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Why We Have to Practice Virtue
by Ellen Hogarty
Last week I had a tough day emotionally. Plans were changed without me knowing about it, and it threw me for a loop. I had to struggle all day with anger and unforgiveness.
My will hates getting crossed and when it happens, it sometimes takes a Herculean effort to die to myself. I am a strong-willed person, and while that can be great in leadership situations and in taking responsibility, it can also get me into major trouble in the agape love department.
I tried to regain and rise above in the second half of the day, but it was still a battle. Then Jesus asked me, “Will you embrace this for my sake?” Yes. That shifted things and gave me the grace to better conquer my wayward emotions.
The following day during my prayer, I read in St. Faustina’s diary about when she was assigned to work in the sewing room of the convent. “This duty gave me many occasions to practice virtue,” she wrote. That line jumped out at me, and the phrase “occasions to practice virtue” was like an arrow hitting home.
So many times we glibly pray for an increase in virtue —
Lord, give me more patience.
Help me to grow in love.
Give me the grace to forgive.
Help me be a better listener...etc. etc.
Sometimes I think we pray that way expecting little cherub-like angels to float down from heaven with a generous dose of the virtue we're asking for, believing that they will gently infuse it into us.
However, in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. If I pray for more patience, for example, I am soon given “occasions to practice” being patient. If I pray for humility — BAM, I am hit with a blow to my pride. You get the idea.
So here was a great occasion for me to “practice virtue.” And that is really the only way we will grow in holiness — it takes practice. Think about anything you want to learn or become proficient in. If you want to play tennis, you have to get out on the court and practice. If you want to be a better writer, you have to start writing often. If you want to become fluent in a foreign language, practice, practice, practice. Anything we want to become better at requires a lot of practice.
The same goes with growing in virtues.
Opportunities to practice
Some years ago I kept asking the Lord to make me more patient. I’m sure I subconsciously thought those cute little angels were going to answer with infusions of that heavenly gift.
But around that same time, I was going with a team of people to pray at our ministry sites in Juarez. We would spend a few hours each Friday interceding for the outreach, and then come back across the international bridge to El Paso. If you’ve ever crossed the bridges between Mexico and the United States, you know that the lines of vehicles waiting to be processed can back up, and the wait can be several hours.
I started noticing that whatever line we got into, it would inevitably be the slowest lane to process. Even if we appeared to be moving along quickly that day, right before it was our turn to approach the inspection booth, the car in front of us would be submitted to an extensive check, and we’d end up as slow as ever.
Finally it dawned on me — Yikes! This is a way that Jesus is answering my request for more patience. He is gifting me with opportunities to practice it.
When difficult, frustrating trials come your way, stop and think: “What virtue do I need to work on? Have I been praying for or wanting to grow in a specific virtue? Is this an opportunity to practice it?”
That might reframe the whole situation for you and ease you into embracing it as an answer to your prayer to grow in holiness.