Dear Father John, I would like to ask you for a piece of advice. Since my will is not so strong as it should be; what are the exercises to practice that important element of spiritual formation?
I am so encouraged to see that you recognize a need to develop your willpower! The first job the Holy Spirit has is to show us our need for God’s grace, so you are obviously in tune with the Holy Spirit!
And that’s the first point: We all need to remember that when it comes to pursuing spiritual maturity, our own efforts are never enough. (A heresy from the fifth century taught the contrary, and it was condemned by the Church; it’s called Pelegianism.) On the other hand, St. Thomas Aquinas reminded us many centuries ago that “grace builds on nature,” and that means that we can do a lot to create a propitious atmosphere for God’s grace to be fruitful, to take root in our souls and bear abundant fruit, “some one-hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8).
The Shortcut (Ha!)
Forming the will, our capacity to make prudent, firm decisions and follow through with them in spite of opposition, temptation, or difficulty, is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress. A weak will inhibits our capacity to love, because love means self-giving, and self-giving is necessarily difficult in a fallen world, a world in which our fallen nature tends automatically towards self-indulgence. So you are right to want to form your will, to strengthen it, to develop it. Unfortunately, no flashy, romantic method exists for character formation. I can’t give you a short-cut. I can only share some recommendations that spiritual writers have given throughout the centuries. It will be up to you to put them into practice. But you will not be alone – three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were planted in your soul at baptism, are directed towards giving your weak and wounded will a supernatural boost (these are the gifts of fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord). So, if you make a decent effort to do your part, the Holy Spirit will surely give you a fantastic return for your investment. Your will has two jobs in the spiritual life. First it has to submit to God, to embrace and obey God’s will. Second, it has to govern your other, lower faculties (like your appetites), so that they don’t go off on their own and drag you into the muddy acid of laziness, lust, greed, and the other vices. You can do some practical things to train your will in both tasks.
Job #1: Embracing God’s Will
To embrace God’s will for your life – whether in basic things like following the Commandments and the duties of your state in life, or in extraordinary moments when he sends special inspirations – you have to be convinced that God’s will really is the very best option. This is the kind of conviction that drove St. Thomas More, for example, to give up the highest honors in the Kingdom, abundant riches, and an incomparable position of power and prestige, trading it all in for a few years in prison and a death sentence. He knew the answer to Christ’s question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The more deeply we are convinced that God’s will, God’s plan, and God’s way are based on his infinite wisdom, limitless goodness, and passionate, personal love for us as individuals, the more we will want to embrace it and follow it, no matter the cost.
Deepening Our Conviction
How can we deepen that conviction? There is absolutely no better way to do so than by making mental prayer a part of your daily life. Add to mental prayer a good dose of daily spiritual reading, a Rosary, and frequent reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession, and you have a solid formula that will, gradually, deepen this conviction. It will become a solid, deep, granite foundation for a life of holiness and fruitfulness. But you have to avoid just going through the motions in those spiritual disciplines: be faithful to them, and be faithful to constantly striving to do them better. The help of a good spiritual director is useful here. Go over each of your prayer commitments with your spiritual director. Explain what you do and how you do it, and ask for advice and tips on how to do it better.
Job #2: Self-Governance
The will’s second job consists of governing your lower faculties. Your appetites always want to go towards their proper object, the particular pleasure associated with their exercise – food, sex, rest, entertainment… To strengthen your will, then, requires disciplining these appetites until, like a well-trained thoroughbred, they have learned to channel all their power in the direction that your will points them. This may take a long time. Our culture trains us in just the opposite way. Our consumerism actually debilitates the will in favor of the whims of emotion. Sometimes it takes prolonged periods of taxing effort to free the soul from the slavery of sentimentalism.
In our next post on this topic we will talk about a few secrets and tips to help you to be more effective as you face this important challenge.