Too often a person looks at the past year and beholds only the shambles of the good resolutions he made last year concerning his predominant fault or some virtue he wanted to acquire. Appalled at his lack of success at another year’s end, he says once again to himself or to his director, “Why don’t I do something about getting that virtue? After all, I want to.”
Sometimes, with God’s help, the scene a person sees in retrospect is not quite so devastated. But neither is it a picture of magnificent triumph or prodigious progress in virtue. Last year, he had hoped this year would find him quite proficient in the practice of his particular virtue, or considerably more advanced toward victory over his predominant fault or faults. But such is not the case, as it was not the case last year. Yet, both these persons — the complete failure and the doubtfully successful — sincerely believe that they want to have this or that virtue or to overcome their predominant fault.
Why this pitiful progress toward perfection that tends to discourage too many good people? As they so often ask themselves: “Why don’t I do something practical about getting that virtue or overcoming that fault?” Dismiss immediately as the cause of this failure the lack of God’s grace in a soul seeking to advance in perfection. True, without His grace, there can be no progress: “Without me, you can do nothing.” But sufficient grace is always present. Failure to advance, then, should be ascribed to a deficiency in personal efforts, which must cooperate with the motions of grace in all supernatural activity, whether it be overcoming faults or practicing virtue.
This being so, deficient efforts and scant progress in overcoming our predominant faults are traceable to the ability every one of us has to deceive ourselves more completely than another could possibly deceive us. We tell ourselves we want this virtue, or we want to get rid of that fault. We think we mean it. But we do not really mean it; that is, we do not actually will it. If we did, we would be more persistent in seeking and presumably more successful in achieving what we say we want.
True, we admire the virtue speculatively. We think it would be nice to have. But thinking thus, we often subconsciously say to ourselves, “But it is such a lot of trouble to get it. Do I really want it enough to make all that continued effort? After all, we can overdo this seeking for perfection. I will try for a while, but if it gets too difficult, I will drop it.” Generally, that is what happens. Or, without going so far as to entertain such cowardly and defeatist thoughts, even subconsciously, we often conclude that because we admire a virtue speculatively, we therefore have a sincere desire for it. Such notions, says St. Vincent de Paul, are “the products of the mind which, having found some facility and sweetness in the consideration of virtue, flatters itself with the idea that it is actually virtuous.” Such speculative admiration or desire for a virtue will not produce the virtue automatically in a soul. Moreover, it will never move the will to adopt means to acquire it by personal effort.
It is only when I conceive a good as practicable and good for me that my will is moved to do something about getting that good. Not a speculative judgment, but a practical judgment about the goodness of a thing for me, moves my will to action.
Holding a tablespoon out to her little son with a stomachache, a mother says, “Here, take this castor oil. It’s good for you.” Oh, yes? The little son is not convinced of that thesis. Speculatively, he might admit that it might be good for some people or some people’s stomachaches. But he has not come to a practical judgment that it is good for him. Nor does he intend to. Thus, only by coercion, and not voluntarily, will he take the castor oil, if indeed he does take it.
But who will coerce me to overcome my predominant fault? Unless I convince myself by a practical judgment that the unpleasantness of fighting my predominant fault, or the distastefulness of effort involved in acquiring a particular virtue, is good for me, is the only course for me, I will never tackle the job.
Lack of motivation, then, must be blamed in the first place for scant progress in overcoming a predominant fault or in acquiring some particular virtue. Our progress is negligible because we have not properly motivated ourselves. Our intellect has not made the possession of that virtue or the being rid of that fault appear as a sufficiently practical, personal good for us. Yet this is the first step that we must take on the road to improvement.
Until we are properly motivated to get rid of a fault or acquire a virtue, we can study, or search for, or have pointed out to us all the means in the world, but we shall never begin to do. Until we have motivated ourselves to say, “I want this, and with the help of God’s grace, nothing will keep me from it,” no amount of instruction or direction as to means will have any result.
You must motivate yourself
In the final analysis, the responsibility for motivation rests squarely on the shoulders of each individual. Only we ourselves can penetrate our own will and motivate it to act. Motives can be pointed out to us, but unless our own intellect assimilates them and presents the goal to our own will as a desirable good for us, it will all be “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” Motivation and determination must come ultimately from within the individual. Until it does, until it is present, little progress will be made in acquiring virtue or overcoming faults.
Since motivation looms so large in the process of overcoming a predominant fault, we should be clear on how to achieve it. How do we motivate ourselves in a practical way, so that our will will spring into action in seeking any particular good?
Consider the virtue or vice.
Obviously, before the intellect can present cogent motives to the will, it must itself be convinced of the goodness and desirability of the object in question. Such conviction comes only from the operation of the mind on the truth of the matter at hand, since the proper object of the mind is truth.
The intellect, then, must perform its threefold operation of apprehension, judgment, and reasoning on the truth about the particular virtue to be acquired or the particular vice to be uprooted. To express it more plainly, although perhaps more painfully, we must meditate! We must meditate on the nature of the vice or virtue and the various motives that would impel us to attack the vice or embrace the virtue. We must mull over, ruminate, and think about all the compelling reasons for and benefits of having the virtue or not having the vice, until the result becomes appealing and beautiful enough to trigger our will into action to get it.
These motives or reasons can be drawn, first, from faith, by examining our Lord’s teaching and example on the subject in question; by examining the example of the saints and perhaps even of our companions. Reason can likewise furnish motives, such as the difficult or absurd or undesirable consequences that would follow taking the opposite course. But for a practice aimed at overcoming a predominant fault or acquiring a particularly needed virtue, the realm of faith will provide the most fruitful supernatural motives to move the will to action.
Think about the love of God.
No human act is ever performed without a motive. But there is a hierarchy of motives. The more powerful the motive is, the more energetically we will work to achieve the envisioned goal. But of all the possible motives that can account for our actions, the most powerful of all is the motive of love. Love is God’s own motive. He does all things for love.
Therefore, if we are truly serious about overcoming a predominant fault, the most powerful motive we should try to arouse is the love of God. If we will not undertake the battle against a predominant fault or the seeking of a particular virtue for the love of God, then certainly there is no other worthy motive strong enough to sustain us in that persevering struggle.
The motive of the love of God can be aroused only by persistent and conscientious meditation on the goodness and love that God has first shown toward us. Once we begin to come to the realization of the extent of God’s love for us, we cannot help wanting to love God in return.
Then, add to meditation unceasing, earnest prayer to beg God for the grace to love Him enough to want to combat your predominant fault.