How Can I Grow in Virtue? (Part I of II)

How Can I Grow in Virtue?
Part I of II

Dear Father John, I am trying to be a better person but I need a little help.  I know virtues are important, but I don’t know how to get better at them.  How can I become more virtuous? 

Growth in virtue requires exercising virtue. It sounds so simple. And it is. Human nature is made this way. When we nourish and use the powers of our soul properly, they grow, just like muscles. If a young man wants to improve his tennis game, he needs to keep playing tennis; he needs to exercise his skills and abilities so they develop. Just thinking and dreaming about it will get him nowhere. Likewise, if we want to mature in our love for God, if we want to grow in the virtues that unite our heart, mind, emotions, and will to the Lord so we can have deeper communion with him, then we need to nourish and exercise them. And only in that communion will we find lasting happiness.

The Virtues Grow Together

The history of Christian spirituality has provided various categorizations of the different virtues. It can be helpful to study these and delve, for example, into the distinctions between courage and perseverance, or chastity and purity, or distributive justice and commutative justice. Yet, since the human person is an organic whole, when an individual exercises one virtue, his or her entire spiritual organism is engaged and therefore benefits. In a sense, it is impossible to grow in one of the fundamental virtues without also growing in the others. Just as a baby’s five fingers all grow out together—the middle finger doesn’t grow to maturity first before the pinky starts to grow—so the Christian who responds docilely and generously to the guidance of the Holy Spirit grows in all the basic virtues simultaneously. The other side of this coin is also true: If we are negligently deficient in any one of the basic virtues, we will only have limited progress in the others. It’s important to keep this in mind when we begin discussing what activities you can engage in to exercise your virtue.

The Primary Spiritual Workout

One activity exercises every Christian virtue simultaneously and intensely. Without it, spiritual maturity is impossible. This activity is prayer.

Prayer is conversation with God, listening to him and speaking to him. It exercises faith, because God’s presence, his voice, is almost always mediated by something—the Bible, the beauty of nature, music, other spiritual books. Talking with God simply can’t happen without faith: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, RSV).

Prayer exercises hope, because we don’t always feel immediate consolation and satisfaction in prayer; our confidence in God’s faithfulness motivates us to continue investing in prayer even when results seem long in coming. We know that by praying we are following Christ’s command to “store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20), but often we don’t actually enjoy those treasures during our time of prayer.

DetailLaSaetaByJulioRomeroDeTorresSacredSongChristian prayer exercises charity, because we address God as our Father, and we open our hearts to him just as he opens his heart to us; Christian prayer is much more than a mere self-tranquilizing technique or formulaic superstition. The Catechism reminds us of this powerfully when it summarizes how we must engage with the mystery of God’s revelation in Christ:

This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer. (CCC, 2558)

Prayer exercises the cardinal virtues, too, because God deserves our worship and confidence (justice), because prayer takes effort and self-sacrifice since it is not always pleasing (temperance and fortitude), because praying involves overcoming fears and doubts about whether God loves us or what others may say about us (fortitude), and because the true value of prayer is evident only to the wise (prudence). Prayer truly is the one activity that will most help us exercise our heart, mind, soul, and strength in loving God.


Editor’s Notes:

Art: Dove (Holy Spirit) as Part of the Holy Trinity, Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1714, CCA-SA; Detail of La Saeta (The Sacred Song), Julio Romero de Torres, 1918, PD-US author term of life plus 80 years; both Wikimedia Commons.

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