Summer Book Club: The Catholic Guide to Developing Good (and Holy) Habits

BOOK PICK: ‘Habits for Holiness’

‘Habits for Holiness’
‘Habits for Holiness’ (photo: Ascension Press)

Habits for Holiness

Small Steps for Making Big Spiritual Progress

Father Mark-Mary Ames

Ascension Press, 2021

152 pages, $14.95

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In the Catholic faith, the word “habit” refers both to a stable disposition by which we choose the good easily and with joy and to the everyday garb of a member of a religious order. This pairing is not as odd as it may seem at first glance. The point of the religious life is that the structures of the life, from the routine of work and prayer to the clothes he/she wears, slowly builds up the religious in the virtues of the Christian life.

As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, holiness is not only for religious or clerics, but for all of the People of God. A new book from Ascension Press presents the fruits of the lived experience of religious life for the benefit of the whole Church.

In Habits for Holiness: Small Steps for Making Big Spiritual Progress, Father Mark-Mary Ames, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, sets out to “propose the mendicant life — or more particularly, our own Franciscan life — as a model to learn from, adjust where necessary, and apply as a pattern for radically following Jesus today.” 

The book examines various aspects of our lives as Christians — “prayer, community, liturgical living, simplicity, mission, and our baptismal call” — and proposes concrete ways to grow in these areas poco a poco, “little by little.”

This “step-by-step” approach recognizes a fundamental truth about human nature: We are pilgrims. We move through life from one moment to the next, and we change gradually, in stages. Thus, we can only get anywhere — spiritually or physically — one step at a time.

The first chapter begins with the one thing necessary: prayer. Father Ames identifies many of the common obstacles to prayer, such as claims that we lack time or motivation, or feeling that prayer is useless or ineffective. He encourages us to approach prayer with a new mindset: to see prayer as food for our souls, the essence of our relationship with God. Quoting another friar, he writes, “When you love someone, you create a way to be with them.”

The subsequent chapters equally face up to challenges in the spiritual life and provide new approaches and practical suggestions. Community living, whether in religious life or in families, often creates hardships as individuals struggle to put aside selfishness. As Father Ames notes, “The temptation is always to divorce these real struggles and real experiences from God’s work. We label them as obstacles to holiness or obstacles to happiness or communion. But in fact, if we prayerfully invite God into these moments, we see that they are the real nitty-gritty.” It is in these moments that holiness is formed.

Habits are formed by cultures. Father Ames also asks: What kind of culture are we creating for ourselves? Through its daily routines, a monastery or friary develops a culture, and so does a family. 

Father Ames invites families to build a Catholic culture in their homes: to have spiritual conversation and prayer together, to live the liturgical year by celebrating feast days and honoring Sunday. Such practices will form us in the habit of putting our faith first.

An extended look at the priestly, prophetic and kingly call of Christians likewise includes many suggestions for building up habits for leading holy lives, from how to speak about our faith with others to reminders on the importance of nutrition and sleep for our spiritual life (we are, after all, embodied souls).

With his many suggestions, Father Ames also gives a sound piece of advice: “No one is expecting you to implement all these ideas at once. Depending on where you are in your faith life and depending on what your community looks like, some of these ideas may make more sense to you than others. The most important thing is to take the next best step for you and your family to ensure that the things you do move toward creating a loving Catholic culture.”

This book is ideal for both individual and group study. There is a sidebar with reflection questions every few pages. This book can be a useful guide for pursuing holiness — as a habit.

Nicholas Senz writes from Texas.