Does one grow slow or fast in the spiritual life? (Law of Gradualism)

brown yellow tortoise
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You probably already know the answer based on: 1) experience and 2) writings from popes and saints and 3) the picture above!  It would SEEM we SHOULD grow quickly in the spiritual life since as humans (for hobbits this is especially the case), we love comfort.  We love immediate gratification.  We’re used to getting everything we want instantly.  We have all these time saving devices-e.g., (going old school for a second…e.g. stands for exempli gratia in Latin, which means “for example”, not i.e. which is also Latin but is oftentimes misused in place of e.g.!) washer/dryers, microwaves, drive thru’s, cars, PayPal, etc. (etc. also comes from Latin! It’s short for et cetera which is Latin for “and the rest.”

But alas, God made it such that we advance in holiness slowly.  This is frustrating (since we want immediacy), yet at the same time liberating.  It’s liberating, I feel, because it’s a testament to God’s patience and mercy with us.  This isn’t to say we shouldn’t give all we have.  We definitely should give all that we have.  But it’s relieving when our best isn’t good enough.  And oftentimes (at least for me) it’s not good enough.  But it’s encouraging that it’s a journey (yes, also with a destination…not ONLY about the journey as some philosophies would argue).  It’s encouraging to know that we are given time even if our pace is sometimes that of “turtles stampeding through peanut butter.”

Here’s an example in my life of this liberating perspective’s effect on a hobby of mine that I’ve improved on gradually in life.  I play tennis.  And I’m my worst enemy.  No one is harder on me than myself.  Luckily, my coach (I’m in a competitive league that plays once a week) is wise to know that we’re hard on ourselves and he eases our pain by saying, “so what happens if you lose?”  I attribute my wins, which is often the case (can you tell humility is my strength?) to my coach not making it worse for me by adding onto my already existing criticism.

But back to advancing in the spiritual life! (slowly)

One of the reasons (notice I said “one of”, not “the one”) that the Catholic Church has infant baptism, is to help the child grow in the faith as soon as possible since it does take time to gradually grow in the spiritual life.  We see examples of the wisdom in the professional world.  Mozart started playing music at 4 years old!  Tiger Woods began to learn golf from his father at age 2.  Why wouldn’t we want to start teaching our children about the faith that early?  And the faith is of much greater importance than hobbies.

Saint Pope John Paul II the Great in his apostolic exhortation FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO speaks to this gradual growth in educating children in the faith.  In the same document, concerning the spiritual life, he wrote,

“What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually.”

To go old school, we can look to Saint John of the Cross from the 16th century.  In his works, he speaks of 3 phases in the spiritual life (the Purgative way, the Illuminative way, and the Unitive way).  A dissertation could probably be written on the topic of “gradual growth in the works of St. John of the Cross.”  But this is a blog, and I’ll keep it to one quote from Pope Benedict XVI on St. John of the Cross’ major work The Ascent of Mount Carmel.  Pope Benedict said:

The Ascent of Mount Carmel presents the spiritual itinerary from the viewpoint of the gradual purification of the soul, necessary in order to scale the peaks of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit of Mount Carmel.”

You could also look to St. John of the Cross’ contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila in her work, The Interior Castle.  Read that to find her take on going further and further inside the “mansions” we have inside ourselves to be with Christ.  It’s a beautiful read as we have to protect our relationship with Christ, just as castles protect everything inside itself.

Father Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (a Dominican Friar) wrote in 2 big volumes, The Three Ages of the Interior Life.  I’d put up a picture of my copy but it’s so big! You’ll read in his work that the ascent is definitely not linear.  The journey has it’s ups and downs.  Consolations and desolations.  Falls and getting back up.


And if you want to go “Old School” by going to a Tradition Latin Mass, they have what’s called a Gradual.  Referring this gradual, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “the choir sings the gradual, which signifies progress in life.”  Saint Albert the Great, who taught St. Thomas Aquinas, also referring to the gradual,

“That is why it has many difficult and severe passages, and notes of a low pitch, for it is always difficult to advance in virtue and so gain something good.”

Thank you, Lord God, for your patience and mercy with us.  May we continue to journey with all our might through your grace, everyday closer to you even if it’s ever so slowly.

Going old school,
Mike Panlilio

Note: I thought about including a secular example of Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 Hours Rule” where you become great at what you want to do when you’ve completed at least 10,000 hours of work in that field.  He used Steve Jobs and the Beatles as 2 examples.  I chose not to include this example as I don’t know if you would necessarily become a guaranteed saint after 10,000 hours of trying to be holy.  God time is not our time.

Note #2: The law of Gradualism is VERY different and distinct from Gradualism of law. The latter is counter to the Catholic faith. It’s essentially relativistic stating that you can have a different grade of morals depending on the person and situation.

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