Psychology professor Angela Duckworth in her TED Talk “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance” explains that doing well in school and in life depends much more on something other than talent and ability. In her research of various contexts ranging from middle school students, to West Point cadets, from first year teachers to people in sales, she found that the one predictor of long-term success across all fields is what she calls grit. Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out, not just for the week, for the month, but for years; and working really hard for making that future a reality. Grit is living life like a marathon and not a sprint.” At the end of the TED Talk Duckworth calls for more research to be done in this area, since not much is known about how to help young people acquire grit.
What do the saints add to this discussion, especially when we think that growth in the moral and spiritual life do not happen quickly and easily? In order to not be discouraged, one ought to see the aspirations of moral and spiritual growth as Duckworth suggests, namely that the process “is like a marathon and not a sprint.” Here are some reflections from four saints of the Church: Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Ignatius of Loyola on this topic.
Saint Augustine reminds us that perseverance is a gift since God is the Lord of our life and gives us the necessary number of days so that we stay in His grace or we repent from having fallen from grace: “How contrary to the truth is to deny that to persevere to the end in this life is a gift from God, since God himself determines the end of our life, and God is the one who ends our life before we fall gravely, and in this way ensures we persevere to the end” (On the Gift of Perseverance 17.41). In this same work, On the Gift of Perseverance, he exhorts the reader at various points to pray for this gift.
Saint Augustine adds that love is what allows us to endure suffering, since we tend to evade suffering, yet are willing to endure for the sake of love: “To follow Christ consists of a perfect and loving constancy in suffering, even until death” (Treatise on the Gospel of John 124,5.7). Perhaps, cultivating one’s love for the ends of the spiritual and moral life can help us gain the motivation to endure the challenges that must be endured.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (who loves categories and definitions), suggests that patience and perseverance are secondary virtues under the cardinal virtue of fortitude. Borrowing Aristotle’s definitions, patience is the “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things for the sake of virtue or profit” and perseverance is “the fixed and continued persistence in a well considered purpose” (STII.II. 128:1). Since patience is voluntary, it requires the exercise of the will. Therefore, the more patient we are the more free we are. Further, patience as well as perseverance require that the endurance and persistence be done for the sake of a good purpose, which means that one cannot speak of being patient or persevering in something evil.
In Book One of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, whose very title speaks of a challenge that calls for commitment and endurance, Saint John of the Cross provides the following advice which speaks to training ourselves to acquire certain inclinations related to grit: “Endeavor to be inclined always not to the easiest, but to the most difficult; not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful; not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant; not to what means rest for you, but to hard work; not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling; not to the most, but to the least; not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised; not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing. Do not go about looking for the best of temporal things, but for the worst, and, for Christ, desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, and poverty in everything in the world” (Ascent 13.6).
Saint Ignatius of Loyola provides us with the counsel to have a “fighting stance” in which we are always prepared to be attacked and challenged even when our moral and spiritual life is going well. In Rule #10 for the discernment of movements in the soul, he writes: “When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how to conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day” (SE 323). Trials are always around the corner, according to Saint Ignatius, so one ought to be prepared for them so as not to be caught off guard.