As human beings, we seem to need a step-by-step method for most everything we do in life. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the 12 Steps to Addiction Recovery, Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps To Financial Peace--they’re at every turn. Even the instructions that are meticulously read while putting together that new piece of office furniture all attest to this. Yet, often times in our spiritual life we can feel lost and the next step is not so clear. One may ask, “After two millennia of Christian spirituality, does a step-by-step approach to becoming holy exist?”
The good news is, YES! Our Lord himself gave us a step-by-step approach to holiness when he said, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). These words of Jesus have resounded in the hearts of men and women for 2,000 years. They present to us a practical, concrete path to becoming a follower of Jesus. Many believe they lay down a lifelong project of spiritual growth divided into three practical steps:
Take up your cross.
Step I: Self Denial
The first step, self denial, is referred to as The Purgative Way by some theologians. Have you ever noticed that in order to progress, great effort, sacrifice, and patience are necessary? The championship football teams have to work hard during the hot August two-a-day practices. The expectant mother has to endure months of discomfort before bringing a new life into the world. Even the Church offers Advent and Lent as a time to purify us so as to be prepared to celebrate the mysteries of our Faith. The same could be said for our striving for holiness; effort, sacrifice and patience are essential. On a practical level, here are a few possible points of action: Avoiding sin and addressing psychological dynamics that slow our spiritual development is fundamental. Channeling unhealthy thoughts and emotions towards the higher ideals of faith and reason provides balance and clarity. Beginning a prayer life requires effort, constancy and surrender but lays the groundwork for a maturation of one’s relationship with God. The purification process on our journey to reaching holiness is no cake walk and costs us much. At the same time, the happiness and fulfillment experienced with new found spiritual and psychological freedom is... priceless.
Step II: Take Up Your Cross
In the spiritual life, taking up one’s cross is often referred to as The Illuminative Way. A soul in this step works towards purity of heart, self control over the force of his or her passions, and avoidance of deliberate sin. Also important is deepening their convictions regarding the truths of our faith. One tries to adorn him or herself with Christ’s virtues and to make Christ the center of their thoughts, affections and actions. In this step one seeks to understand and grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as well as the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. It is of utmost priority to make daily prayer life a constant and based primarily on affections from the heart rather than discourses from the intellect. Spiritually, this soul could be compared to the ease with which an experienced mother raises the youngest of her children or an athlete who has the fundamentals down and is playing at peak performance. How happy and balanced our life when we arrive to this level in our spiritual life. In no way is this stage of spirituality easy and without constant difficulty to remain disciplined, but the habits of good practices have been formed and are a sought-out priority. No longer does the soul wonder why prayer is important, cast it aside, or ignore an interior prayer life.
Step III: ‘Follow Me”
The third step in the spiritual life can be called, The Unitive Way. Once we go through the purification of our own body and soul and are steeped into the practice of virtues and prayer we are ready to be among the closest followers of Our Lord. In this level we are detached from created things and our primary focus is on the presence of the Creator who dwells in our hearts. Love of God becomes the driving force in our life and we can say with our Lord, “I always do what pleases Him” (John 8:29). Deep union with God in prayer, always embracing grace, and mastery over ourselves allow us to see crosses and difficulties with great spiritual joy. From a practical perspective one understands and corresponds to the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit: counsel, piety, fortitude, fear, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. One’s prayer life is cemented on contemplation in which the action of God in prayer becomes more important than one’s own effort. (Do not be discouraged at what “stage” you may be in, and do not have fear that God will not bring you into His heart. We will not arrive in Heaven because we counted these “steps” but because we at some point will abandon our own wills, and choose His will and follow Him with absolute trust.) So many souls have arrived to this state of heaven on earth; John Paul II, St. Mother Theresa, and so many unknown husbands and wives, children, students and scholars who have taken up Christ’s call and followed him above all else.
God foresaw and responded to our need to have a step-by-step guide to spiritual growth. St. Paul was one of the first disciples who implemented a structured approach to the spiritual life and we know it led him to the heights of sanctity… “Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable. Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26).