Cultivating a Virtuous Life

In 05 Homilies by Fr. Reid on 2016/01/29 at 12:00 AM


Today is the feast of St. Lawrence, one of the Church’s greatest martyrs. We are blessed to have a very handsome statue of this winsome saint here to my left.

I know that most of you are familiar with the story of how St. Lawrence was roasted to death on a gridiron, but even still he managed to crack a wry joke to his tormentors in the midst of his terrible sufferings.

For this reason good St. Lawrence is both the patron saint of cooks and comedians. And personally, seeing him keeping sentinel here in our sanctuary is a great consolation.

Over the years I’ve often marveled at St. Lawrence’s courage and humor, at his willingness to lay down his life for Christ and His Church in such a painful and gruesome way, and I’ve often wondered how he did it with such cheerfulness.

Of course the short answer is God’s grace. It was God’s grace that enabled St. Lawrence to die as he did – as is true for all the martyrs of the Church.

But the fact that God gives grace doesn’t mean that it automatically bears this type of fruit in someone’s life. The recipient of God’s grace must be willing to cooperate with and appropriate that grace! And this requires some effort on the part of the recipient.

For example, let’s say there are two people, both of whom are facing persecution for their faith. However, one of these people has made a habit of practicing the virtue of courage throughout the course of his life, while the other has habitually given in to cowardice.

God could give these two people the exact same grace to die a martyr’s death in the face of persecution. But the person who has developed the habit of courage is much more likely than the coward to cooperate with that grace and die like a martyr.

Perhaps the coward could respond to God’s grace and die like a martyr. God’s grace is powerful, and all things are possible with Him. Yet, in the usual course of things, grace builds upon our natural habits and virtues.

If we lack virtue, it’s simply harder to appropriate God’s grace.

The point is that martyrs – or any type of saint for that matter – are not created overnight. The martyrs of the Church all had a habit of virtue long before that virtue was tested by their martyrdom.

At the same time, I’m willing to bet that in our 2000 years of Catholic history, there are souls whom God had desired to be martyrs for the Faith, but who failed to do so because they did not practice the virtues throughout their lives. That’s a sadness for us all.

The best way to understand virtue (or vice, for that matter) is as a habit. Each of the virtues is strengthened and grows within us as we practice them. The same is true of vice. If we repeatedly make bad moral decisions, vice grows as a habit within us.

The trials and tribulations that we face in life are what make or break us. In God’s eyes our sufferings are opportunities for us to practice virtue. That’s why He allows us to suffer. Any trial or suffering we face is an invitation from our Lord for greater holiness.

But for virtue to take root and really grow into a strong habit, prayer must fortify it. Prayer and virtue work together and strengthen each other. The more we grow in virtue, the more we will want to pray. The more we pray, the easier it is to practice virtue.

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So in addition to being people of great virtue, St. Lawrence and all the saints were also people of great prayer. The importance of prayer is highlighted by our readings today as we see both Elijah and our Lord Himself go up on mountaintops to pray.

But our Gospel also gives us in St. Peter an example of one trying to grow in virtue. This is a story familiar to us all. Jesus has just fed thousands of people; He’s probably tired and wants some time to pray alone. So He sends the apostles off in the boat without Him.

After spending most of the night alone in prayer on the mountain, our Lord walks across the Sea of Galilee to the boat, which is being tossed about by a storm. Naturally, the apostles are scared when they see a figure walking toward them on the water, and they fear He’s a ghost.

St. Peter wants to confirm our Lord’s identity, and in a sense Peter challenges our Lord. He says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.” And perhaps to Peter’s surprise, our Lord takes up the challenge and says, “Come.”

Now, before any of us criticize St. Peter for his failure in faith, I think we need to ask ourselves if we would have gotten out of the boat! St. Peter does the courageous thing: he gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.

Sadly, St. Peter is distracted by the wind and turbulent water. He becomes frightened and his courage and faith wane – and we all know what happens.

Of course we get another example of St. Peter’s lack of courage when our Lord is arrested, and St. Peter lies about his association with Jesus to avoid being arrested himself.

But if we were to see St. Peter some 30 years after the death of Jesus, we would find him courageously dying a martyr’s death himself. His courage in the face of death was rivaled only by his beautiful humility, which led him to ask to be crucified upside down in recognition that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as our Lord.

Growth in virtue often proceeds in fits and starts, does it not?

In the face of the storms of life, we sometimes manage to do the right thing while at other times we fail. But like St. Peter, we must continue to get out of the boat and make our way toward Jesus – heedless of those storms.

Yet as I mentioned earlier, as we practice virtue, we must also commit ourselves to daily prayer if we want our virtue to grow and strengthen.

Like Elijah in the first reading, we must find a quiet place to pray and listen for the quiet but sure voice of our Lord. It’s in this quiet contact with our Lord that we grow in our relationship with Him and that He nourishes us with His grace.

It’s in prayer that we come to know our Lord, that we discover how good our Lord is, and ultimately fall in love with Him. And as we learn to give ourselves whole-heartedly to our Lord in prayer, we become more able to give ourselves over to Him and to His will in those difficult moments of life when our virtue is being tested.

One of the things this Gospel teaches us about our Lord is that, in His love for us, he doesn’t take away the storms of life but allows us to experience them so that we may grow in virtue.

This Gospel also shows us that while our Lord allows us to suffer from time to time, He’s also in the midst of storms with us encouraging us to do the right thing.

And even when we fail – as did St. Peter – Jesus pulls us out of the murky waters. He is a God who holds us by the hand. That alone is reason for us to love and worship Him.

As your pastor, what I want most for you is that you learn to love Christ, to trust Christ, and to give yourselves fully to Christ, most especially in moments of trial and tribulation, so that He may find in your soul a happy home.

• May we each grow in our practice of virtue and in our commitment to daily prayer so that we may cooperate with our Lord’s grace to weather whatever storms He allows in our lives.

• St. Lawrence, pray for us!


© Reverend Timothy Reid

Fr. Reid is the pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church, Charlotte, NC

Homilies from June 17, 2012 onward have audio.
To enable the audio, lease go directly to Fr. Reid’s homily homilies and select the matching date.

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