Ascension Press’ latest book by Fr. Mark-Mary Ames entitled Habits for Holiness: Small Steps for Making Big Spiritual Progress is a necessary read for all contemporary Catholics desiring to grow closer to Christ and bring others to his side. The practical nature and simple challenges contained within these pages allow one to see that holiness is within our grasp, if we rely on God and do our part.
A driving goal of the book is to take the model of St. Francis and the rule of life of the friars and present them in a manner that allows all Catholics, no matter their vocation or stage in life, to use them as tools of faith in our lives as disciples. “Many of you know what it takes to grow in holiness on an abstract level. We’ll break down some of these things in a way that is helpful and concrete,” Fr. Mark-Mary notes in the introduction. The desire for sanctity, when put into practice, is what makes all the difference.
Fr. Mark-Mary shines a spotlight on the core pillars of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFRs) life and mission. These include “prayer, community, liturgical living, simplicity, mission and our baptismal call.” Each one of these arena’s flows into the other and becomes a source for radical growth in the spiritual life. Being grounded in one’s relationship with God, living in union with others, celebrating the Sacraments regularly, and accepting Christ’s call to bring his message and love to the ends of the earth are all essential elements for the saintly life.
Life is often a constant race to get to the next thing, buy the next thing and get through the current day. The brilliance of this work by Fr. Mark-Mary is its ability to highlight ways we can come to see the profound embrace of God in every moment. Habits for Holiness focuses on running the marathon of life with a dependence on and disposition towards spiritual nourishment.
Another crucial aspect of the holy life is to inject Christ “strategically and prudently” in one’s daily practices. A constant refrain in this work is the call to recognize where you are in your spiritual life and take the next step, whatever that step may be. This has become a more well-known concept called poco a poco or “little by little” which is the namesake for the CFRs podcast hosted by Fr. Mark-Mary.
“Most people are well-intentioned and have goals,” Fr. Mark-Mary recalled. However, the issue most people have is strategy. Place your good intentions and holy goals into practice by working prudently and patiently towards your goal, little by little.
A simple way to do so is to put into daily practice something called the “3 x 5 Examen.” This is a five-minute prayer that “reorients and reroutes us to reality.” The idea is to silently recall 5 things you are grateful for, 5 ways that you are in need of God’s mercy, and 5 areas in your life that you desire to ask God for help with. Turning inward and reflecting on our need to be thankful while asking for forgiveness and imploring God’s assistance puts us in the place to be more aware and open to how God is working in our lives and how we might be impeding his love from reaching us more powerfully (sin).
The second primary pillar is relationship and community. For religious brothers and sisters, this takes place in the context of their communal living, but for most people, this resides with the family. Fr. Mak-Mary explains: “What I most deeply desire is intimacy. What I most deeply desire is to be in communion with others. In other words, what I most deeply desire is family.” Christians are called to deep union with the Trinity, but we are also invited into the intimacy of relationship with our family members. That is why, in God’s divine wisdom, he places every human person in automatic communion with at least two people when they are born: a mother and a father.
Families are where we learn how to love and how to be loved, along with how to treat others. When our closest relationships flourish they allow us to see that the needs of our neighbors have a claim on our hearts. Family should also mean close-knit communities (of non-family members) that vibrantly live out the faith. These communities should enrich our lives so we can go on mission.
Christ taught about giving to the poor, but living out poverty should be the result of encountering the humility of Jesus who emptied himself for our sake. A life of simplicity enables the Christian to live out a practical dependence on God while also providing for the needs of others from our excess possessions. Most importantly, however, is the invitation to treat the poor as living persons who deserve our respect.
Every Christian is called to see that poverty, simplicity and contentment are necessary qualities for a holy life. Serving the poor is not an option when it comes to being a disciple, and we all have different ways to give aid to those in need.
We should make small sacrifices so their needs can be provided for, but we must also use personal encounters with the poor as opportunities for them to see the face of God through our love. When we do that, we will be surprised that the poor often have more to teach us than we have to teach them.
All of these qualities of the life of a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal pinpoints the radically dynamic, but simply faithful witness of their brothers, sisters, and priests. Habits for Holiness should be read and pondered as a way for all Catholics to be moved to deeper conversion and never settle for a mediocre relationship with God.
Let us accept the invitation to form greater habits for sanctity so our hearts can be renewed to spread Christ’s way to the edges of our culture and save souls along the journey.