not snobbish.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)
- A man or woman rightly wearing virtue and holiness never “puts down” someone else’s level of virtue and holiness because it doesn’t correspond to his own. He never put on an attitude of being superior to others. He maintains a friendly, open hearted attitude toward all. Virtue and holiness, rightly worn…
“…is never rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not prone to anger; neither does it brood over injuries.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)
- A woman or man righty wearing holiness is not rude to anyone. She bears wrongs committed against her patiently and without a belligerent response.
Clothe yourself with patience…
We who are strong in faith should be patient with the scruples of those whose faith is weak… Each should please his neighbor so as to do him good by building up his spirit… Roman 15:1-2
A woman or man rightly wearing holiness never forgets how long it took God to get through to her about virtue and holiness. Just because she “gets it” now doesn’t erase the fact that, for a long time, she was unmindful and even obstinate to growing in virtue and holiness.
- Virtue and holiness, rightly worn, encourages the good it sees in others.
- It does not belittle others for the good it doesn’t see in them.
- It wants good for others in all things, and lets them know that it does.
Bear with one another…
Accept one another, then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:7
Help carry one another’s burdens; in that way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
- A man or woman rightly wearing holiness meets others “where they are along the way” to a life of virtue and holiness.
- He encourages them to take “the next step forward.”
- He remembers, however, that “the next step forward” for them, may not be where he is in his faith or where he thinks they ought to be.
- A woman or man rightly wearing holiness seeks to comfort and encourage those who have stumbled in virtue or failed at holiness.
- She is prepared to counsel those who are lost in sin and seeking a way out.
- She instructs those who ask her about her virtue and way of life.
Forgive whatever grievances you have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you…
If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you. Matthew 6: 14-15
Lack of forgiveness in a man or woman shows itself in his critical and judgmental attitude toward others and in his intolerance of what he considers their lack of virtue.
- A man or woman rightly wearing virtue and holiness prays often, even daily, for the grace to forgive those who have injured him. He frequently asks Christ, in Confession, to release from his heart the resentment and bitterness he holds toward anyone. He know that these things poison his soul and corrupt his virtue.
Over all these virtues put on love…
There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13
Virtue and holiness, rightly worn, loves heroically! Heroic Love is a love that sacrifices itself to give life or hope, or to bring freedom to another. Heroic Love lays down its life for someone, even if he or she is not his friend. Heroic Love doesn’t think about “what’s in it for me.” The more it is given, the more it gives away. It is a love that is not driven by the thought of applause or even appreciation. It is a love whose greatest joy lies in the act of giving, and in the life and hope that its giving creates. Heroic Love is the love we see in Jesus.
4. The WRONG Way to Wear Holiness,
This is something else that is illustrated in the Gospel account of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-41). Mary has placed herself near Jesus and listens intently to his words. This is a way of virtue and holiness. Martha is busy about the needs of service and hospitality. This too is a way of virtue and holiness. Both ways are complimentary and, as I mentioned above, both will yield their full potential if they pay attention to each other and learn from each other. But, in this account, Martha loses the focus of her virtue and holiness by concerning herself about what Mary is not doing:
Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do all the household tasks alone? Tell her to help me. Luke 10:40b
Some personalities cannot keep their focus on their own conduct without giving in to the temptation to scrutinize and evaluate the conduct of others. As soon as this happens their own growth in holiness – in spite of all the spiritual exercises and acts of virtue they may be doing – completely shuts down.
The Gospel account of the Pharisee and the Publican gives us another illustration of the wrong way to wear holiness.
Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: ‘I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men – grasping, crooked and adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess.’ Luke 18: 9-14
If a person persists in the business of judging the virtue and holiness of others, he begins to generate in himself a sense of being superior, and that he is somehow more authentically Christian than others. This holds him aloof in his attitude towards others whom he suspects or believes to be defective in virtue and holiness. People in the larger Christian community usually quickly pick up on his attitude, even when it is not directly verbalized.
When you wrap your growth in virtue and holiness around a comparison of yourself to others, you either end up destroying yourself or destroying them. In the first case you judge yourself inferior to others. You try to be “like them,” but discover that you can’t be. Finally you give up trying to grow in virtue and holiness at all. In the other case you judge others as inferior to yourself. This is intoxicating. You soon find yourself devaluing, ostracizing and berating others to make yourself feel good about your own virtue and holiness. Your treatment of them defeats any desire in them to grow in virtue and holiness at all. It can destroy any respect they have for virtue or holiness – even their ability to recognize it. The comparison of yourself to another has absolutely no place in growing in virtue and holiness.
This is of particular concern with young people who are trying to grow in virtue and holiness. The lives of young people are ordered by their parents, within the context of their home and family life. Sometimes young people mature further spiritually than the adults in their life. As minors, they find themselves under the authority of their parents and must navigate the spiritual discipline (or absence of it) in their home and family life. This may well determine which spiritual practices they will be able to perform, such as attending Mass weekly or having a set time and place in which they can read the Scriptures and pray. Judgments expressed by their peers (or anyone else for that matter) that they are not “doing what they should be doing” or that they are not “where they ought to be” in the practice of holiness and virtue may be completely unfair. They may only be able to externally express virtue and holiness in so far as the parameters of their home and family life permit. Passing a judgment of culpability in a matter over which someone has no control is morally wrong because it defeats their resolve to persevere in virtue and holiness to the measure they are able. God’s holiness always sees more than any human holiness can or ever will be able to see. A person growing in virtue and holiness helps another discern for himself “the next possible step forward,” encourages him to take that step, and blesses God when he does.
These, then, are some of the wrong ways to wear virtue and holiness:
- To compare yourself to others or to engage in evaluating the state of another person’s soul.
- To offer your opinion or elicit someone else’s opinion about another person’s virtue or holiness.
- To intentionally dig up what others have said or done, for the purpose of evaluating and judging them.
- To go up to another person, unexpected and unwelcomed, and quiz them on their attitudes and thoughts, or to provoke them.
- To “put down” someone else’s faith in God or their level of virtue or holiness as inferior to your own.
- To ridicule or humiliate someone for their level of virtue and holiness.
- To stand aloof from others in the Christian community because you judge yourself better than them.
- To include in your circle of warm and friendly interaction only those who do the same spiritual exercises or belong to the same spiritual association as you.
When reading or listening to the Scriptures…
|…the RIGHT way to wear holiness
is to think of yourself and ask:
|…the WRONG way to wear holiness
is to look at others and ask:
|How am I hearing what is being said?||How are they hearing what is being said?|
|How might I try to embody it in my life?||Are they conforming to the good that it calls for?|
|How effectively am I conforming to the good
that it calls for?
When learning new spiritual exercises or taking on spiritual disciplines…
|…the RIGHT way to wear holiness
is to think of yourself and ask:
|…the WRONG way to wear holiness
is to think of others and ask:
|How am I benefiting from
this exercise or discipline?
|Why aren’t they doing
the same things I am doing?
|How is it strengthening me
as a Christian?
|Why aren’t they doing them
the same way I do?
|Tne conclusion quickly becomes:
They must be negligent.
In this world the darkness is always close to the Light, wanting to put it out (Ref. John 3:19-21). This may sound discouraging but, on the other side of the coin, it means that the Light is always near to even the deepest darkness, ready to pierce through. Acts of virtue and exercises of holiness can be worn in a way that defeats the growth of virtue and holiness in others, and destroys Christian community; or it can be worn in a way that seeds and encourages the growth of virtue and holiness, and strengthens Christian community.
Lord, thank you for those whose lives encourage us to be holy,
For those whose commitment to justice inspires us.
Thank you for those whose integrity fills us with awe
and whose holiness draws us closer to You.