We all need to remember that, when it comes to pursuing spiritual maturity, our own efforts are never enough. On the other hand, St. Thomas Aquinas reminded us many centuries ago that “grace builds on nature,” and that means that we can do a lot to create a favorable climate for God’s grace to be fruitful, to take root in our souls and bear abundant fruit, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8).
Forming the will—our capacity to make prudent, firm decisions and follow through with them in spite of opposition, temptation, or difficulty—is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress. A weak will inhibits our capacity to love, because love means self-giving, and self-giving is necessarily difficult in a fallen world, a world in which our fallen nature tends automatically toward self-indulgence.
Unfortunately, no flashy, romantic method exists for character formation. There are no shortcuts. I can, however, share some recommendations that spiritual writers have given throughout the centuries. It’s up to each of us to put them into practice. But you will not be alone; three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were planted in your soul at baptism, are directed toward giving your weak and wounded will a supernatural boost (these are the gifts of fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord). So, if you make a decent effort to do your part, the Holy Spirit will surely give you a fantastic return for your investment. Your will has two jobs in the spiritual life. First, it has to submit to God, to embrace and obey God’s will. Second, it has to govern your other, lower faculties (like your appetites) so they don’t go off on their own and drag you into the muddy waters of laziness, lust, greed, and other vices. You can do some practical things to train your will in both tasks.
Job #1: Embracing God’s Will
To embrace God’s will for your life—whether in basic things like following the commandments and performing the duties of your state in life or in extraordinary moments when he sends special inspirations—you have to be convinced that God’s will really is the very best option. This is the kind of conviction that drove St. Thomas More, for example, to give up the highest honors in the British kingdom, abundant riches, and an incomparable position of power and prestige, trading it all in for a few years in prison and a death sentence. He knew the answer to Christ’s question: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and he forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:26). The more deeply we are convinced that God’s will, God’s plan, and God’s way are based on his infinite wisdom, limitless goodness, and passionate, personal love for us as individuals, the more we will want to embrace it and follow it, no matter the cost.
Deepening Your Conviction
How can you deepen that conviction? There is absolutely no better way to do so than by making mental prayer a part of your daily life. Add to mental prayer a good dose of daily spiritual reading, praying a rosary, and frequent reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession, and you have a solid formula that will, gradually, deepen this conviction. It will become a solid foundation for a life of holiness and fruitfulness. But you must avoid just going through the motions in those spiritual disciplines; be faithful to them, and be faithful to constantly striving to do them better. The help of a good spiritual director is useful here. Go over each of your prayer commitments with your spiritual director. Explain what you do and how you do it, and ask for advice and tips on how to do it better.
Job #2: Self-Governance
The will’s second job consists of governing your lower faculties. Your appetites always want to go toward their proper object, the particular pleasure associated with their exercise—food, sex, rest, entertainment. To strengthen your will, then, requires disciplining these appetites until, like a well-trained thoroughbred, they have learned to channel all their power in the direction that your will points them. This may take a long time. Our culture trains us in just the opposite way. Our consumerism actually debilitates the will in favor of the whims of emotion. Sometimes it takes prolonged periods of taxing effort to free the soul from the slavery of sentimentalism.
The Secret of a Schedule
The best tactic to employ for sure, albeit slow, progress in this area is by establishing and following a weekly and daily schedule that reflects your priorities and duties. If at any given hour of any given day you know what you are supposed to be doing, you give your willpower a huge advantage over your raucous appetites. When your appetites want to abandon your duty or commitment, you will recognize it immediately, because you can look at your schedule and see what your own, freely chosen life priority is right here and now.
For instance, if you are supposed to be working on your thesis and your appetites want to take a trip to a museum, you can look at your schedule and make an act of self-governance with your will, training your appetites by saying to yourself, “Well, okay, the Borromini exhibit is indeed worth seeing, but right now I can’t just abandon the office; I have some deadlines to meet. But I have scheduled a time for some recreation on Saturday morning, so I can go to the exhibit then.” That’s self-governance; that’s forming your will so that you are liberated from being a slave to your appetites.
Coming up with your weekly and daily schedule may not be easy for you, especially if you have a spontaneous temperament. But with the help of a friend (someone who likes to plan and organize things) or even with your spiritual director, you can do it. And then you will have to watch out for another pitfall: becoming a slave to your schedule! That will only cause you to be frustrated and tense all the time. Your schedule is a tool, a means to an end, but it can’t foresee everything, so you have to maintain a certain flexibility. Balancing your freedom between the two types of slavery—to your whims or to your schedule—is the proper job of the virtue of prudence. And you will grow in this virtue only if you try, make mistakes, identify them, and keep on trying. For that, the daily examination of conscience can be invaluable.
Be sure to schedule your weekly day of rest, and honor that. Make sure to schedule free time to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends. We are not robots, after all. Schedule your times of prayer. Try and follow through on your commitments and decisions; exercising constancy is key for building willpower. If you want to make adjustments to your schedule or commitments, try to do so during your weekly review and planning session, not just on a whim.
Don’t forget that forming your will is a long process. In fact, it’s something you can never stop doing. Like a muscle, if you stop consciously exercising your willpower, it atrophies. Don’t worry if you don’t see much progress right away; don’t worry if you keep falling back into slob-blob mode; just keep begging for God’s help and plugging away, confident that you are glorifying God and building Christ’s kingdom just by making a decent effort to serve him better. “But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
Finally, remember that discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’s a trick of the evil one. Scripture assures us, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), and “[God’s] mercy endures for ever” (Psalm 100:5).