God created you as a man. He created you as a son. He desires your heart, soul, and strength. Above all else, He calls you to embrace your identity as child of the Father, as coheir with the Son, and empowered by the Spirit. He calls you to be set apart from the world. This is what holiness: being consecrated or set apart. As men, how can we grow in holiness?

In this second part of the series, we will explore grace, virtue, and community.

A Life of Grace

Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned (Jn 15:4-6).” 

Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. God is the first mover of all things. If we do a good thing, it is because God first moved us to goodness. Of course, we have free will. So, God is not forcing us to do good things, nor is He ever the cause of any evil we do. God is the first mover of our actions, but we have to cooperate with Him. We have to cooperate with His grace if we are to bear fruit and grow in holiness.

Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is God’s divine assistance in our lives. Grace is the movement of the Holy Spirit. Grace is Christ’s life dwelling within us. St. Therese of Lisieux was once so overwhelmed by God’s grace that she said, “everything is grace.”  She understood that even the worst situations can be brought to good by God’s power.

So, if we are to grow in holiness, we must grow in grace. We cannot earn grace, nor can we multiply what we have. Grace is always a free gift from God that we must embrace. This means that we must be open to receiving it and we must cooperate with it. Some practical advice for this is to do the activities listed in the first part of this series.

Growth in Virtue

Once we acknowledge the primacy of God in our lives and our utter need for His grace, we begin to grow in holiness. In our discussion on virtue, I want to make it very clear from the start that growth in virtue is a greater communion with Christ and it is primarily His action and our cooperation. We can do nothing apart from Christ. As St. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God… (Galatians 2:20-21a).”

There are seven key virtues, split into two main categories. First, there are the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love). Second, there are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

The Theological Virtues

The theological virtues are derived from the Greek theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word or utterance. These theological virtues come from God Himself and are infused into our hearts through Baptism. God speaks Himself into our very being. Faith, Hope, and Love are His movement within us. We can only grow in these three virtues through His free gift. No amount of our “trying harder” can increase our belief in God, our hope of Heaven, or our divinely-animated love. What we can do with the theological virtues is cooperate with them more and ask God for an increase in these virtues.

We ought to ask God sincerely for more Faith. Faith, as a virtue, is more than simply believing in God. It is also a belief in “all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself (CCC 1814).”

We ought to ask God sincerely for more Hope.  Hope, as a virtue, is a sure and certain thing. It is not a wishy-washy “hope”, as the word is so often used in today’s speech. Hope is the virtue “by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1817).” God has placed a desire for Him on the hearts of every man. When man participates with Hope, this desire begins to burn.

We ought to ask God sincerely for more Charity, or Love. Charity is the virtue “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God (CCC 1822).” This virtue animates our whole lives. Truly, it is due to Love that we have life at all. St. John puts this virtue into perspective: “… let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.  Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8).”

The Cardinal Virtues

The cardinal virtues are named after the Latin word cardo which means hinge, because all the other moral and human virtues hinge on these four: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. To define these virtues, let us review the teachings of the Church as set forth in the Catechism:

  •      “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going.’ (CCC 1806)”
  •      “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (CCC 1807).”
  •      “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life (CCC 1808).”
  •      “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable (CCC 1809).”

When we live out these four virtues and allow the theological virtues to live in us, we grow in virtue. Growth in one virtue is growth in each of the virtues because they are all connected. Therefore, if we identify that we struggle with one vice, we should work towards the corresponding virtue. For example, if we struggle with lust, we should pray for and work for chastity. If we grow in chastity (or any other virtue), we will grow in the other virtues, and love will be able to live in us more fully. Therefore, we will grow in communion with God, which is holiness.

One final bit of food for thought: vice and virtue are not always black and white. For example, there is a spectrum where virtue may be in the middle. For the human virtue of courage, there is a deficiency and excess of the virtue. A deficiency of the virtue is cowardice. An excess of the virtue is foolhardiness. Either a deficiency or an excess of a virtue is a vice.

Taking Part in the World

As we grow in personal holiness, cooperate more readily with grace, and grow in virtue, we will be better equipped to participate in community. Our friendships, relationships, mentorships, marriages, and so on, will be strengthened. In order to be a healthy human being, we must embrace the freedom only Christ offers. In order to be a productive member of society, our priorities have to be in right order.

First, our focus must be on God and growing in our relationship with Him. Second, we must prioritize our primary vocation. For example, if married, our wife, not our children, is second priority after God (if mom and dad are not in good shape, children are affected). If in seminary, our studies are second priority. If a pastor, our flock is our second priority. Of course, this second priority flows from the first, and without the first it is meaningless. Next, we are to prioritize the people God has placed closest to us: our children, family members, close friends, and our parish. Next, we prioritize our local community and our work, always giving preferential option to the poor. Then, we prioritize our global community and care for creation.

The Need for Community

However, we do not need perfection before we interact in community. In fact, community is a necessary part of personal growth. We need our brothers and sisters in the faith in order to grow closer to God. God willed that we not be saved by ourselves. Rather, He willed that we participate in one another’s salvation. The most important thing to grow in holiness and virtue is God’s grace. The next most important thing is our free cooperation and effort. And the third most important and necessary step is seeking out fraternal accountability.

Men need other men, as brothers, to witness their strengths and faults. We need to keep each other accountable to the pursuit of virtue and truth. If we are to change the world and claim souls for Christ, we cannot do so alone. We need fraternity. We need community. Men are needed to fill the void that has been created in society. Our world needs soldiers willing to defend the innocent and fight for goodness, truth, and beauty. Will you step up and heed the call?

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash