Grow in the Virtues That Underlie Holiness

Besides the general effort that every Christian must make to do what is right and to keep from what is wrong, it is important that he should have some special and definite aim that will help to keep him from dissipating his strength.

The end of the Christian life is, of course, holiness, but holiness is rather an indefinite thing to beginners, and it may manifest itself in many forms. And those who would attain to holiness must begin as they are, with their many sins and imperfections and ignorance, and work toward an end that becomes clearer as they advance and yet ever more difficult of attainment.

Indeed, they have to work toward an end that at first they cannot see, for only as the eye of the soul becomes purified does it get to see clearly what holiness means and how imperfect were its first conceptions of it.

It is a good thing, therefore, to concentrate our efforts, to be definite in our aim, to set before ourselves clearly some one purpose, some special virtue to strive after, on the attainment of which we shall have advanced considerably toward holiness of life.

Click image to preview and order your copy of “Spiritual Guidelines for Souls Seeking God.”

Now, there are two kinds of virtues that we may seek. First, there are particular virtues that may counteract certain specific evil tendencies of the soul and help to overcome individual sins. The acquirement of these virtues is, of course, essential to the advancement of all. One may need to conquer sloth by diligence, or pride by humility, or irritability by patience; but this does not necessarily lead the soul to its end; it needs more than this. One may overcome certain individual sins and never go further or even aim at holiness.

There are, therefore, other more comprehensive virtues that involve in their acquisition much more than merely any one virtue or grace and that lead on definitely and directly to holiness of life. Such virtues cannot be gained, in any degree, without a very manifest growth in holiness; for they attack not merely one sin but the root of all the sin that is in us. In proportion as we acquire them, sin loses its hold upon our whole system: its vigor flags. The old man loses strength because the new man grows stronger; the sun rises over the whole being, the ice-bound nature thaws, and all the seeds of the new life begin to bud and blossom.

There are some people who seem never to get beyond the attack on individual sins and the aim after particular virtues. They do not get a large and comprehensive view of the ailments of their nature or perceive in what its perfection consists: they attack, so to speak, each separate symptom of their disease but they have never made a diagnosis of their state and attacked that which is the cause of all these different symptoms. They resemble the man in the Gospel who asked our Lord, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” as though each commandment stood separate and disconnected from all the others, and as if a person might set himself to keep one perfectly to the neglect of all the others.

The observance of the Law as a whole seems scarcely to have occurred to him as a possibility, for he did not perceive that the details of the Decalogue were the expression in various relations of one great and comprehensive principle.

So our Lord answers him by showing him that the only way to observe them was by striving after the principle that underlay them all. He says: “You will never be able to keep the commandments if your aim is to observe them one by one. The spirit that underlies them all is love; strive after that, and you will find that in proportion as you gain that all-embracing virtue, you are observing all the commandments.”

So, on the other hand, St. James says, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all”; that is to say, by the deliberate violation of one of the commandments, one shows himself in antagonism to the spirit and principle of the moral law.

Our aim, therefore, should be to strive after those more comprehensive virtues that involve the spirit of holiness and bring in their train a multitude of graces, although this will, of course, necessitate the constant wrestling with individual sins. But it involves more: it involves a positive rather than a negative life. Its method is to aim at a spirit that necessarily protects one from sin.

We do not wish to develop a merely colorless character of which it can be said that it does not display any marked or definite faults. We want to develop a character, on the contrary, that is marked and definite; that shines with bright virtues; that puts itself forth in action, strong and vigorous. We have not in any way got near a definition of God when we say He is not unjust, or cruel, or evil.

God is love and holiness.

And it is the same with man: he is not to be content with eliminating, one after another, those evident faults that disfigure his character. He has done nothing toward a holy life until his character can be defined in positive rather than in negative terms; in stating what he is rather than what he is not. The wise physician sets himself, not merely to cure one ailment or another but to build up the constitution with a vigorous health, strong enough to resist the attacks of disease.

And the soul will do this by building up its spiritual life on principles that undermine all the evil that is in it by developing such virtues that bring it face-to-face with God, such virtues that strike at the root of sin.

It is possible to set oneself to fight against his sins and in the struggle never to get out of himself, never to get really nearer to God. It is possible, perhaps more than possible; for the method of struggle sometimes seems to keep people down rather than raise them up.

What a difference there is in the whole character and religious bearing between one whose struggle consists merely in an effort not to give in to any sharp speech and uncharitableness and one who, with the same fault, sets himself with all his might to gain the love of God and the love of others in and for God. Such a person aims at something vastly higher than the mere victory over his sin; and even in his failures on the way, we feel that he has far outstripped his companion, who may not fail so badly but has not aimed so high. The one, when he has overcome his fault, may still be no nearer to positive love; the other is on the way to it long before his fault is overcome.

Now, this is the underlying principle of our Lord’s teaching. He begins His teaching with the Beatitudes. In these He lays down the great laws of the life of holiness. They are given, not like the old law, in the form of prohibitions — “Thou shalt not” — but in the form of blessings. It is not “Cursed are the fornicators and adulterers” but “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

This may seem but another way of stating the same truth but we shall see that it is not; it is the expression of a great principle. The new law does not merely forbid men to do what is positively wrong; it begins a step higher than that; it takes us into that loftier region in which we are to be set free from the mere curb of prohibitions by living under the blessings of active obedience.

The old law forbade positive impurity: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The new law turns away from the sin and directs the soul to God: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” In that vision of God to which this beatitude points the soul, there is no need to warn against such sin; the soul is freed from it; it is striving after that which makes it impossible.

Again, the old law said, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and those who live in its spirit may strive very hard not to slander others. The new law begins on a higher level: it bids men aim at that which makes slander impossible: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” It says: Do not be content with being in the world negatively, doing no harm to others; try positively to do good, to make peace, and this as a child of God.

The old law forbade covetousness and stealing; the new turns the whole bent of the soul in another direction; away from the things of earth to the things of heaven: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

One might keep the letter of the eighth and tenth commandments all one’s life and never attain to the spirit of the first beatitude. No one could strive after the spirit of this beatitude without being set free, more than free, from all that these commandments prohibit.

Living under the principle of the law of prohibitions, one might obey the letter and never develop a character enlarged and enriched by positive and active goodness. One might, as it were, stand on the borderland between right and wrong, not do­ing positive wrong, and that is all, keeping his nature under bit and bridle from breaking away into a life of sin, ever conscious of a power of evil within that is ready to assert itself if the rein is loosened.

Under the principle of the new law, such a state of things is impossible: the soul is not content with restraints; it has passed into the region of its true development; it has been shown, not what it is not to do, but what it is to do; and the line of its development is in direct opposition to that in which its danger lies.

This, then, is the principle of the Christian life: it is positive rather than negative; it aims at something very much higher than keeping from definite acts of sin; it looks upon all laws of constraint as useless unless they tend to direct the currents of life toward their true end. It does not look upon such laws as ends in themselves, nor does it consider that by the mere submitting to the letter of such laws the soul has fulfilled their purpose.

No; habits of honesty, habits of prayer are mere bondage un­less they are helping somehow the production of a free, honest, and prayerful nature. The only object in bandaging and twisting a man’s crooked leg is that someday it may get a straightness into it that will make it keep its true shape when it is set free from bandages. If that day is never coming, bandaging is mere wanton cruelty. Better take the bandages off and let it be crooked, if it is getting no inner straightness and will be crooked as soon as they are removed.

So all these commandments and prohibitions that God lays before us: they are mere cruelty; they merely torture and worry humanity; they come to nothing unless within them some free law of inner rectitude is growing. One looks across God’s great moral hospital, sees crooked souls tied up in constraint, and wonders — as one might who looked through a surgeon’s ward — be­hind how many of those bandages an inner life is gathering that someday will ask no binding up and need nothing but its own liberty to be its law.

It is a strange question. Suppose tomorrow all the laws of constraint should be repealed together; all social penalties, all public restrictions, lifted off together; nothing left but the last legislation of character. What would become of us? Just as soon as our bandages were off, our unshaped lives would fall into their shapelessness!

There are thus two regions in which we may live: in the low­lands, where we ever stand in danger of the penalty of violating the law, in which we are ever conscious of the presence of the law standing over us with its drawn sword in stern warning, in which we are trying not to do wrong; and on the higher plains that breathe with blessings.

Those who live on the higher planes aim at something higher than escape from the curse of breaking the law. They strive after positive holiness. They keep far out of the reach of the curse, within the region of the Beatitudes. They stand no longer tam­pering with evil, looking at the forbidden fruit and parleying with the tempter, arguing as to the terms of the command laid down by God, whether it was a distinct prohibition forbidding them to eat or not. They keep well out of the reach of the forbidden tree, filling their lives so full of all that blesses that soon they have forgotten that such a tree exists.

It does indeed produce an entire change in the whole concep­tion of the Christian life when one passes from under the law of prohibitions to live under the benign influences of the law of the Beatitudes. One ceases merely to strive against particular sins and begins truly to live and to grow in holiness. It is a veritable conversion: it makes possible what before was inconceivable; it brings the soul directly under the powers that by developing restrain it and that by giving it its true direction gently protect it from the evil influences that would destroy it.

There are those who have not yet entered into this view of life and who consequently are timid, fearful, always dreading evil that they fear will overmaster them; there is in their life little of Christian liberty and expansiveness and no joy.

A vast part of their nature remains untouched by grace. There are the germs of virtues in them that have never been developed; they hold back through fear from many a sphere of usefulness; there is a constant introspection and self-analysis; they seem never to be able to get out of themselves; they live in an atmo­sphere of spiritual self-consciousness. There is no such thing possible for them as self-abandonment in trustful love, but always a restless sense of insecurity; there is no confidence in God or in the power of His grace. Their thought of God is rather as judge than Savior. All through life they are haunted by a sense of failure and of unfulfilled possibilities.

Such persons are indeed strict and hard on themselves — sometimes too hard. Religion has little in it that can give them joy or peace; they are like people who are morbidly anxious about their physical health, constantly fearing illness and watching their symptoms, but never perceiving that such a condition of things makes health impossible. They are not trying to live; they are only trying not to die. Such people are unconsciously living lives of restriction and prohibition.

And then there comes a change; they pass into another atmosphere where love reigns, where positive action takes the place of mere watchfulness and self-restraint; they launch out into the deep, put forth their powers, and strive to live rather than not to die — to do good rather than not to do evil, to put forth all their strength and energy in the loving service of God and man. They live in that large sphere of positive action and aim that enables them very soon to leave far behind those evil things that they were so long striving to keep from doing. They pass upward into the life of the Beatitudes and gain a new revelation of the possibilities of religion, of its wonderful capacity of setting the soul free to live a life of ever-increasing interest and joy.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Maturin’s Spiritual Guidelines for Souls Seeking Godwhich is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.

Avatar photo


Fr. Basil W. Maturin (1847–1915) was an Anglican priest who became a Catholic priest at age 51. Both before and after his conversion, he was famous for his preaching and psychological insight: he had a profound gift for guiding souls. In 1915 he was on board the Lusitania when a German U-bost sank the ship; he drowned after helping numerous other passengers to safety.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage