Growing in Virtue with Christ as Our Bridge
Given our fallen human nature, we all struggle in our pursuit of living virtuously. Even if we are faithful Catholics, who are attending Mass on Sundays, frequenting the sacrament of Confession, and praying daily, we can still find it difficult not to allow ourselves to fall into our habitual vices and sins. Studying the writings of the saints, who are the great spiritual masters, can help us as we strive for the life of virtue. In St. Catherine of Siena’s writings, we find that charity is the source of all other virtues, and through love of God and love of neighbor, we can grow in deeper self-knowledge about our vices and virtues. Thus, in this New Year of 2018, let us look to St. Catherine as a guide for deepening our lives of virtue.
The basis for all other virtue, according to St. Catherine, is charity. As she writes, “No virtue can have life in it except from charity, and charity is nursed and mothered by humility” (Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity [New York: New City Press, 1993], p. 114. 2005 edition available here). As such, if we wish to live a life of virtue, we must have the virtue of charity, which is a gift from God. It is given to those who are humble, because they submit themselves to God. While we cannot “earn” charity, God can bestow this virtue on us, if he sees that we are humble to know our weakness and our need to be entirely dependent on him. As St. Catherine writes, “You will find humility in the knowledge of yourself when you see that even your own existence comes not from yourself but from me [Jesus], for I loved you before you came into being” (p. 114). For St. Catherine, self-knowledge is very important for growing in the spiritual life. Without knowledge of our own unworthiness, and our utter dependence on God, then we cannot grow in the virtues of humility and charity.
When we know ourselves as we are, then we can love God rightly, and from that love will flow love of neighbor. St. Catherine insists that we cannot grow in charity without growing love of neighbor. As she writes, “I have told you how every sin is done by means of your neighbors, because it deprives them of your loving charity, and it is charity that gives life to all virtue. So that selfish love which deprives your neighbors of your charity and affection is the principle and foundation of all evil” (p. 115). We grow in charity through love of our neighbors; when we fall into sin, we turn away from the charity that we are called to give to our neighbors. In another way, when we do not have proper self-knowledge, we fall into our old habits and patterns of sin, which prevent us from having charity for our neighbors. When we are selfish and do not humbly give ourselves to God, we fall into the same sins against charity and love of neighbor. St. Catherine is very poignant with her words when she says the following: “Every scandal, hatred, cruelty, and everything unbecoming springs from this root of selfish love. It has poisoned the whole world and sickened the mystic body of holy Church and the universal body of Christianity” (p. 115). Let these words be a reminder to us of how deeply our sin wounds not only ourselves, but also the Body of Christ, of which each baptized person is a member. This is because love of neighbor and love of Jesus is the same, or, in other words, springs from the same source.
As has hopefully become clear, we cannot pursue this path of virtue alone, lest we become Pelagians. How, then, can we grow in virtue, charity, and self-knowledge? St. Catherine writes that Christ himself is our bridge in the spiritual life. In the Dialogue, St. Catherine writes that an infinite chasm between Heaven and earth opened up because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Left to itself, human nature could not atone for its sin. Thus, God sent his only Son to earth, that human nature might be joined to the divine nature. As St. Catherine writes, “I want you to look at the bridge of my only-begotten Son, and notice its greatness. Look! It stretches from heaven to earth, joining the earth of your humanity with the greatness of the Godhead. This is what I mean when I say it stretches from heaven to earth—through my union with humanity” (p. 102). Through Christ as our bridge, we now have the potential access to eternal life, and through his graces, we can heal the wound in our humanity. St. Catherine beautifully continues,
And how was heaven opened? With the key of his blood. So, you see, the bridge has walls and a roof of mercy. And the hostelry of holy Church is there to serve the bread of life and the blood, lest the journeying pilgrims, my creatures, grow weary and faint on the way. So has my love ordained that the blood and body of my only-begotten Son, wholly God and wholly human, be administered (p. 103).
Through the body and blood of Christ, we have access to Heaven. Thus, there is no need to fear what Christ may ask of us, or that we will never be able to attain the virtues necessary to live entirely in him. Because he chose to take on our nature and thereby make a bridge between Heaven and earth, we have the means to attain the virtue of charity, which is so necessary for eternal life, as we have already seen in the writings of St. Catherine.
As St. Catherine explains, the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are the means to union with Christ, and furthermore, to living a life in charity and humility. When we receive the Eucharist, we are united with Christ, who is our bridge to Heaven. Through our union with him, we are able to come to self-knowledge and thereby grow in virtue. As St. Catherine explains, “If you follow this truth you will have the life of grace and never die of hunger, for the Word has himself become your food” (p. 103). Thus, if we want to grow in virtue, we must lean entirely on Christ, and rely on him as our bridge to eternal life. In this New Year, while many are making resolutions that they will ultimately not keep, let us resolve to follow the spiritual guidance of St. Catherine of Siena, each day of our lives, so that we can grow in the virtue of charity and be led along the way by Jesus Christ to eternal life.
image: Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons