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Holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit


There is a widespread but mistaken idea that holiness is the work of human beings: that what we need is to have a clear program of perfection, set to work with courage and patience, and achieve it little by little.

philippe3And that's all there is to it. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is much more to it than that.  It does take courage and patience, undoubtedly.  But it is certainly not true that holiness is the result of a program of life we set ourselves.  There are several reasons why holiness is not the work of human beings; here are two main ones. 

1.  The task is beyond our power

It is impossible to attain holiness by our own power.  The whole of Scripture teaches us that it can only be the fruit of God's grace.  Jesus tells us: "Apart from me, you can do nothing."[1]And St. Paul says: "I can will what is right, but cannot do it."[2] The saints themselves witness to this.  This is what St. Louis Grignon de Montfort says, speaking this sanctification that is God's plan for us:

What an admirable work: dust changed into light, filth into purity, sin into holiness, the creature into the Creator, and man into God! Admirable work, I repeat, but a work that is difficult in itself, and impossible for unaided nature! Only God, by his grace — abundant, extraordinary grace — can accomplish it; and the creation of the whole universe is not such a surpassing masterpiece as this.[3]

However great our efforts, we cannot change ourselves.  Only God can get to the bottom of our defects, and our limitations in the field of love; only he has sufficient mastery over our hearts for that.  If we realize that we will save ourselves a great deal of discouragement and fruitless struggle.  We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints. 

That does not mean, of course, that we don't have to make any effort; but if our efforts are not to remain fruitless, they must be directed to the right end.  We should fight, not to attain holiness as a result of our own efforts, but to let God act in us without our putting up any resistance against him; we should fight to open ourselves as fully as possible to his grace, which sanctifies us. 

This opening of ourselves demands a great deal of humility because it means renouncing our tendency, born of pride, to want to manage by ourselves; it means accepting our own poverty and so on.  But at the same time it is very encouraging. 

The reason it is encouraging is that our own powers are limited, but God's power and love are not.  And we unfailingly can obtain the help of that power and love for our weakness.  All we have to do is peacefully recognize and admit the fact of our weakness, and place all our trust and hope in God alone.  Basically, it's very simple; but like all simple things it takes years for us to understand and, above all, to practice. 

The secret of holiness could be described as discovering that we can obtain everything from God, on condition that we know "how to get hold of him."  That is the secret of St. Thérèse of Lisieux's little way: God has a father's heart, and we can unfailingly obtain what we need from him, if we know how to take him by the heart.  Here is a passage from a letter by St. Thérèse of Lisieux that can help us to understand what this means:

I want to try to make you understand, by a very simple comparison, how much Jesus loves those souls, even imperfect ones, who entrust themselves to Him.  Imagine that a father has two children who have been naughty and disobedient; and that when he comes to punish them, he sees one who trembles and runs away from him in terror, knowing in his heart that he deserves to be punished; and that his brother, instead, throws himself into his father's arms, telling him that he's sorry he has displeased him, he loves him, and to prove it he will be good from now on.  Now if that child asks his father to punish him with a kiss, I believe that the happy father's heart will not be able to resist his son's filial trust, since he knows his sincerity and love.  Yet he also knows that his son will fall into the same faults again, but he is always ready to forgive him if his son always appeals to his heart.[4]

I think St. Thérèse found this idea that we can obtain everything from God in the works of St. John of the Cross, who was virtually the only teacher she had.  This is what he says in the Spiritual Canticle:

Great is the power and persistence of love, since it overcomes and binds God himself.  Happy is the soul who loves, because that soul holds God captive, and obtains from him all that he or she desires.  For God's nature is such that, if we take him by love, in the right way, we will make him do what we want.[5]

This daring expression about the power that our love and trust can exercise over God's heart contains a beautiful and very deep truth.  St. John of the Cross expresses it elsewhere in other terms: "What touches God's heart, and triumphs over it, is firm hope."[6]And, again:

God has such high esteem for the hope possessed by souls that are ceaselessly turned toward him and rely on him alone, that one can truly say that they obtain all that they hope for.[7]

Holiness is not a program for life, but something obtained from God.  There are even infallible means for obtaining it, and the important thing is to know what they are.  We all have the power to become holy, simply because God lets himself be won over by the trust we put in him.  The aim of the following sections is to put us on the right track. 

2.  Only God knows each person's road

A second reason why we don't become holy simply by drawing up a plan for ourselves is that there are as many forms of holiness, and hence also ways to holiness, as there are people.  For God, each person is absolutely unique.  Holiness is not the realization of a given model of perfection that is identical for everyone.  It is the emergence of an absolutely unique reality that God alone knows, and that he alone brings to fruition.  No individual knows what his own holiness consists of.  Holiness is only revealed to us by degrees, as we journey on, and it is often something very different from what we imagine, so much so that the greatest obstacle on the path to holiness may be to cling too closely to the image we have of our own perfection. 

What God wants is always different, always disconcerting; but ultimately it is infinitely more beautiful, because only God is capable of creating totally unique masterpieces, while we humans can only imitate. 

This uniqueness has an important consequence.  To reach holiness, we cannot be content merely to follow the general principles that apply to everyone.  We also need to understand what God is asking of us in particular, which he may not be asking of anyone else.  How can we discover what it is?  In different ways, naturally: through the happenings of our lives, in the advice of a spiritual director, and in many other ways as well. 

Among these ways, there is one that is so fundamental and important that it merits an explanation: the inspirations of divine grace.  In other words, the inner promptings, the movements of the Holy Spirit in the depths of our hearts by which God makes known to us what he is asking of us, and at the same time gives us the strength we need to accomplish it, at least if we consent.  How we should discern and receive these inspirations will be discussed later. 

To become holy, to become saints, we must of course try as hard as we can to do God's will as it comes to us in a general way that is valid for everyone: through Scripture, the Commandments, and so on.  It is also indispensable, as has just been said, to go further: to aspire to know not only what God demands of everyone in general, but also what he wants more specifically of us individually.  That is where the inspirations referred to above come in.  These inspirations are necessary even to know God's general will for us. 

The first reason for this is that if we aspire to perfection, we have so many things to tackle, so many commandments and virtues to practice, that it is impossible for us to fight on all fronts.  And so it is important to know at any given moment which virtue we should give priority to, not according to our own ideas, but according to what God actually wants of us, because that is what will be infinitely more effective.  And it isn't always what we may think.  It can happen that we make superhuman efforts to improve on one point, while God is asking us for something else.  For example, we may be making a supreme effort to correct a character defect, while what God is asking us to do is accept it with humility and gentleness toward ourselves! The inspirations of grace are invaluable in enabling us to direct our efforts correctly, among the many battles we have to wage.  Without those inspirations, there is a serious danger that we may either let ourselves off too easily on certain points, or demand of ourselves more than God is demanding of us, which is just as bad, and more common than we might think.  God calls us to perfection, but he is not a perfectionist.  And perfection is reached not so much by external conformity to an ideal as by inner faithfulness to God's inspirations. 

There is a second reason, shown by experience.  Even though we know that God's will and commandments apply to everyone, we do not always have the strength to fulfill them.  Now, every time we respond faithfully to a motion of the Spirit, out of a desire to be docile to what God expects of us, even if it's something almost insignificant in itself, that faithfulness draws grace and strength down on us.  That strength can then be applied to other areas and may make us capable of one day practicing the commandments that up until then we had not been capable of fulfilling entirely.  This could be seen as one application of the promise made by Jesus in the Gospel: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much."[8] One can deduce a fundamental "spiritual law" from it: We will obtain the grace to be faithful in the important things that at present we find impossible, by dint of being faithful in the little things within our grasp, especially when those little things are the ones that the Holy spins asks of us by calling to our hearts with his inspirations

Finally, there is a consideration of capital importance that can motivate us to want to be faithful to these inspirations.  If we decide to make an effort to achieve some spiritual progress according to our ideas and our own criteria, we are by no means sure to succeed.  As we have seen, there is sometimes a big difference between what God is actually asking of us, and what we imagine he is asking.  We won't have the grace to do what God is not asking of us.  But for what he is asking, he has promised us his grace: God grants what he commands.  When God inspires us to do something (if it really is God who is the source of that inspiration), at the same time he supplies the ability to do it, even if it is beyond our capacity or scares us at the start.  Every motion that comes from God brings both the light to understand what God intends, and the strength to accomplish it: light that illuminates the mind, and strength that gives power to the will. 

3.  Faithfulness to grace draws down further graces

Here is a little story from Sister Faustina, again taken from her Diary. 

This evening I tried to do all my exercises before Benediction, because I felt sicker than usual.  Right after Benediction I was going to bed.  But as I went into my cell, suddenly I felt inwardly that I had to go to Sister N.'s cell because she needed help.  I went straight to her cell, and Sister N.  said: "Oh, how good it is, Sister, that God sent you!" And she spoke in such a low voice that I could hardly hear her.  She said: "Sister, please bring me a little tea with lemon, because I'm so thirsty and I can't move.  I'm suffering so much."  And she really was suffering a lot, and she had a high fever.  I settled her more comfortably and quenched her thirst with a little tea.  When I went back into my cell, my soul was penetrated with a great love for God and I understood that we should pay great attention to inner inspirations and follow them faithfully.  And faithfulness to one grace attracts others.[9]

This text illustrates some of the things we have just looked at.  It underlines a central point: each act of fidelity to an inspiration is rewarded by more abundant graces, especially by more frequent and stronger inspirations.  The soul is drawn steadily on to greater faithfulness to God, a clearer perception of his will, and greater ease in accomplishing it.  St. Francis dc Sales says, likewise:

When we profit from an inspiration that our Lord sends, he then sends another, and thus our Lord continues his graces as long as we continue to profit from them.[10]

And that is the fundamental dynamism that can lead us little by little to holiness, our faithfulness to grace drawing down other graces.[11] St. Thérèse of Lisieux also witnesses to this "dynamism of faithfulness" that makes accomplishing God's will progressively easier:

The practice of virtue became sweet and natural to me; to begin with, my struggle often showed in my face, but little by little this disappeared and renunciation became easy to me even at the first moment.  Jesus said this: "To everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance.  For one grace that I received faithfully, he granted me a host of other.  .  ."  [12]

It should be added that this process is accompanied by the grace of joy: even though obeying the Holy Spirit is often hard for us at the start, because it conflicts with our fears, our attachments, and so forth, that obedience is always, in the end, a source of joy and happiness.  It is accompanied by an outpouring of grace that enlarges our hearts and makes our souls feel free and happy to travel along the Lord's paths: "I will run in the way of thy commandments, when thou enlargest my understanding!"[13] God rewards us as generously as only he can.  He treats us as only God can.  Another spiritual law, which is worth taking note of and that is confirmed by experience, is this: this path of docility to the motions of the Holy Spirit may be very demanding, because "the Spirit breathes where he will,"[14] but it is a path of freedom and happiness.  We may journey without constraint, our hearts not confined but expanded.  This enlarging of the heart is a clear sign of the presence of the Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit is rightly called the Consoler.  When the touches of the Spirit, enlightening us and impelling us to act, are well received, they pour into our hearts not just light and strength but solace and peace, that often fills us with consolation.  This happens even when their object is something unimportant; because these touches proceed from the Holy Spirit they share in God's power to console and fulfill us. 

Just a minute amount of the unction of the Holy Spirit can fill our hearts with more contentment than all the riches of the earth, because it shares in God's infinity.  Richard of St. Victor says:

I boldly affirm that one single drop of these divine consolations can do what all the pleasures of the world cannot.  The pleasures of this world cannot satisfy the heart; and one single drop of the inner sweetness that the Holy Spirit pours into the soul, delights it utterly and causes it a holy inebriation. 

"Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overfloweth," we read in Psalm 23 [22].  And this unction of the Spirit is unfailingly spread in the souls of those who do the good that the Holy Spirit inspires in them.  Here we find another great law of the spiritual life: what is really able to satisfy our hearts is not so much the gifts we receive as the good that God inspires and that we practice.  There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.  

We can see, then, how fruitful it is to welcome and follow the motions of the Spirit, to the point where we can say with Sister Faustina that this is the main means of our sanctification.  Various questions arise from this.  How can we recognize and distinguish these motions of the Spirit?  Does everyone receive them?  How often?  How can we foster their presence in our spiritual life? 

It is worth looking at the last of these questions first. 


  1. John 15: 5.
  2. Romans 7:18. 
  3. St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, The Secret of Mary, beginning of the first part.
  4. St. Thirese of Lisieux, Letter 258. 
  5. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle B, strophe 32, I.
  6. St. John of the Cross, Maxim 112. 
  7. St. John of the Cross, Maxim 119.
  8. Matthew 25:21.
  9. St. Faustina, Petit journal, p.  282. 
  10. Letter 2074 in the Annecy edition.  Father Ravier, introducing the essential points of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, says: "Inspirations are one of the means the Holy Spirit uses to guide each person at every moment.  The ability to discern and follow them is one of the most important points of the devout life": Francis de Sales, Lettres d'amité spirituelle (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer), p.  818
  11. This does not mean that all is lost if at any time we are unfaithful to them.  This point will be discussed further on.
  12. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, Manuscript A, folio 48.
  13. Psalms 119 [118]: 32.
  14. John 3:8.


philippeFather Jacques Philippe. "Holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit." chapter one from In the School of the Holy Spirit (New York, NY: Scepter Press 2007):13-25.

Reprinted with permission of Scepter Press.

The Author

philippephilippe8Father Jacques Philippe is a spiritual director, retreat master and the founder of the Community of the Beatitudes. He is the author of Priestly Fatherhood: Treasure in Earthen VesselsThe Eight Doors of the Kingdom: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Called to LifeReal Mercy: Mary, Forgiveness and Trust, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Interior Freedom, Fire & LightTime for God, Thirsting for Prayer, and In the School of the Holy Spirit. His website can be found here.

Copyright © 2007 Scepter Press
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