General Notions About Will-Training


by Father E. Boyd Barrett, 1917

Those who think of devoting themselves to body-training are not repelled by the knowledge that daily exercises, which demand a certain sacrifice of time, and a certain expenditure of effort, are called for.

It seems to them quite reasonable to pay the cost of what they buy. They are purchasers of well-developed muscles and finely shaped limbs, and they pay readily in daily portions the price, which is bodily exercise.

In like manner those who wish to train their memories are quite prepared to undertake certain tasks at certain times.

It would be strange if it were otherwise with those who desire to train their wills. Will-training is, of course, a gradual process, and in this it resembles body-training and memory-training.

Little by little the will is built up. Little by little it is developed and perfected and frees itself from taint and disease. It is a slow process, but a very sure process. It demands, needless to say, much time and much earnestness.

Over and above time and earnestness, will-training costs effort, and that means self-sacrifice. Indeed, it is true to say that will-training costs what we are least ready to pay, for the discipline of daily exercises means self-sacrifice. It is better to admit this at once, and not to pretend that a strong will can be bought with a check, or won with a smile.

Strange to say, in order to train the will, will is needed. Will is self-trained. Will works on itself and perfects itself. If it did not preexist in us, there would be nothing to perfect, and no source of strength wherewith to work. For the will is called on at every step in will-training.

It is the will which builds up the will by willing. Perhaps, for the moment, these words are not plain and clear, but presently they will become so.

In will-training no expenditure of effort is fruitless. All is banked for some future occasion. But more than this, we begin to draw interest at once on what we bank. Our will grows stronger gradually, and day by day we derive benefit from the exercises we have already accomplished.

This means very much, as the will enters into every action. Indeed, no faculty is so universal in its scope of activity as the will. From tying a boot-lace in the morning to switching off an electric lamp at night, the will enters into all we do.

The question will doubtless be asked, “Is it possible to train the will? If one is already advanced in age, is it still possible?” The answer is most decidedly in the affirmative. It is always possible to train, that is, to improve the will. No matter how weak and inefficient the will may have become, yet is it still possible to train it.

There is no doctrine held more tenaciously by sane psychologists than this doctrine of the possibility of restoring and rebuilding the will, even when things have gone very far.

Some wills, of course, seem more capable than others of reaching a high degree of perfection. Not many men could acquire the will-power to joke about death and suffering, like Sir Thomas More or St. Laurence, even when in the bands of executioners. But all men can increase the strength of their will, and can so far throw off lethargy and laziness of character as to become energetic and strenuous.

Having prefaced these observations about the need for time, and effort, and gradual development in will-training, it may be well to indicate an important distinction between “reform of character” and “increase of will-power.”

Many authors regard the “education of the will” as synonymous with self-perfection, self-culture, and the reform of character. As a result, in books which profess to deal with will-training, much is said about the passions, ideals, sensuality, habits, meditation, day-dreaming, idea-force, self-conquest and such topics, but little is said of the precise means of curing will-disease and of acquiring will-force.

Indeed, it would seem that the word will is taken in far too broad and too general a sense, and that reform of character is looked upon as quite the same thing as increase of will-power. Now this is certainly not so.

It is quite conceivable that a man should have a very strong will, and yet care very little for culture or for the observing of the moral law. And further, it is quite conceivable that a man should set himself to develop and train his will, and should succeed in so doing, without ever entertaining the idea of making himself a more noble or more ideal character.

Men train their memories without any reference to morality, and men may well train their wills without any reference to morality. Without doubt when will-strength is acquired, passion can more easily be controlled. Without doubt, too, it usually happens that virtue and true strength of will go hand in hand.

But this does not gainsay the fact that virtue and will-strength are two quite different things, and that books professedly written on the “education of the will” should not be almost exclusively devoted to the consideration of good habits and self-culture.

A book on will-training should be as closely devoted to will-exercises, will-hygiene, and will-phenomena, as a book on body-training should be devoted to body-exercises, body-hygiene, and muscular phenomena. The will, like the intellect, is now an instrument of good, and now of evil.

The strong will, still improving and growing stronger, may become more and more an instrument of evil. It may co-exist with vicious passions, gross lack of culture, deplorable habits, and an utter contempt for the conventions of life.

The will is an instrument, weak or powerful for good or evil, but only an instrument, although as our highest and noblest instrument it should be our object ever to perfect and raise it.

That it is important to have a strong will no one will deny. We all admire the man of strong will—he is more truly a man than other men. He has the power to master himself—to become “lord of himself” and sole ruler of his own forces.

He knows what he can do. He does what he sets himself to do. He wills to do what he does, and means what he wills. He knows his own mind, and puts his hand with confidence to do that on which he is resolved, neither over-impetuously nor over-indolently.

Lethargy has no hold on him, and he scorns to give way to impulse. Energetic and strenuous without being over-active, he is consistent and persevering. He is in earnest about his work, in beginning it, in continuing it, and in concluding it.

He goes not a step beyond, nor does he fall a step short, of the just limit of his purpose. He uses his powers with ease and with assurance. He seems, as it were, to have possession of his own will; to be free in his independence. He wills.

His body is like a machine which he uses to accomplish his ends. That machine is started without a hitch, is governed and regulated as to speed and direction most smoothly, and is pulled up without a jerk by his will.

No engine-driver can control a locomotive as he controls his body. He does not care, usually, about boasting, or bullying, or flattering. He is too strong for that. He is not over-anxious to display his force. He knows he has power and he does not care if others know it or not. Rather, perhaps, he is aware that others do know and feel it intuitively.

He does not display his will-force by clenching his fists, and grinding his teeth, and convulsively heaving his breast like the heroes of the cinema.

He is content to face his daily tasks with quiet assurance, and to carry out what his will wills.

“We must have a daily habit of prayer; it should be ingrained in us. Morning and Night Prayers, the Rosary and frequent lifting of the mind to God will help us to hear His Voice.The daily habit of prayer leads us to spiritual health. We are more ‘tuned in’ to know what God’s will is in our life, to desire it and to do it. By our habit of prayer we will experience the tranquility and happiness that comes from Him Who sees our efforts and loves us so much! He will give us the peace that passeth all understanding….” – Anne Joachim

“Few things have so powerful a determining effect upon a person’s subsequent life as the taste for and the habit of reading acquired in youth. Hence the necessity of conceiving a love for good reading, and of nursing the practice of it in the earliest years. Catholic young people are very fortunate, if they relish the reading of not only good, but of the best books, papers and magazines within their reach.” – Rev. Fulgence Meyer, O.F.M., 1927 Visit My Book List for the Youth here.

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