Avery wise man, or maybe it was a wise woman, or it could possibly have been Yoda, once taught me an important lesson: The only person you can change is yourself. And only then with extreme difficulty. Changing for the better is hard, but changing for the worse is pretty easy. Just look at the world around you.
If you’re not working at spiritual improvement and trying to become holier (such a stodgy, politically incorrect word!) by trudging up that steep, narrow path, you’ll find yourself with the multitudes on the wide and heavily trafficked highway that leads to darkness. There’s no standing still in the spiritual life.
Not too many of us say, “My goal in life is to be holier.” That doesn’t sound as enticing as “My goal in life is to be richer… or more popular…or wittier… or prettier.” But eventually God has a way of bringing us closer to him through a tragedy, an illness or a loss, and we discover very quickly that holiness is what life is all about.
Countless people are looking to improve, and they believe they have the key through self-help and self-transformation. It makes me wonder: If self-improvement is such a popular pastime in modern society, then why is society so messed up?
If you walk into a bookstore, while there are still some left, and go to the “Personal Transformation” section, you’ll see hundreds of titles like “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” “Awaken the Giant Within,” “Think and Grow Rich,” “Design Your Life: Build a Life That Works for You.” “Best Self: Be You, Only Better.” Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
However, when it comes to spiritual growth, there’s a fundamental truth: You can’t truly change yourself by yourself. It requires that mystical gift called “grace,” the power of God that changes everything for the better. It sanctifies us, it strengthens us, it revives us, it inspires us to virtue. And if you want it, all you have to do is ask.
Father Lawrence Carew, in his book “Six Simple Steps Into Healing Prayer,” cites the example of St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the most beloved of saints, a Carmelite nun who died at 24. Like all of us, she was burdened with human imperfection.
“While she firmly desired to become increasingly Christ-like, Therese quickly came to realize that high ideals wedded to willpower just couldn’t bring it about,” he wrote. “But by regularly surrendering things, like her imperfections and inabilities to love or forgive, into the Lord’s mercy towards her and love for her, these weaknesses would be transformed into currents of grace carrying her into a better place.”
The formula for success is simple: I can’t. God can. So get out of the way and let him do what he has to do. And if you ask, and keep on asking, he’ll make the necessary changes in his own time, just as he did for the Little Flower.
Your appeal doesn’t have to be grandiose or dramatic. A simple request will do, like “God, please help me with these character defects.” Then, almost magically, the people, places and things in your life will direct you toward spiritual growth. The real purpose of our lives is to become holier. Not richer, not prettier, not wittier.
One last point. You’ll never change if you don’t examine your day at the end of every day. What did you do well? What did you fail to do? Where was God in all this? This regular practice of examining your day wasn’t created by Eckhart Tolle or the Dalai Lama. It came from St. Ignatius Loyola and is called The Examen.
Put yourself in God’s presence and look at your day through his eyes and in gratitude. Review what happened and acknowledge your shortcomings. Look forward with hope to the day to come.
It takes work to move forward in virtue, but you don’t need a library of self-help books. All that’s necessary is a willingness to grow holier and asking Jesus, your “life coach,” for help. He’ll move you forward even when you don’t even realize it.