How Do I Grow in Holiness This Lent?

Have you hit a wall in growing in holiness? For a long time I feel that I have.

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know how to overcome this, but then I discovered an old practice that all the saints partook in to help them grow close to God.

A Reader Hits a Spiritual Wall

I’ll share it with you below, but first this question from a reader, who emailed me a year ago echoing my own struggle:

I’m a Catholic convert, going on about 10 years now. I think what has been a continual struggle for me as I grow deeper in the faith is the question “how do I grow in virtue?

I come from a Calvinistic background. We focused a little bit on “discipleship,” but there was no concept of holiness, growing in holiness, disciplining the flesh. When one believes in the “once saved, always saved” mentality, growing in virtue or doing good deeds are not necessities, but secondary in importance. (At least in my experience.)

Anyway, as a Catholic, I do lots of spiritual reading, participate in the sacraments, especially Confession, as much as I can. This helps, and I know this is a lifelong process. But, I have yet to really find out the best steps or a systematic way to grow in holiness, or the virtues, as a serious Catholic.

I know a life of penance and fasting regularly certainly helps also, whether it’s Lent, Fridays, Advent, special fasts or intentions or penances. For those of us who are (hopefully) not in serious sin, but trying to do our best, I just don’t know how to go to the next level. I don’t know how to get beyond the same level in the spiritual life of not being in mortal sin, but not being a model of virtue either. I just feel at a loss, even when I ask priests. I have never gotten a practical answer.

Amen! I could have asked this same question. And for a year, I didn’t have an answer for this reader.

Then I watched this video:

Meditation? Hmm, I’ve heard of it, read about it, have no clue how to do it.

Meditation: What Is It?

Quite simply, meditation is a form of prayer where you focus your mind for a period of time on some attribute of God, Christ, His Church, etc.

For instance, you could spend 10 minutes meditating in silence on God’s goodness, or His omnipotence, or His omniscience, or Christ’s life on earth, His Passion, the marks of the Church, and so on.

It will be hard at first. You may only make it through five minutes. You may have to go into a completely quiet room or church to block out distractions. Your mind may jump around everywhere to worries, tasks you need to do, or fears, but you simply train it back to your topic of meditation.

This is not Eastern Mysticism, Buddhist meditation, centering prayer, or anything like that. It is an ancient Catholic practice of prayer.

Meditation: A Key to Growing in Holiness

Why meditate? Fr. Ripperger answers that question above: one cannot become as holy as God wills without meditation. The saints all meditated (and ascended to higher levels of prayer). One cannot conquer venial sin without meditation, a claim I had never heard before!

Meditation is the gateway to deeper forms of prayer, but you can’t bypass it. Years ago I read books by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila–two saints considered geniuses on prayer–but it was too deep for me. I couldn’t understand, practically, how to meditate and begin to penetrate into the inner levels of the Interior Castle.

In Fr. Ripperger’s talk he lays out very practical, simple ways to meditate. Sit or kneel in silence for as long as you are able meditating on some truth of the Catholic Faith. Your goal should be 15 minutes of meditation. For me that means about 7 minutes in the morning and 8 in the evening, but I’m working up to more.

Why Haven’t We Been Told About Meditation?

I have asked priests; the reader who emailed me had asked a priest. None could answer the simple question of how to grow in holiness. None recommended meditation.

Why? Were they hiding this secret?

No, I think that most priests don’t know about meditation. Like so many traditional practices, it has been largely forgotten.

It was only through my wife finding this video on YouTube and sharing it with me did I find a straightforward explanation of meditation and why it is valuable.

What I love about this new-to-me practice is that it is not mysterious or secret or even very difficult: you kneel, you quietly pray and meditate on a truth of God. 

This is basic meditation. You will grow closer to God through it.

Are you looking for a way to grow in holiness this Lent? Commit to meditating for 15 minutes per day, either in the morning, at night, or splitting it up into two sessions.

Sainthood here we come.

About Those Two Bishops And the Prostitute

So the story goes…

To teach the theology of the body, Christopher West tells a story about two bishops seeing a prostitute:

The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a Cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by.

One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, ‘Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!’ When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, ‘How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.’

Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law? (From West’s Theology of the Body Explained, revised edition, p. 215).

A striking story, to be sure. It leads me to ask myself: “Am I truly free? Have I been “vivified by the ethos of redemption”? Or am I merely meeting the “demands of the law” in avoiding to look at a scantily clad woman, for fear of lusting?

Courtship Accusation

West’s version of this story has cropped up a few times in my life as a Catholic, first with a young Catholic woman that I courted a few years after my conversion to Catholicism.

Christopher West
Christopher West

She had been learning about the theology of the body, primarily through Christopher West’s work, and she had introduced me to it for the first time.

I was excited and intrigued by what I learned in the theology of the body, and she and I discussed it often.

One day, we were going to Blockbuster video to rent a movie (yes, I realize this dates me horribly; for younger folks, this was a video rental chain where you went to rent physical DVDs or VHS movies). Blockbuster was pretty awful: every tenth movie you came across featured scantily clad women and some kind of lewdness.

At this point in my Catholic life, I was still struggling with overcoming pornography and lustful sins. I suggested to my girlfriend that I disliked going into Blockbuster because it meant having to face temptation to lust, or at the least have seeds of temptation planted by seeing so many provocative video covers.

She responded by saying: “So you are like the bishop who looked away from the prostitute. You’ve not truly internalized the theology of the body but are only avoiding looking at women because you will lust.”

I was hurt by her words, and at the time I also felt them to be unfair. Here I was, striving to become strong in chastity, but still on the journey, and I was being criticized for not having arrived already at the destination.

Naturally, we got into an argument about it, and we ended up not going to Blockbuster. While that courtship eventually ended, it was a good learning experience for me (and hopefully for her).

What Do I Have to Do to Be Free?

Fast forward 13 years later. I’m happily married with two children. And by God’s grace, I overcame pornography addiction and lustful sins. I am free from them and their power over me, and yet I remain on guard against temptation, knowing that I am not in Heaven yet.

Auxiliary Bishops Robert J. Brennan and Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y., smile as they process from St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre following their episcopal ordination July 25. Bishop Brennan, 50, is the vicar general of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez, 51, was a pastor in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia when he was named a bishop. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (June 26, 2012)

I created a course to help Catholic men win freedom from pornography and lust. A friend of mine came over to visit and we talked about the course. On the side he does personal coaching to help Catholic men overcome pornography addiction. He himself had struggled with it for many years but conquered it by God’s grace.

He told me that, while he appreciated confession, Mass, the Rosary, devotions, spiritual direction, and so on, he doesn’t think those things are capable of helping a man retrain his heart to see women without lusting after them. At best, they are necessary, but not sufficient, means to achieve purity.

I told him that the course also includes many truths from the theology of the body. But he didn’t think that that was enough either. He explained that he had grown in purity so much that he is never tempted to look at pornography or to lust, and that this type of healing and retraining can only occur through a specific kind of therapy, one that he himself coaches men on.

Now, he said, he is able to look at any woman without being tempted to lust. He went on to say that if any man isn’t at that place yet, then he is really just at the “avoidance” level of purity, only able to avert his eyes and not really free.

Sound familiar? It’s the Two Bishops story once again. Prayers and confession, the sacraments and spiritual disciplines are all well and good, I hear my friend saying, but they don’t lead to true purity. Even learning and understanding the theology of the body is not enough. The virtue of purity must be attained by some other, or at least additional, means than these traditional Catholic practices.

Another Take on the Two Bishops

I am willing to ask myself: “Have I just gotten good at avoiding temptations to lust? Am I not truly free?”

As I reflected on those questions, I could only answer “I don’t know.” I suspect my friend is off the mark, a bit too sanguine about the state of redeemed man and concupiscence, but I am not God and can’t tell you the level of my virtue. Perhaps I have simply not undergone a strong enough test to truly prove me a fraud in this regard.

But I would also answer that it doesn’t matter that much. If the net result in both cases is living chastely, then however one got there, however one may still be tempted, is immaterial. If I’m living virtuously even though it may be very hard, even though I have to avert my gaze from the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, I’m acting in a way that is pure, interiorly and exteriorly, by God’s grace.

One does not conquer pornography and lust on one’s own steam. It requires grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist itself, the Church teaches, strengthens us against future mortal sin. God hasn’t been keeping the remedies to sin and the aids to virtue secret from us. They are there in plain sight, for all to receive and have been since the founding of His Church.

Further, fleeing from temptation, conscious of our own weaknesses, is a practice that the saints commend to us. Pope Francis quoted St. Therese who said:

“In some temptations, the only solution is to escape, to not be ashamed to escape, to recognize that we are weak and we have to escape.” — St. Therese of Lisieux

The truth is that there is a spectrum of virtue between the two bishops. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and one must flee temptation. Other times, having grown heroically strong in virtue, one is called to fight and overcome.

Teachings Old And New

tocuhIn my course on purity, I highly recommend people read the theology of the body, either in its original form or via an evangelist like Christopher West. I endorse his books and ship them out to people

The teachings of the theology of the body are good, and they are one more weapon to growing in purity. It is vital to arm one’s intellect with the proper understand of the beauty of the human person and the purpose of our sexuality. Learning about these was a key element in my growth in purity.

But we are not all the same. Some men benefit from one tool over another, one devotion over another. And men are at all different stages in their journey to freedom. Men closer to the beginning may need crutches, may need to take radical steps to avoid temptation. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Some men further along in the journey may never need to avert their eyes from a prostitute or swimsuit edition. Others, just as far along, but with a different constitution, may find it prudent to continue averting their eyes. Do we drop the Two Bishops gotcha on them?  I don’t think so.

Wiser, in my experience, is to recognize that every man is different, and to encourage each man to try a variety of tactics and tools to grow in purity.

Further, we should never downplay the Church’s time-honored medicines for conquering vice and strengthening virtue. God instituted them for a reason. They have the backing of His grace and power. They come with divine promises of conversion.

About those two bishops: I’m probably somewhere in the spectrum between them. But both are Catholic.

Scott Hahn Unpacks The Creed

I got early access to Scott Hahn’s latest book, The Creed: Professing the Faith Through the Ages, and am pleased to say it’s another Hahn winner.

In it, Hahn shows how the Nicene Creed developed in the early Church, its meaning and effect, and its importance down through the ages even to today.

Before the Creed

Dr. Hahn starts with the Old Testament and then moves into the period of the early Church. He draws from the early Church Fathers and from history to illuminate the early heresies that attacked the Faith and how the Church responded.

Scott Hahn's The Creed
Scott Hahn’s The Creed

These heresies culminated in ones that attacked the divinity of Christ in some way, most notably Arianism. But even before the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Church was proclaiming the truth of Christ’s divinity.

Different bishops and Church Fathers would respond to persecutors and heretics in their area, using their owns words but defending orthodoxy against the particular attack being made. But as the heresies grew more serious and widespread, the Church needed to respond in a cohesive, standard way.

Enter Nicaea

Hahn sketches out the first Ecumenical Council, which took place in Nicaea, and how the Council Fathers drew up the first part of what we call today the Nicene Creed.

Many Catholics don’t realize that the composition of the Creed we recite today at Mass did not come exclusively from Nicaea, but instead was compiled over the fourth century at Nicaea and the second Ecumenical Council (in Constantinople, AD 381).

The first part of the Creed proclaimed the truth of God the Father and the full divinity of God the Son. Using several phrases it decreed that the Father and the Son were one in being, consubstantial. The Arians were now formal heretics, but Hahn explains that that didn’t stop them from continuing their heresy for decades to come.

After Nicaea

Dr. Hahn reveals the effects of the Council and the Creed as the 300s went on, including the rise of several “semi-Arian” heresies that needed to be dealt with.

Heretics soon turned their attention to the Holy Spirit as well, and some began denying the Spirit’s divinity! A Council was convened at Constantinople in AD 381 and the second part of the Creed was drawn up and added on, proclaiming in clear terms the divinity of the Third Person of the Trinity.

Hahn makes Trinitarian theology fascinating and accessible to lay men. Throughout the book he weaves theological insights and explains the deeper meaning behind basic doctrines that the Church has preserved in the Creed.

Many Protestants today dismiss the Creed as outdated and hidebound. How wrong they are, and Hahn devotes the necessary time to debunking their error.

I was also happy to see he included the last addition to the Creed, the filioque (proceeds from the Father “and from the Son”) which originated from the Church in the West and spread. While certainly not an in-depth treatment of the subject, he outlines the reasons why this addition is defensible historically and theologically in both the West and the East.

The Creed is a wonderfully helpful guide to the importance and development of the Nicene Creed, as well as a great primer on Trinitarian theology. May God be praised!