While reading The Spirit of St. Francis, one particular conversation between St. Francis de Sales and Bishop Jean Pierre Camus, his spiritual son, struck me. Camus claimed that reading Plutarch and Senaca helped him to aspire to virtue in his younger days. Whereupon St. Francis de Sales responded that Seneca’s understanding of virtue was quite against Christianity’s understanding of it. For Seneca, virtue comes from within. In reality, virtue comes from without through God’s grace and love entering the soul.
Perhaps Erza of Fairy Tail is most representative of this attitude. Everyone in the guild looks up Erza for her strength, but we discover in her difficult fight with Azuma on Mavis’ island that she relies on the strength of others. She can only be so strong because others are there for her. Shortly after her victory, she helps a member of Fairy Tail (Gray, I think), who comments that he is always being saved. Whereupon, she responds “me, too” or something like that.
The guild of the Christian is the Church. We are all on the same side, whether we are struggling in the Church Militant, undergoing purification in the Church Suffering, or perfect in the Church Triumphant. It is certain that God distributed His virtues and talents among the faithful to differing degrees: one is more just, another more temperate, another more patient, etc. Yet, all are made in God’s image and likeness and called to perfect this likeness. To this end, God both abundantly pours forth His grace and provides models of imitation, especially through Himself in the most divine life of Jesus and through St. Mary’s perfect adherence to God’s will. It is a common phenomenon that people imagine that they have a virtue after reading or hearing about someone who displays the same virtue. Rather, they have the model of the virtue which they are on fire to bring to life in the world. They love the virtuous man and want to become close to them through imitation. Thus, we are drawn to Jesus and Mary by learning their deeds and trying to imitate them. In this way, virtue is imposed on us from the outside: we ardently desire to be like someone we know and the grace of God works within us to help us produce this likeness to the virtuous person, which is a likeness to God.
For this purpose, God has established many saints and great men so that we are drawn to virtue. St. Joseph makes us love obedience, silence, and diligence; St. Anthony of Egypt faith and courage; St. Leo the Great theology and compassion for the poor; St. Ignatius of Loyola nobility of aspiration and obedience to the Church; St. Magnus justice and love of family; the Prophet Moses humility and meekness; St. Bartholomew simplicity and cheerfulness, St. Therese of Lisieux purity and lowliness, and St. Francis de Sales patience and sweetness towards enemies. God tells us to be like little children. Little children are always imitating their elders. In the same way, we should treat the saints as the elders in our guild and imitate them so that we can gain Christ-likeness. Even virtues which are arduous or not particularly wanted–think of St. Augustine’s understanding of his prayer for chastity really meaning “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.”–become sweeter and more desirable when we see them shining in the person of a saint.
So, perhaps the best way for us to make progress this Lent is to study a saint possessing the virtue we want. Perhaps the saint struggled with it also, and his conquest of the opposing vice will give us hope of doing the same through God’s grace. Like Erza does in Fairy Tail, let us form relationships with those in the Church past and present and then tighten these bonds through imitation of the Master. Do not forget that God loves his saints greatly, and rejoices when we take an interest in them–even telling St. Gertrude that He gives whoever thanks Him for a saint that very saint’s virtues.
Have a happy Lent and most penitential Ash Wednesday, my dear readers!