29 August 2021

Is it Possible to Be Perfect As Our Heavenly Father is Perfect?

If it were not, Our Blessed Lord would not have commanded it in the Gospel of St Matthew, 5:48.

From Catholic Stand

By Fr Nathaniel Dreyer

One of the nice things about being an associate pastor of a wonderful parish in a poorer area was that I got to see many unusual things that most of the residents would pass over unnoticed. For instance, it caught my attention that restaurants proudly proclaimed their expertise in “subs, fish, barbecue, pizza, and Chinese food.” It just seemed like an awful lot to be good at, especially at a small hole in the wall with a staff that numbers far less than the specialty foods themselves. There was also a Mexican restaurant whose sign boldly proclaimed that it had a bakery. When we asked if we could have donations of left-over sweet bread for the children’s oratory, they told us, “Oh, we didn’t have enough money to build the bakery, so we didn’t. But, the sign was up, so we just didn’t change it.”

A discouraging slogan

Along these lines, one of the things I found most interesting were the various slogans of Prince George’s County, the home county of my parish. The county motto is Semper eadem (Always the same in Latin), which, presumably, hasn’t changed.

Nevertheless, the county has tried different slogans to market itself over the years. For example, when I first arrived in 2007, it was “Prince George’s County: A livable community.” A fellow new resident pointed out the irony of such a motto in an internet article for a local website:

Now, it’s not that I don’t want a community that is livable. I most certainly do. It’s just that when I think of a community that is only livable, I think of a community hanging on to the last rung of the ladder. A community just above, I don’t know, a war zone. Being “livable” is a must, but it seems like a floor below which a community should not go, as opposed to a goal to which a city should aspire. Consider, for example, a business that prides itself on doing the bare minimum. How would you respond to the following auto advertisement? “The all-new Ford Focus: you can drive it!” Or this as a restaurant sign? “Dine here, we have food.”

Fortunately, after a few years, they adopted a different approach, giving as a slogan, “On the path to greatness.” Greatness is a wonderful place to go, but just being on the path to it doesn’t imply that you’re coming any closer to the goal! In fact, you could be on the path but headed the wrong way. It’s the question that Kierkegaard poses at the beginning and end of his diary: A traveler asks: “Does this road lead to London?” “Yes,” he answers, “as long as you take it in the opposite direction!”

On a path . . . to holiness

The point of these stories isn’t to make us think of possible slogans for the county but to remind ourselves of the need to seek perfection. It’s easy to get caught up in mediocrity and superficiality, to be on the path to greatness without taking any actual steps.

But that’s not what Christ asks of us: on the contrary, in Matthew’s Gospel, He says: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Mark tells us that when people saw Jesus, how He lived, what He did, “they were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well’” (7:37). “He has done all things well”: not just some things, or the things that come easily for Him, but all things.

That needs to be true of us as well, and that most certainly requires effort and going outside of ourselves, studying, working, and growing, so that we can truly be “Christ come to full stature.”

In the letter to the Philippians (2:15), Paul begs the community members to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world.” In a world that has a great deal of darkness, there is a need for light, and that light comes when we strive with all our hearts for holiness and perfection, not doing just some things well, but all things.

What is holiness?

What is holiness? What does it mean to be holy? Writing a commentary on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, but with a meaning that can be applied to the Christian life in general, Fr. Ignacio Casanovas, SJ, says, “Holiness, in the broad sense of the word, means moral perfection, and this is what everyone, even the most degenerate and debased civilizations, have understood” (Ejercicios Espirituales, Vol. 1, 30).

Christian holiness, though, follows a very particular sort of perfection and goes beyond simply being a “decent person”: “Christian holiness,” Casanovas says, “is that holiness that takes our Lord Jesus Christ as teacher and model. . . .  [and thus] one word defines [Christian holiness] completely: it is the divinization of man here in this present life by supernatural participation in the divine life.” In other words, as the Catechism has it:

The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature. [As Saint Irenaeus puts it]: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” [Or, in the words of Saint Athanasius]: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” [And, lastly, as Saint Thomas Aquinas states]: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (Catechism, 460).

On the one hand, Christ became man because we needed to have forgiveness of our sins; that’s the section that precedes this one in the Catechism. Nonetheless, Christ also came to give us a model since, absolutely speaking, Christ did not need to become incarnate. God could have arranged for our salvation in another manner but, if He arranged it through the Incarnation, there is a reason why that was the best option, the most fitting choice.

Part of this reason is that, as the Word Incarnate, Jesus reveals to us what holiness is. This understanding of Christian holiness needed to be revealed, says Fr. Casanovas, since it is a holiness that relies on grace, which is supernatural. Through sanctifying grace as well as the many actual graces that we receive, day in and day out, that lead to my perfection, we receive this holiness, which leads to our divinization, to our becoming more like God. Casanovas gives a couple of basic points regarding holiness. We can break them into four (Ejercicios, 32-34).

First: the laws of holiness are from God

Above all, since they come either directly from God or from our human nature (and thus indirectly, as it were, from God), the laws of holiness don’t change and shouldn’t be changed. Heresies start here, like Pelagianism, which diminishes the role of grace, and others which deny free will.

In this sense, what Casanovas means is that grace builds on nature; it doesn’t destroy it. We need to cooperate with God; He takes the first step, and then, together, we advance on the path to holiness. Grace builds on nature: in the introduction to Saints are Not Sad, Frank Sheed notes that the saints are more perfectly themselves because they come to resemble the idea that God has of them. Sinners tend to all be the same since sin bleeds the color and individuality out of people.

Second: Jesus is our model

Second, the example and path to holiness should be taken from the life and example of Jesus Christ. I am not the measure of holiness; my judgments are not infallible: I am not the Second Coming. I need to conform myself to Christ, and not vice versa, such as making Christ conform to my likings and whims or conforming myself to what I think Christ is or what I think He should be.

Third: God gives us the graces we need

Third, God has graces prepared for each and every one of us, graces that He wants to give us so that we can become saints. It is this connection, God working with us, us working with God, that produces holiness. This means, too, that we don’t need to look for or await great supernatural graces (as if grace could somehow not be great!) like levitation, or visions, or speaking in unknown languages. Sometimes God does grant those gifts, but holiness does not consist in such things. Holiness is the conformity of ourselves with Christ: nothing more, but also nothing less.

Fourth: holiness consists, not just in knowledge, but in living

Fourth, there is a significant difference between knowing what holiness is and being holy in practice. In fact, you can have all knowledge of the faith and know the lives of so many saints and yet still be a horrible sinner.

Is it possible?

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”: is this even possible? Yes, with God’s grace we come to resemble our Father, just as children resemble their parents. To seek to imitate Christ in everything is to truly be on the path to greatness and headed in the right direction.

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