How do we know whether we are growing in holiness?
We want to be holy and we pray and work toward that end. But if we are honest and self-aware, we also realize that we do some picking and choosing among the various paths and regimens of holiness, selecting those which are most congenial to our personalities, and avoiding what we find too taxing or even intolerable. So how do we know whether we are growing in holiness?
A person is typically a poor judge in his own case, and I don't mean to ignore the potential assistance of a good spiritual director. But most of us, most of the time, must rely pretty heavily on our own understanding both of what it means to be holy and of whether we are progressing along that road. In general, if we constrain our beliefs and our piety within the limits set by the Church, if we pray regularly, and if we truly try to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we will not go far wrong. But sometimes we'd be willing to trade half our kingdom for a checklist.
I think I've found one.
In the latest issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Fr. Basil Cole has an article entitled "Formation of novices and seminarians: Nine signs of steady growth". Fr. Cole, a Dominican scholar and prior whose writings I have found both interesting and helpful, is attempting to set forth a series of indicators of spiritual growth by which someone preparing for the priesthood can be evaluated. But it turns out that his list is a pretty good tool for evaluating all growth in holiness, making suitable adjustments for each person's situation.
Here are Fr. Cole's indicators, simplified in the form of nine questions, which suggest the key areas in which we should honestly look for continual growth:
- Am I God-centered? This addresses the question of whether we think ourselves the center of the universe, in which case we are likely to be tense, negative and critical. We discern progress here if we come more easily to see the good in others, to accept the dispositions of Providence cheerfully, and to trust in God even in the midst of trials and temptations.
- Do I take joy in serving others? There may be times when either our normal duties or interruptions in our routine demand that we occupy ourselves with tasks we do not particularly enjoy, primarily for the benefit of others. We are growing in charity if we find such services easier to perform over time, especially with a sincere desire to be of benefit, and if we gain the ability to remain recollected and prayerful even when doing something we do not naturally enjoy.
- Do I hate sin? As time goes on, if we are growing spiritually, we should be increasingly averse not only to great sins but to lesser ones. We should be developing a progressively stronger resolve to avoid anything – including objectively innocent pursuits – which can be an obstacle to our union with God. And of course we should be actively seeking the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are the opposite of the disposition to sin.
- Is my conscience delicate? This is closely related, and refers to the need to become ever more sensitive in discerning what is displeasing to God. In the beginning, for example, we may wish to avoid adultery but think nothing of flirting or stealing the odd kiss or two. In time, true growth demands that we more clearly perceive the sinful attitudes at work across the board. Then we will become more watchful over our virtue, even in our thoughts, and we'll also more easily distinguish among degrees of sin, and between temptation and sin.
- Am I humble? To use Fr. Basil's own words, a sense of humility "means a submission to whatever God desires in the moment, even if it means being unknown or unrecognized." Pride and vainglory lead us to be calculating in all that we do, in order to increase in stature before the world. But God wants our personal surrender to Himself and to those who, in each moment, represent His will.
- Am I faithful in prayer? If we prefer to lose ourselves in a constant whirl of activity, and find that we are uncomfortable being alone with God in the silence of our hearts, we'll go backwards. Spiritual growth is marked by a growing willingness to put ourselves in the presence of God, even if we suffer from dryness or distractions in prayer.
- Do my decisions reflect truth and prudence? As we grow spiritually, we should become more adept at knowing when to seek counsel, yet we should also be increasingly able to advise others, or act quickly and decisively ourselves, in ways that will still seem spiritually right after the fact. We should grow in our capacity to size up each situation properly and apply the right virtue and the right solution to each challenge.
- Is my heart undivided? Simply put, this question asks whether we allow various interests and attachments to conflict with our thirst for God or whether we are gradually developing a more ordered appreciation of all good things in, through and for God, in proper relationship to Him. Especially with things we particularly enjoy, we should be praying and working to see them in the light of Christ.
- Do I love the Church? To again quote Fr. Basil, "the institutional Church is the unsullied Bride of Christ through which He gives Himself and His graces to a flawed people in need of enlightenment and purification from sin." Each day, each moment, we should find ourselves loving the Church more and more wholeheartedly, despite her all too evident human flaws. If that is not happening, it is a sure sign we are backsliding.
To me, this seems like an excellent set of indicators for self-evaluation. Each item is a tool for spiritual growth in its own right. And in the end, progress in every area is essential if we are to maximize the potential God has given us for union with Him.
Jeffrey A. Mirus. "Are You Growing Holier?" Catholic Culture (April 12, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of Jeffrey Mirus and Catholic Culture.org.
The mission of CatholicCulture.org is to give faithful Catholics the information, encouragement, and perspective they need to become an active force for renewal in the Church and in society, working to shape an authentically Christian culture in a secular world.
Jeffrey A. Mirus received a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Princeton University in 1973. In 1977, Mirus collaborated with Warren H. Carroll in founding Christendom College. Jeff Mirus served as a professor, founded the apologetics program, was the first Director of Academic Affairs, made Faith & Reason the College's journal and founded and directed Christendom Press. He also co-authored the apologetics text Reasons for Hope and authored The Divine Courtship. Jeffrey Mirus now spends a majority of his time managing Trinity Communications and developing the CatholicCulture.org website.Copyright © 2011 Catholic Culture
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