There once was a student of the spiritual life who came to the master and asked, “Master, how can I respond to the universal call to holiness?” The master paused for a long time and then responded, “My son, I will only tell you that there are three elements to a healthy/holy spiritual life. If you are willing, I’m going to ask you to go out and see if you can discover what they are. And when you think you have discovered the three elements, come and tell me.” The student accepted the challenge, asked for the master’s blessing and began his pilgrimage.
After a long time, the student returned. “My son,” the master asked, “have you found the three qualities of a healthy/holy spiritual life?” The student hesitated and finally replied, “Master, I did not discover three, but I think I found two.” The master asked the student to tell him more. “Master, the first quality that I discovered was the virtue of humility. There needs to be a diminishment of one’s ego. I also discovered that a person who desires to have a healthy spiritual life cannot do it alone. We need others, and the most important “other” is the Spirit of God. That’s all I’ve discovered.” The master was silent for a while and said, “My son, are you willing to go and continue the search for the third element?” The student replied, “I’m sorry master, but I just can’t do any more. I’m just too tired!” The master smiled,embraced the student and said, “My son, you have indeed discovered the third quality. To have a healthy/holy spiritual life is very hard work!”
As a spiritual director, I can attest to the wisdom of the parable and have found that the third quality of hard work is often the most difficult to achieve. I asked a colleague in spiritual direction, Sandy Setterlund, about her experience with those who seek spiritual direction. She responded, “Every person has a sacred story that has brought them to the present moment. They come to share their story for various reasons. Perhaps they need someone to listen deeply to all they carry within them; or someone to be a compassionate companion in their struggle and pain; or someone who will affirm all that is sacred within them. Questions that I ask them to consider—e.g., Where is God in my life? Do I spend time with Jesus every day? Do I listen to His voice in my spirit? —are often seen as new and challenging disciplines, but they are essential to a healthy and holy spiritual life.”
Indeed, there is effort involved whenever we pursue a life of virtue or value or holiness. But the hard work in the spiritual life is not about doing extreme penitential practices and long periods of prayer. Rather, it is about the discipline of prioritizing spiritual practices in our life. “Discipline” comes from the Latin word “to choose.” Like Olympic athletes we watch and admire, who have made choices to do some practices and avoid others, anyone who wishes to grow in holiness must choose what will support their desire and avoid habits that stand in the way. And, as the student in the parable discovered, we cannot do it alone.
FATHER DENNIS LYNCH,
Senior Priest of the Diocese of La Crosse
Published in the March 2021 Catholic Life Issue