To understand “holiness” a number of facts need to be underlined.

First, holiness is a fundamental issue in our life. Secondly, understanding the nature of holiness is therefore fundamental.

Two further significant facts to look at are: first, since the early sixties, with Council Vatican II, we have been reminded that Jesus calls all of us to Holiness (see: Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5, The Universal Call to Holiness). And this is very positive.

Secondly, details about what holiness is and how to attain it remain until today difficult to access. Therefore these concepts remain very imprecise and vague. We often respond with general ideas and directions, but when it comes to details, we lack a great deal of practical insight.

Some people think that by just abiding by Christian Dogma, Liturgy (+ Sacraments) and Morality it is enough [or worse: it guarantees you] to reach holiness. Our popular understanding of “holiness” is one thing, but to be more precise is something totally different.

It is important to notice that our understanding of: 1- The Cross (what Jesus accomplishes on the Cross), 2- Easter, 3- Baptism and 4- Christian life are directly related. Also that, in the end, all will obviously bring us to holiness.

Our understanding of these four realities has shrunk significantly from the original view/understanding – with dramatic consequences on our understanding of holiness. It has shrunk to a frightening point. To explain it, I’ll take an example: the Promise given to Abraham to give him the Land.

After 430 years of “slavery” in Egypt, God decided that the time was right to act and save His People. We all have a geographical idea of the journey of the people of God, from Egypt to the Promised Land (see the map).

This Journey was made in 40 years. (Remember that this journey wouldn’t take more than 3 days walking, if you take a more direct route) I would divide this journey into 4 parts (not like the map shows). This is my choice, just to make my point. 

1- One night: walking to the Red Sea and crossing it (admittedly, you may add a few days or weeks while Moses and the Pharaoh are defying each other, with the consequent plagues of Egypt following). 

2- Two years: from the crossing until the area called Kadesh Barnea is reached. 

3- Thirty eight years: going in circles around the area of Kadesh. 

4- Finally entering the Promised Land: crossing the Jordan, fighting against the local population (7 tribes). 

The full journey comprises numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4.

I am using the full journey as an example of our spiritual Christian Journey, heading toward Holiness (the “Promised Land”). The whole action that Jesus accomplishes on the Cross comprises in itself the full journey. Saving us is not just taking us from Egypt to the desert (crossing the Red Sea)!! It is the same with Baptism: being baptised is not just crossing the Red Sea, finishing with the slavery of the Devil (Pharaoh) like the Fathers of the Church used to say. The full realisation of Baptism is to reach the Promised land. Wouldn’t you agree?

The same goes for Easter: during the Easter Vigil we focus a lot on the essential reading of the crossing of the Red Sea. Nothing wrong with that. But crossing the desert, spending 40 years in it, crossing the River Jordan, have no impact on our understanding of Easter. We often, traditionally use the Easter Vigil to Baptise catechumens. Does it encourage us more toward this “reduction”/this poverty in our understanding of the concepts as illustrated above? Well, the debate is open.

The same thing is true of our Christian daily life: we measure everything by one measure: “am I in the state of grace or not? If not, I do have to go to confession. So my life becomes a question of being or not being in a “state of grace”. It is like saying: “did I cross the desert or not?”. Ok, fair enough. But where is the Desert in our Christian life? Do we see it? Do we understand its deep meaning? Do we understand manna? Receiving the Law? Not listening to God, and having to go in circles for 38 years until we are totally purified (see Numbers, Chapter 16)? Having to cross the waters of the river Jordan? Having to go and fight 7 tribes?

It seems that everything depends on: “am I in the state of grace or not?”, and the rest will take care of itself. I just need to pray, to go to Mass, to confess, to perform good deeds, and holiness will come by itself. So: “take it easy, sit down and relax. Take a deep breath, you are saved from the Red Sea. The rest will come, you just need to be a good Christian.”

Crossing the Red Sea is fundamentally like seeing Saul being knocked off his horse and falling, blind, under the powerful liberating light of Jesus.

All that comes afterwards, however, is infinitely much more: it is when Paul takes time to grow (he spends 3 years in Arabia)… and then works, serves… Saint Paul’s life doesn’t revolve around his falling from his horse. Ironically it seems that for us, holiness is about falling from our horse.

Falling from our horse” is technically called: “conversion”. But then, our Christian life, Baptism, the Cross, Easter, are simply reduced to a BINARY level: I am or not in the state of grace (1,0). And, if I am not, I should go to confession. All the rest will be – roughly – fine. (Yes “roughly”, as you will notice.) This is what some will later call: holiness.

People think, vaguely,that Holiness will/might come, roughly, automatically, by itself, as if by magic.

I am not sure of that at all. I wouldn’t plan my entire life around “roughly” and “maybe”.


A friend just posed this question:

The Catholic Church I think defines a saint as somebody who has practised heroic virtue. So we can talk about holiness as heroic virtueBenedict XIV, an 18th century pope, stated: “In order to be heroic, a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations.”

And most people would say that one needs to pray for the Holy Spirit to achieve a life of heroic virtue.

What are your thoughts on this definition of holiness and the possibility of achieving it?” 

The first stage of my reply to this question is as follows:

 First, I would like to confirm that what the question posed is correct and is still valid today. Indeed, we have this following paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “828 By canonising some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practised heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognises the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”  (see as well here)

Before moving on to give my thoughts on this issue, I would like to come back to the words that were used in the question and make a clarification. This “old” way of defining Holiness, of trying to “see” it in somebody, is still used today. This is how we find out if somebody is a saint or not. We go through the virtues, and question witnesses of his life who would support the fact that he practised them in a heroic way. We are not God, we cannot see into the soul and spirit of a potential saint, so we simply do the sort of work a “Spiritual Director” would do, but more in the form of a trial (ecclesiastical tribunal).

The question focused on the adjective “heroic”: this is very good; it is a fair definition (phenomenological, i.e. describing it from outside, from what is seen). I would now like to focus on “virtue”. A saint is not invited to practise any virtue, but specific virtues: Faith, Hope, Love/Charity, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance,…

Temperance    Prudence     Fortitude      Justice

Virtues are like formed muscles (remember the bodybuilders). In order to grow they need:

1- muscles (i.e. the faculties of the soul: mind, will,..),

2- nutrients (from the blood, that nourish the muscles): the Grace of God 

3- exercise (the specific acts of each virtue to be repeated).

The whole structure of the virtues is like, if you will, the muscles on the skeleton.

So, when the Church wants to know if somebody has become holy (obviously after his/her death), the “tribunal” acts like a doctor of the soul and of the spirit and tries to perform a “scan” of the “muscles” (i.e. virtues) and to determine their state. But, ultimately, since we are not God and we can’t be 100% sure of something “invisible” to the naked eye and subject to such variations (the human soul), the Church considers the necessity of a Miracle, in order to be sure of God’s judgement.

Now, of course, we need to learn what the virtues are and learn how to make them grow until they reach the “heroic state”.

This analysis also reflects the state of spiritual theology of that time. Nothing wrong with it, on the contrary. Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and even up to Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964).

Now the question is: how can we make all these muscles work? Workout, workout, workout… How can we do it “out of Love for Jesus”, not “out of the need for a ‘workout’ “?

I am old enough to say that I knew of books for novices (first year of religious life) where they had to pick a virtue per week or per month and work on it. In the book there were lists of the virtues, with different examples and applications. Fair enough.

But we all know that in order to reach that “perfection” of virtue described by Pope Benedict XIV (see the description given in the question) we need to go through a journey of purification as well, and enter into deeper states of contemplation and receive abundant graces.

In order to know the journey well, you have the 11 diagrams commented on a few months ago and starting from this one.

The journey itself of the formation of a virtue has various layers – still according to Saint Thomas Aquinas: 

The first layer comes from our education: the natural exercise of various virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance, studiositas, magnanimity,…). Aristotle is a good master here. He was adopted by Saint Thomas Aquinas, of course, putting his teaching into a Christian framework.

A second layer would add the supernatural intervention of the Grace of God, like new “blood” injected into the “muscle” (that will produce the christian virtue). This is fundamental and helps us understand the big difference between a virtue practised by a Greek philosopher for instance, and the virtue practised by a Christian person, even the humblest one. The Holy Spirit enters in us and starts to make deep changes and elevates our exercise of the virtue (the muscle) to a higher level. Remember that The Goal is high – God – and that The Means is high – God Himself – as well as the Holy Spirit. 

A third layer: when the second level has been exercised for a long time, with perseverance, faithfulness, the Action of the Holy Spirit increases and goes deeper, really transforming the “muscles” (the habits) in God, in Jesus, making the “movement” (the acts) much easier, more fluid, more spontaneous (see the description quoted, from Benedict XIVth). The result of this transformation, is that the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (the 7 gifts) intervene and act in a smooth way. The sails (7 Gifts) are high up, so when the Wind blows (the Holy Spirit) it is capable of moving the boat (the soul): Saint Paul, in his letters, invites his fellow christians to be guided/moved by the Holy Spirit.

Nobody can challenge this “anatomy of Holiness”.

But the questions remains: is this “system” possible? Or is it just the anatomy of a beautiful wishful thought?

How can we reach these stages? What are the means? 

Are we just supposed – like athletes – to repeat acts, specific acts in order to encourage through them growth, a habit, a “muscle”: a Virtue? To a degree, it looks too cold as a “system” or as a recipe for “holiness”, too mechanical, too artificial. This is exactly where we are today: in a state of stasis since the 1950s… 

This is why, offering any Christian as a central task, the duty to eat, digest and assimilated the “Bread” God gives us in each Mass, is for me the most powerful way to reach holiness. The Bread is: 1- His Word and 2- His Body and Blood. In order to digest this “Daily Bread” we need today to pay great attention to the extension of this manducation (act of eating) that makes today’s bread more efficient and long-lasting. The two operations (‘ways of prayer’ if you will) that help us digest the Bread received during the daily Mass are: 1- Practising ‘Lectio Divina’ 2- Practising the ‘Prayer of the Heart’

We need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus and His Holy Spirit are our main Masters. They are our Holiness. We need to grow in Them; we need Them to grow in us.

Imagination” and “Faculties”

In our journey toward holiness there are pitfalls and the need for discernment. Of prime importance are two aspects, voiced by Saint Teresa of Avila in the following paragraph where she mentions the difference between the “faculties” and the “imagination”. What does she mean by this? And how can learning the difference affect our understanding of real holiness?

I like the way in which some souls, when they are at prayer, think that, for God’s sake, they would be glad if they could be humbled and put to open shame – and then try to conceal quite a slight failure. Oh, and if they should be accused of anything that they have not done – ! God save us from having to listen to them then! Let anyone who cannot bear trials like that be very careful to pay no heed to the resolutions he may have made when he was alone. For they could not in fact have been resolutions made by the will (a genuine act of the will is quite another matter); they must have been due to some freak of the imagination. The devil makes good use of the imagination in practising his surprises and deceptions, and there are many such which he can practise on women, or on unlettered persons, because we do not understand the difference between the faculties and the imagination, and thousands of other things belonging to the interior life. Oh, sisters, how clearly it can be seen what love of your neighbour really means to some of you, and what an imperfect stage it has reached in others! If you understood the importance of this virtue to us all you would strive after nothing but gaining it.” (Interior Castle, V,III,10)

This passage is taken from Saint Theresa’s book “The Interior Castle”, Fifth Mansions, Chapter III, paragraph 10. This chapter is of great importance because it addresses the pitfalls of “illusion” and “spiritual pride” in spiritual life, and in our journey toward holiness. (see the whole chapter here)

In spiritual life, when striving toward holiness, what is important for us to achieve is a good healthy will, i.e. a healthy virtue. “Virtue” is a “good habit”. A “habit” comes from the “repetition of good acts” (i.e. loving your neighbour). Having a Spiritual Life means that on a daily basis one practises – amongst other things – hours of “Prayer of the Heart”. However, if the Prayer of the Heart is not accompanied by “Lectio Divina” (i.e. putting into practise with our will the will of God), we end up entering into deeper and deeper illusions: thinking that we are growing, thinking that by the fact of practising the “prayer of the heart” we are close to God, we are spiritually fine, we are saints.

thinking that” means deceiving myself, imagining something that doesn’t exist. One can lie to oneself to the point of starting to believe one’s own lies. In order to do that one uses the imagination. Today, we can easily, therefore, consider imagination as a “faculty” of the soul.

The most important faculties of the soul, at least for Theresa of Avila are: Mind, Will and Memory. She and Saint John of the Cross separate themselves here from the thinking of St Augustine, for he uses only the Mind and the Will. These are called “rational faculties”, i.e. the faculties of the rational soul (opposed to the animal soul), the higher part of the soul.

Listening to God in order to discover His Will for us, and putting, through our will, His Word and His Will into practise is a key issue in spiritual life. This is why I always stress the fact that we have always to practise “Lectio Divina” and “Prayer of the Heart” together, (but obviously not in the same hour), for they are the two “legs” we use in order to “walk”. As you can see, the mechanism of the Prayer of the Heart is the Action of God in a supra-conscious area in us: the spirit. We can’t see the roots of our being (i.e. the spirit). They are real, but hidden like the roots of a tree. During the Prayer of the Heart we are not supposed to see or to feel anything (“seeing” and “feeling” happen in the conscious part), because the Action of God is happening deep in us. And even if we feel or see something (in the conscious part), we don’t have to pay attention to it. We need to remain in the general attitude of love, having our heart/spirit immersed in Jesus. This means that our mind and our imagination are left alone, free, and potential victims of the illusions of the devil. Since we are practising the Prayer of the Heart, the Devil can try to convince us that we have reached the heights of holiness. He can then divert our attention from Lectio Divina (thus creating a weakness in our faculties: mind and will). So the time spent in “Prayer of the Heart” can make us the prey of the Devil.

Obviously Saint Theresa doesn’t use the expression “lectio divina”, but in the end of the day she gives us its real content, the core of what is needed: we need to love our neighbour and if we don’t do so, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves, thinking that we have reached the goal of spiritual life. Saint John in his first letter gives us the same warning: how can you pretend to love God whom you don’t see (or feel) (Prayer of the Heart) and not to love your neighbour that you see?! (see 1John..,..) There is a big difference between illusion (just the work of imagination) and a human mind and a human will that listen to the Will of God and put it into practice.

On top of that, and Saint Teresa says it in this beautiful Chapter III: if we do love our neighbour, the love that God pours into us during the Prayer of the Heart will increase significantly. Saint John of the Cross will mention this Golden Rule as well in his Spiritual Canticle (See Spiritual Canticle, A, 12,11; Living Flame of Love, I,6,34).

In another place,too, she says: if you practise the Prayer of the Heart and don’t work on growing in virtue (activating the mind and the will, according to the Will of God) you’ll remain like dwarfs (spiritual dwarfs, i.e. very weak).

One of the tactics the Devil uses with spiritual persons is to convince them (to deceive them) that they have reached the Goal (union with God or so), and by doing that, they stop making their efforts to grow, of real growth, especially in loving their neighbour – the result is to go backward. Living in illusion is a very good tactic of the devil for more spiritual persons. This is why, from the first lines of the Fifth Mansions, Saint Theresa of Avila mentions the spiritual illusion: “the Devil appearing like an Angel of light” (quote from Saint Paul). Obviously the Devil changes his tactics and adapts them to the spiritual level of the person. He won’t tempt the spiritual person with something clearly evil. On the contrary, now that the person is determined to reach God, the Devil will tempt her with “the appearance of Good”. A fake “good thing”: he tries to convince the person that he/she is with God, that he/she reached Him… “hooray, now rest and enjoy”. He has then won.

Theresa of Avila, as a real Master of Spiritual life, has to warn us about this temptation. And in order to discover it, one of the most important elements of discernment is to be able to distinguish between an act of will from anything else like: feelings, emotions, imagination… i.e. illusions. While an act of the will is real, free, voluntary, any feeling, emotion, imagination is more of a passive, receptive state that doesn’t necessarily involve any change in us, any use of our will.

Therefore, discernment and discipleship (through Spiritual Direction) are vital at certain stages. Seeking Advice/Discernment is an implicit act of proclamation of the Incarnation: God is present amongst us and wants/loves to speak to us through our Spiritual Director (but watch out, we need to choose the right one, because the “spiritual son” will be like the “spiritual father” says the Catechism, quoting Saint John of the Cross. There is no magic here.). See Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 2 Chapter 22, second part.

Important Remark: As we can see here, imagination (which is considered as a faculty), can be the easy prey of the Devil. Of course, what Saint Theresa of Avila means by “imagination” could be explained as well as an act of the mind (producing thoughts) with no practical application (no implications for the will). Like the one who reads, reads and reads spiritual books and ends up by believing that he reached the state he is reading about. Reading can have a “hypnotic” effect on him (with the help of the Devil). But, but: there is a difference between this illusion and convincing ourselves, strengthening our desire and willingness to serve God, setting high goals, and motivating ourselves with great thoughts. Indeed,in her writings, Saint Theresa invites us, on the contrary, to motivate ourselves by setting high goals and widening the horizon of our mind. Something will come out of “many good desires”, while nothing will come out from not harbouring “high goals” and “good desires”. In fact, Saint Theresa of Avila is very modern: nowadays we do hear a lot about the role of visualisation in order to achieve high, complicated goals/acts. First you run it through your mind: you visualise it. The brain (neurological pathways) is then activated accordingly and creates new pathways and, by repeating the visualisation, you strengthen these new pathways and you will be able to put what you visualised into practice. This is not “illusion” or ill imagination, or deceiving ourselves. On the contrary, this is opening the way for the mind and will in order to achieve new directions given by God. Saint Theresa of Avila is not jeopardising imagination and creativity – on the contrary, she is warning us of a false “imagination” that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Here, “imagination” and “mind” are very close. You can almost repeat what Saint Theresa said in this way: “because we do not understand the difference between the mind and the will…” i.e. we don’t see that thinking about something is not yet doing it. Saint Paul says it bluntly: the good I want to achieve (what my mind sees and knows as “good”) my will doesn’t put it into practise! My will is still ill, not transformed into the will of God. Mind and will are divided.

In other words, it connects up with what Saint James says in his letter: faith is not enough! Believing is good, it opens us up and connects us with God in order to receive His Holy Spirit. But a faith that doesn’t have real applications, that doesn’t spring into real practical acts, remains an illusion. In other words: you may have the Holy Spirit at the reach of your hands, but if you don’t put into practise His Will, then He remains at your door and never really enters. You are deceiving yourself greatly.