Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.” He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
Most great occurrences happen gradually over time, almost imperceptibly—the formation of the Grand Canyon by the Colorado River, a civilization’s rise and fall, or even a child’s growth into adulthood. All of these are slow and gradual processes. And it should come as no surprise that growth in holiness is usually a slow and gradual affair, happening little by little. Way back in the 17th Century, Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva and master of analogies, said this:
Saint Paul received perfect purification instantaneously, and a like grace was conferred on Saint Magdalene, Saint Catherine of Genoa, Saint Pelagia, and some others. But this kind of purgation is as miraculous and extraordinary in grace as the resurrection of the dead in nature. Nor dare we venture to aspire to it. The ordinary purification, whether of body or soul, is accomplished only by slow degrees—step by step, gradually, and painfully. … The soul which rises from out of sin to a devout life has been compared to the dawn, which does not banish darkness suddenly but by degrees. That cure which is gradually affected is always the surest … so that we must needs be brave and patient…in this undertaking…. [T]here is an extreme danger surrounding those souls who…are disposed to imagine themselves purified from all imperfection at the very outset of their purgation, who count themselves as full grown almost before they are born and seek to fly before they have wings. [Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, Chapter 5]
Thus writes Saint Francis de Sales. Growth in holiness is a gradual affair. That’s why Our Lord tells us that the Kingdom of God is like seed growing slowly in the ground, like plants gradually coming to maturity.
Yet, I hate to say it: The very opposite is also true. Not only are the best saints made gradually, but so too are the worst sinners. In that awesome book, The Screwtape Letters, that I am always quoting, C.S. Lewis gives us this advice from one demon, Screwtape, to another demon, Wormwood, on the best way to get a soul into hell. In this context, “the Enemy” refers to God:
My dear Wormwood,….do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. [Letter XII]
Note the counsel of the demon Screwtape. If the devil wants to get us to hell, he probably won’t try convincing us that there’s no heaven, or that there is no hell, or even that there is no God. His tactic will be to convince us that there is no hurry. The Christian rock song Slow Fade by Casting Crowns says it best:
It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away
It’s a slow fade when black and white are turned to gray
And thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day
It’s a slow fade, it’s a slow fade
Yes, most great occurrences happen gradually over time, almost imperceptibly—the making of a saint and the damning of a soul.
If our progress toward heaven or our movement toward hell is so gradual, how can we be sure we’re moving in the right direction? How can we be certain that our progress is upward rather than downward? Here let me conclude with a little story you may have heard before:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One wolf is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one that you feed.”
The soul’s progress toward heaven or hell is so gradual that, at any given moment, we may not be entirely sure in which direction we are moving—for we are indeed moving whether we know it or not. But of one thing we can be sure. We become like that on which we feed. “You are what you eat” is as true of the spiritual realm as it is of the physical realm. If we wish to become saints, it’s not enough simply to reject evil. We must also embrace the good. It’s not enough merely to turn away from sin (aversio a peccato). We must also turn toward God (conversio ad Deum).
Here is just one illustration. If I am prone to look at pornography, I must do more than simply turn away from impure images. I must also go out of my way to fill my mind with wholesome pictures. And these pictures do not have to be explicitly religious. They do, however, have to be entirely wholesome. Why not, as a matter of course, go on YouTube and watch old reruns of the Carol Burnett Show? I can’t think of anything better than the segment with Tim Conway as a dentist and Harvey Korman as his patient! Bishop Fulton Sheen is right when he says, “We cannot drive evil out of our heads, but we can crowd it out.”
Most great occurrences happen gradually over time, almost imperceptibly. We become like that on which we feed. The question is: What wolves—what appetites—am I feeding? In which direction am I gradually moving?