Growing in Virtue this Lent with the Saints

Photo by Rui Silva sj on Unsplash

Until my daughter began attending a Catholic high school, I thought I was a patient driver. After only one week braving stop-and-go traffic during rush hour on the beltway twice a day, I realized that I was not a patient driver at all. My patience had simply not been tested so regularly before.

As Lent approaches, we Catholics are tempted to fall back on the same penances that we’ve practiced in previous years, such as cutting back on our intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, or some other food or beverage. This may be a mature way of acknowledging that a desire for a particular item is out of control or unhealthy. Or it may be a sign of laziness.

The Church always recommends to us the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. We should examine ourselves about those areas first. Do I have a habit of daily prayer? Am I fasting and abstaining from meat according to the Church’s Lenten rules and according to my age, health, and state of life? Am I financially supporting the Church and the needy?

But forty days is a perfect length of time to do more than that. Specifically, I can ask myself some questions: Is there a virtue I lack? Am I failing to act in love toward God and/or my neighbor on a regular basis in some way?

The easiest way to get an answer to that question is to ask members of your family or close friends what they think. They may even give you a list.

But there are other, perhaps gentler, ways to face your personal weaknesses during Lent and make some concrete resolutions to turn from vice to virtue. The forty-day period of Lent may be the perfect time for you to try to establish some holy habits that will last into the Easter season.

Personally, I find that reading about the saints every day helps me try to pattern my life after theirs. Otherwise, I am tempted to compare my life to the examples offered by TV shows, supermarket tabloids, and social media—which most of the time could be described as moral train wrecks—and think I’m doing pretty well in comparison. If I daily read about holy men and women, on the other hand, I not only have higher standards, but their example helps me follow in their footsteps. That’s why I wrote a book about them, after all.

Your local Catholic bookstore probably has a large assortment of Lenten books and booklets with reflections from great saints. Reading the words of a saint not only helps me see Lent through that saint’s eyes, it helps me recognize areas of my life where I am lacking in a virtue (or two or three). Similarly, reading a good biography or even historical novel of a saint, which is a not unreasonable goal for Lent, can help me appreciate both that saint’s gifts and challenges, and apply those lessons to my own life. The German-born author Louis de Wohl knew that well, which is exactly why he wrote so many historical novels about saints.

How to tackle your personal struggles with the help of the saints is the topic of Fr. Joseph Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.[1] This book examines typical issues with which we all struggle, describes how saints faced those same problems, offers a short reflection and some approaches to try, and concludes with further reading options. You may not be facing all forty-seven topics covered in this book during Lent. After all, it’s not likely that you are struggling with difficulties in conceiving a child and old age at the same time (two different chapters in the book). But who doesn’t need some encouragement in the daily battle against impatience and gossip (two other chapter topics)?

It is always encouraging to discover that canonized saints fought the exact same interior battles that we do. Having a hard time forgiving someone? Saint Francis de Sales had to forgive a man who tried to kill him. Struggling with anger? Blessed John Columbini was notorious for his bad temper—until he began reading a book about saints. Do you find yourself feeling judgmental about family members who aren’t practicing their faith well or at all? Saint Veronica Giuliani did too, which is why God allowed her to have a vision of her own heart—which looked to her like it was made of iron. She got the point.

In our personal pursuit of virtue, however, we must remember one very important point: it’s impossible. That is, it is literally impossible for any of us fallen human beings to even have a good thought, much less perform a great and holy act, without God’s grace. Left to our own devices, the only thing we do really well is sin. But with God’s grace, if we ask the great saints and blesseds of the Church to inspire and watch over us, they can show us how to grow in virtue. They can show us how to “put on the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 2:9-16) and find areas of our lives that need work. They can show us how to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our daily struggles and how to discern truth and falsehood. The example of the saints can even help us grow in virtue so that we will spend eternity with God, surrounded by our friends, the saints, who led us into Heaven.

[1] Note that Fr. Esper has also written More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, which includes chapters on gambling, widowhood, and stubbornness, for example, but that book is out of print.

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