Self-Control and true happiness

This September sees the launch of a new series of booklets from CTS, the Living Fruitfully Series: Learning from the Saints. The series was conceived as one in which the various fruits of the Holy Spirit are explored in the context of our Christian lives, while looking to the lives and example of the saints to see these fruits in action. The first three booklets to be issued in September are Joy, by Mgr Paul Grogan of the Diocese of Leeds; Chastity by Fr John McKeever of the Archdiocese of Armagh in Ireland; and my booklet on Self-Control.

While the fruits of the Spirit are familiar to us through our catechetical preparation for Confirmation, many Christians do not know what they are and what they are meant to do for us as we live lives of discipleship. Often confused with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the fruits are actually signs of God’s presence in our lives and of the Spirit’s work of sanctification within us.

St Paul speaks of the fruits in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 5:16-24) where he lists nine in the context of fighting the temptations of the flesh: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. St Jerome in his translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, translated the list understanding that three more were included: generosity, modesty and chastity. The Church accepts the twelve.

When referring to these fruits, St Paul actually uses the singular, fruit, teaching us that the life in the Spirit is integrated and whole; the fruits are various manifestations of the same gift, the one fruit. These fruits are given by the Spirit, and as the individual grows in holiness the more the fruit is manifest and the more it guides the soul. For this reason, the Saints stand as lighthouses, revealing these fruits in a most extraordinary way.

In my own booklet, I deal with self-control, an important and often forgotten fruit. This fruit helps the soul with self-mastery, allowing the will to have a greater influence over the body and mind, and conferring the Spirit’s strength and wisdom when faced with temptation. It helps us deal with passions, be they of the body, the mind and even the spiritual life which also needs to be ordered if we are to progress.

Ultimately the fruit of self-control is not so much about controlling the self, but rather abandoning control of the self, of our lives, to the Holy Spirit so he may live and triumph in us. This confers freedom, where we can untangle ourselves (or more correctly, be untangled by the Holy Spirit) from the slavery of our passions to live a more reasoned and virtuous life.

All the saints manifested this fruit in their lives, in various ways. We are familiar with stories of a heroic struggle by some Saints when faced with sexual temptations: their sheer willpower was no human strength, but rather the Spirit working within them. One of the lesser known saints today, St Nonnus, Bishop of Heliopolis in the 4th/5th Century demonstrated that extraordinary self-control we expect of the saints. One story from his life relates how, one day when an actress/courtesan tried to tempt him, pure of heart he stood firm. While other bishops with him had to turn away lest their minds be flooded with impure images, Nonnus’s purity left him immune to the lady’s advances; he eventually converted her.

St Gemma Galgani, renowned for her chastity, reveals the battle many of us have to fight for such purity. She lived a chaste life but not because it came to her naturally, it was through prayer and struggles that she could allow the Holy Spirit a greater role in her life. She realised that the Spirit’s guidance was fundamental and that came in various ways, one being the flight from temptation.

Sometimes we are too weak to stand and fight and so the Spirit, through the fruit of self-control, can urge us to flee because this particular temptation is too great for us at that time. A wise soul heeds such advice, the foolhardy might prepare for battle only to lose. Self-control overcomes such pride. St Nonnus could stand untouched, St Gemma had to flee – in both cases, different as they are, the Spirit-infused fruit of self-control was teacher and advisor.

Self-control has a wide ambit, dealing with all the passions rather than just those of the flesh. St Thérèse of the Child Jesus received the effects of the fruit in the Christmas Grace of 1886 when she had to let go of her childish ways. To deal with a difficult situation she put on a brave face and carried out what she needed to do portraying neither anger nor self-pity and that was the making of her.

St Thomas Aquinas, pure of soul and pure of mind, revelled in the fruit of self-control to help him grow in the reason of virtue and teach it to others. St Benedict did likewise, submitting his religious observance to the Spirit’s fruit so it could be ordered and avoid extremes: too many religious people risk falling into fanaticism in their spiritual lives, self-control given by the Spirit helps us to avoid that.

Living in the time that we do, self-control is much maligned; as it seeks to control our behaviour and orientate us towards an ordered life it is considered a killjoy. However, those who have given themselves over to their passions and appetites usually end up unhappy: moral, intellectual or spiritual chaos is not conducive to human flourishing. Part of the Church’s work today is to remind people of what leads to true happiness and freedom; virtue is the way and that virtue is fed by the fruits of the Spirit.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

“Sometimes the best business of an age is to resist some alien invasion; sometimes to preach practical self-control in a world too self-indulgent and diffused”

This is where we are now, this is our business as Christians today. It is the Holy Spirit who can help us do so. His fruits are given to be received and lived; we must approach that stream of grace and drink deeply so our lives will be transformed and we can be effective witnesses and missionaries in the world.









The new CTS series Living Fruitfully is available on our website:

Self-Control, by Fr John S. Hogan

Joy, by Mgr Paul Grogan

Chastity, by Fr John McKeever


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