The acts of the heart that lead to holiness

In the Gospel, Jesus commented on the connection between the “tree” of one’s heart and the “fruit” of deeds. “A good tree,” He said, “does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:43-45).

Jesus’ words about the cause-and-effect relationship between our thoughts, actions and character no doubt are part of the background for a famous aphorism often repeated by Blessed Mother Teresa: “Plant a thought and reap a word; plant a word and reap an action; plant an action and reap a habit; plant a habit and reap a character; plant a character and reap a destiny.” 

Within the context of these articles on a Catholic plan of life — the series of practices meant to form us toward holiness — it is therefore important to consider the types of thoughts that should be planted in order to reap in turn good words, deeds, virtues and a Heavenly destiny. 

Such thoughts of the heart — thoughts that express our deepest desires — are part of the class of practices in the plan of life, like study, work, and order, that are meant to be done “continuously,” in contrast to those done at discrete daily, weekly, monthly or yearly frequencies. 

Today we can focus on seven of the most important of them. 

The first three would be acts of faith, hope and love. These are short prayers in which we turn to God in the midst of the day and place our trust in Him, renew our desire for what He wishes to do in us, and reiterate our love for Him in such a way that we begin to live increasingly by faith, seeking the things that are above, and with the passion for God and others that we see in Christ and in the saints. Many prayer books contain classic formulations of the acts of faith, hope and love, but we can also pray in our own words in which we reiterate to God our faith, hope and love and ask Him to increase them. 

Those acts all flow easily into what are called acts of the Presence of God, when we recall that God is with us seeking to help, save and sanctify us and to strengthen us as His instruments to help, save and sanctify others. Everything in life changes when we are aware that God-with-us is actually with us, risen from the dead, helping us to live with the characteristically Christian newness of life. Knowing that Jesus is with us, loving us, fills us with joy even in the midst of “bad days.” If we have a vivid awareness that God is at our side, it’s much harder to succumb to the temptation to choose against Him in sin. The desert fathers talked about the pivotal Spiritual principle of “anamnesis,” literally “unforgetting,” or remembering God. Acts of the Presence of God help us to do so. 

And “unforgetting God” leads us to recall that we are His beloved children. To live as a Christian is to live consciously as a beloved son or daughter of God, modeled on Jesus’ Sonship and assisted by the Holy Spirit Who helps us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” Everything changes in life when we live aware that we are loved as much as God loves us. The Christian life is grounded in Divine filiation. 

The last two thoughts of the heart are acts of thanksgiving and of atonement. 

To be a Christian is to be grateful for all God has given, but often we can imitate the Israelites in the desert mumbling even over miraculous food from Heaven. Real joy comes from counting our blessings, even the cruciform ones, and turning with gratitude to God Who never ceases to bless us. “In all circumstances give thanks,” St. Paul tells us, “for this is the Will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). Especially before bed, we should thank God for the gift and gifts of the day. 

But even though God never ceases to bless us, many times we and others do not correspond to His graces. That’s why acts of atonement are likewise necessary, in which we express our sorrow and do reparation for our sins and the sins of the world. When we hear of crimes and atrocities — daily staples in the news — our first response ought to be to turn to God, to say, “Sorry, Lord!” for the sins of His children against each other and against Him, and beg His mercy. To be a Christian is regularly to say, “Forgive us our trespasses” and to seek to atone for them, entering more fully into the expiation Christ brought to the world (Col 1:24). 

The more we sow these seven acts of faith, hope, love, awareness of God’s presence, Divine filiation, thanksgiving and atonement, the more we will reap words, actions, habits and character that are genuinely Christian and the more firmly we will be set on the path toward holiness, happiness and Heaven to which the plan of life is meant to direct us. 

 Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at

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