At the beginning of each year, many of us make resolutions toward become a better person. We resolve to develop a healthier diet. We resolve to learn more about an important topic or two. Our intentions are good.
In the first days and weeks of the year, we do fairly well at keeping these resolutions. We join a fitness club. We cease eating at fast food establishments, or partaking of a second slice of cake for dessert. Perhaps we read a whole book during January, one without pictures even. Yet, when January turns to February, many of us forget our resolutions, or we begin to look for ways to get out of them (yours, truly, at the front of the line!). After all, working out and reading are hard, and fast food is so prevalent and tempting.
We have come to live in a fast-food and sound-bite culture. There are many ways that our habits in dining and learning reflect our spiritual habits. Yes, many people really do expect to cultivate healthy bodies without inordinate amounts of exercise; many people turn up their noses at having to read more than a few hundred words; and, finally, people really do expect spiritual health and growth with quick, small bites of faith formation. For example, the extent of most Catholics’ faith formation each week comes solely from the homily they hear at Mass. Given that most homilies last somewhere between ten and twelve minutes, that means most people do not spend more than one-one thousandth of their time cultivating their faith. Even if it’s a great homily, that’s no way to cultivate a deep relationship with Jesus. That is as bad as relying on sound bites for education, or on fast food for a diet.
It is truly unfortunate that so many think they can cultivate deep spirituality by way of distracted worship rituals, quickly-recited rote prayers, and commercial bookstore “spirituality” texts. They seem to believe (remember, actions always identify a person’s beliefs) that the religious and spiritual life operates in exactly the same way as buying a lunch or a latte; or that a half-hour documentary on the Discovery Channel contains all that needs to be said about followers of Jesus. We need to realize that we are not living up to the potential that God has placed in us if we are simply parroting what we hear on news broadcasts and podcasts. To counter this trend, we must begin making every effort to convince people that there is more, and that they must make a greater effort.
If our culture is to recapture greatness, it is necessary for us to eschew laziness in dining and learning, but especially in religion and spirituality. It is imperative for us to cultivate certain habits, virtues, if we are to become magnanimous, especially in the spiritual life; and if we are to avoid any of the seven deadly sins.
First among these necessary virtues is humility. Humility combats the capital sin of pride, which causes a person to place himself over and above God and others. There can be no other starting point than humility.
Another necessary virtue is religion. Religion is the first moral virtue under the cardinal virtue of justice. It is the justice that we owe and give to God in response for his acts of love and creation. God deserves everything from us and religion is the starting point for returning to Him what is rightfully His.
A third necessary virtue, which follows from religion, is gratitude. We must be grateful for “every good…and perfect gift” that comes from God’s hand (Jas. 1:17), those things that bring us to be our best selves. Without gratitude, it is easy for us to fall into the capital sins of envy and sloth, and especially the capital sin of sloth. Both of these capital sins are a rejection of the unique graces God gives to each of us, as well as our need to work diligently toward our appointed end.[i]
Then there is the virtue of docility, which is the habit of being open and being led to the truth that God wants to reveal. A docile person allows God to reveal His plans according to Divine timing and methods; she does not tell God, “This is how it’s going to be…” Growing in the virtue of docility will allow us to cultivate knowledge about the highest, most important things, as well as “interpret the signs of the times” (see Matthew 16:3).
Finally, diligence is a virtue of primary importance for diving deep into the spiritual life. Attaining to the transcendent will not happen in short bursts, like three days of praying the Rosary intensely and faithfully, or giving up sweets during Lent alone. We must sustain our efforts of prayer and fasting over much longer periods of time, even when we don’t feel like it and even when it seems as though God is not with us through it. That’s where diligence comes in. It builds in us the ability to sustain efforts toward what is good and beautiful, no matter what obstacles come in our path.
Faithful and diligent study must be coupled with cultivation of the virtues. To become a deeply spiritual person, one must engage in deeper and deeper learning. Even the best op-ed pieces on religion in magazines and newspapers, YouTube videos, daily devotion paragraphs, and so on, fall short after a brief period of time. That’s precisely because they are only small stepping stones to much deeper and richer knowledge and understanding of our infinite God. Those small bites ought to make us hunger for something more solid and enduring. Just like the appetizer at a five-star restaurant only serves to augment the main dish, so it is with the small morsels of truth that we receive from our culture. Eventually, we ought to begin to desire more of the Real Thing, which we may have only received in small doses previously. A person will only be fully satisfied when he or she can spend time encountering the Divine and Transcendent, not in grasping shadows of His glory!
Indeed, it is for the betterment of humanity as a whole that we take every opportunity to slow down, hear a broader perspective, and be willing to work and wait patiently for God to reveal Himself to each of us. It is in the work, in the waiting and hearing, that we will come to know God and ourselves more fully. That is where we will glimpse the Reality that fills our deepest longings. We should allow this principle to guide our spiritual development, and to inform our eating and study habits, too.
For an excellent treatment of the capital sin of sloth and ways to combat it, see Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft.
For another helpful resource, see Dr. Kevin Vost’s article, “Christ’s Prayer to Conquer the Seven Deadly Sins” here on CE.