The basis for all spirituality is adherence to a standard. In the case of Catholic Spirituality the standard is, of course, the definitive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; including Her moral standard, as well as Her practices.
To borrow one of the late Fulton Sheen’s illustrations, let’s imagine ourselves sitting at a piano.
When we strike any key on the instrument no one can say that we have hit a wrong note. However, in the context of playing a particular piece of music, many wrong notes are possible. The music to be played is a standard that must be followed precisely if we are to receive the applause that follows a successful rendition at a concert.
Our spiritual lives are very much like this. Our saints are like the virtuosos who garner much admiration after a difficult musical performance. We do not see or hear the mistakes previously made during practice nor are we made aware of the depth of the trials that these persons overcame in order to achieve their success. But rest assured that a struggle was a necessary prelude to all that they achieved.
The piano player made mistakes in practicing and worked them out. If they were beyond his ability to recognize and correct, he sought out a maestro or teacher who could give them musical exercises to overcome their shortfalls. But never did they decide to rewrite the score themselves in order that they might more easily play the piece or because they disagreed with some section of the musical piece. They adhered completely to the standard.
Likewise, a Catholic soul who desires to lead a spiritual life, who wishes to attempt Christ’s lofty goal to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), must practice holiness like a virtuoso practices his instrument. When he stumbles and falls, he returns to his Maestro (the Church) for correction. It is through this never ending and meticulous process of failure, confession, absolution, and spiritual direction that the soul is purified and our Catholic Spirituality made sound. We don’t rely solely on our own abilities nor do we re-write the teachings of the Church to aid us in our journey. For then we have only substituted our private standard for that of the Church and our spirituality becomes as flawed as the musician who ‘does his own thing’ without regard to the music that he has been asked to play. Just as such a musician will not long be a member of an orchestra, so too those who create their own standards cannot long remain members of the Divine Orchestra the Holy Catholic Church unless one fully accepts the Divine Music and at least attempts to play the performance according to Her Standard.
The first step to a healthy spirituality then is the desire to play in the Heavenly Orchestra and to humbly submit to play only those notes that are written. The next step is to practice according to the rules those things that are difficult and to seek help in correcting those things with which we constantly have problems. Once the soul has begun to faithfully apply himself to this humble obedience (this training of the will) and has sought help through prayer, countless days of practice (making virtues habitual, and through the utilization of appointed teachers within the Church, much progress in the Spiritual Life is assured.
In music one studies the theory of music, seeks help and listens to others who play well, while in Spirituality the soul studies the teachings, the moral laws and precepts, prays, practices the virtues, and acquaints themselves with the great saints in order that he might acquire their abilities which are not yet possessed in full. Imperfections and failures are certain along the way but with these basics one can proceed safely without danger to ones immortal soul. “For what will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Remember that sloth or laxity is a capital sin that we must always be on guard to fight. Zeal for the Faith and zeal for Christ comes no other way: it requires spiritual exercise and slow, hard work.