ASK FATHER: How to “steel ourselves” and not come down off from our crosses?

From a reader…


Dear Father Z, In your post regarding the 18th Sunday after Pentecost you advised us to steel ourselves and not come down off from our crosses. Would you be so kind as to offer some specific devotions/practices to help in building the strength necessary to steel ourselves? I apologize if this seems to be an ignorant question. I am a convert to Catholisim and I have a lot to learn.

All the baptized are participants in the priesthood of Christ. Priests are essentially for sacrifice. They are not priests in the same way that ordained priests are priests, but they are, nonetheless, participants in their own way in the priesthood of Christ. The main purposes of offering sacrifice in a priestly way are to surrender to God in adoration, in thanksgiving, in atonement begging for forgiveness and reconciliation, and in raising up petitions. Performing sacrifice means, not just offering the sacrificial victim, but in a wider sense the giving up of something or self-surrender to God and the outer manifestation of one’s interior disposition of surrender to God. The principle outward manifestations on the part the baptized of this priestly surrender are prayer, alms giving and mortifications such as fasting.

We have to take stock of our own states in life, our vocations, the duties and responsibilities that flow from them, and then, in a careful way, like a general does in mapping out strategy and tactics to attain the goal, determine the practices that we offer. Then, like soldiers, we have to train. The essence of training is drilling, repetition. This is how we also build up virtues. Performance of a good act once or a few times, doesn’t mean that we have a virtue. We have the virtue when the thing becomes easy to perform and a regular aspect of our lives in a stable way. Virtues are habits. Soldiers drill so that their actions become nearly automatic, even with “muscle memory”. This is what piano players do: they practice for years, even rudimentary exercises, so that when they see the music, their fingers just know what to do. The same goes for guitar playing or football, or whatever.

Repetition of acts results in getting tougher. When we work with our hands, we develop calluses. Doing drills in hockey and playing a lot makes you harder, able to take hits, to get up off the ice, to skate and react to extremely fast situations.

As Catholics, we have to do things repeatedly to develop virtues and to toughen up, so that when our old enemies the world, the flesh and the Devil strike, we are ready, like soldiers of the Church Militant.

Pray, alms giving, mortifications such as fasting.

Pray daily in the mornings and evenings and at time in the day when it occurs to you. These can be even very fast, silent prayers. Pray before and after meals. Fast: reduce what you eat. Give alms and perform other acts of mercy, corporal and spiritual. Examine your consciences every night before going to sleep. Use the sacraments – GO TO CONFESSION! – and sacramentals well, including Holy Water and blessed objects.

Regarding the Examination of Conscience: We must know who we are before we can make improvements. This takes brutal honestly in self-examination. This is a sine qua non of the spiritual life. Once we find things that are problems, especially habitual sins that are vices, we have to map out tactics to overcome them. Be smart. Make plans that you will implement the next time you see yourself heading down the path to a sinful act. For example, make the determination that the next time you sense yourself heading toward sin X, implement your plan to do Y instead (such as, go out and scrub oil stains off the floor of the garage). Make it concrete. Instead of using a particular set of words that you should not use, make a list of words you will use instead and then implement that list until those words are habitual. Make your efforts concrete.

Remind yourself that fighting temptations and sins will make you suffer. Be ready to suffer, so that it doesn’t surprise you. Soldiers know training and fighting will hurt. They toughen and prepare for the suffering by training and mental conditioning. The same goes for many other activities, especially in sports. When you know and prepare for the crosses you will bear, you will be less likely to fail. Also, you are not alone: the saints and angels WANT to help you, and God will give you graces. He never lets us be tempted beyond what we can bear.

And say that you have dealt with many or all of your principle faults and that you have developed good, virtuous habits… you can still do more. Then it is time to start working on those smaller things. They become more important as we conquer the bigger things.

We must also remember the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Don’t let a day pass without thinking about these four important things. They will help you figure out what you really want and spur you to the necessary actions and sacrifices to perform in order to attain the happiness of Heaven.

Also, never forget that we are all in this together. Your sins hurt others. You successes raise us all up. You can help others. You can even do penances, mortifications, in reparation for the sins of others, asking God for help and graces of conversion and forgiveness for others.

Being a Catholic is an everyday thing, not a Sunday thing.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. QuietContemplative says:

    Reading your post reminded me of a lay apostolate I just heard about in an interview on a Catholic radio station:

    They combine medieval martial training with period and modern spiritual exercises to recreate, in a sense, the old knightly orders. The sort of fortitude you mention building here is very much in line with what they talk about in discussing their training ideas and goals. Thought you might be interested. As always, thank you for your great posts, Father.

  2. gracie says:

    One of the best things you’ve ever written. It’s so darn practical.

  3. APX says:

    Speaking of fasting, just a friendly reminder that, although no longer obligatory, Ember Days start tomorrow. I’m notoriously bad for not remembering Ember Days and Rogation Days, but my Guardian Angel just gave me a nudge to go check the calendar, and sure enough, it’s that time of the year again.

    A wise old priest taught me that as well as doing the nightly E of C, to set some small attainable goals for overcoming some vice, write them down (very important) and review it the next morning, and check up on yourself throughout the day to see how you’re doing, and then review again at your nightly E of C, lather, rinse and repeat until it becomes habitual (roughly 6 weeks) and then move on to the next vice. He also said that it’s important to give yourself a small pat on the back whenever we make some small improvement to help keep us motivated, since this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight.

    I wish more priests were more practical in their approach to growing in virtue. It gets frustrating to hear repeatedly “pray more and ask God to give you the grace to not do X”. Yes, prayer is important, but we need to do something on our end as well. Someone should write a non-watered down book on the practical aspects of advancing in the spiritual life for secular lay Catholics and give a copy to priests everywhere. Perhaps leave it in their bathroom so it actually gets read.

  4. capchoirgirl says:

    I agree with Gracie! Totally practical and well-written.

  5. NBW says:


  6. joan ellen says:

    Just beautiful. Thank you, Fr. Z.

  7. ChgoCatholic says:

    Amen! Thank you, Fr. Z. This is very helpful!

  8. Semper Gumby says:

    QuietContemplative: that Order of Lepanto site sounds interesting. (On a lighter note, my buddies and I each have our Marine Corps officer’s sword…)

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