Saturday, March 07, 2009

Counsels of Perfection: What Perfection Isn't

Here are some of the ideas of perfection that are false or incomplete, according to Msr Lejeune:

  • Perfection is frequently attributed to persons who assume strained attitudes and an affected bearing (to warn us against taking this as our model, every year the Church warns us in the Ash Wednesday service that it is necessary to "rend our hearts, not our garments"-- that if we make a big show of our great spiritual deeds, we have already had our reward).
  • Perfection consists in an invariable series of prayers.
  • Perfection is a focus on books, images, and exterior signs and symbols.
  • Perfection is... corporal penances (such as) long-continued fasts.
Is there anything these have in common? Well, I can tell that they are all about exterior practices that may or may not affect the interior heart. They are exchanging a thing for a relationship. It is not that these things are bad things -- in fact, the Ash Wednesday service also tells us that prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vital parts of a Christian life -- but that they are means to an end. If they become ends in themselves they can become mixed up with pride or self-absorption.

St Francis de Sales says that a lot of people tend to

"paint devotion according to (their) own passion and fancy.... many persons, by covering themselves with certain external actions make the world believe they are truly devout, whereas they are in reality nothing but statues and phantoms of devotion"
(see here for the whole passage that goes into details).

When St Francis de Sales talks about "devotion" he is talking about something similar to "perfection" -- that is, it's love for God that expresses itself not just in warm feelings or in detached exterior practices but in actual intentions carried through into every thought and action and stemming from love.

Because I'm a sort of intuitional type I'm not usually likely to confuse external practices with true devotion. When I do succeed in practicing some exterior habit, I know very well that my heart can stay unchanged if I let it. The fasting can become side-tracked into a sort of control issue, the praying can be routinized and mechanical, the desire to progress can become a sort of complacency, or else discouragement, neither of which have much to do with proper humility and diligence. My problem is more of a division between interior and exterior. I can have nice intentions and think of myself as good, or try to be harmless and think of that as loving, when it is really not the same thing at all. Devotion has to translate from good intentions to an actual way of thought and life. It can't be parasitic. It has to "bear fruit". Msr Lejeune says that it is easy to surround ourselves with a cloud of good feelings and intentions and mistake that for virtue. Definitely I have to keep a watch over that in myself. Yet I need to reflect on the good intentions, too; I can't skip that step, I've found. It's definitely a balance.

So I've been trying to live out this part of it by acting on my aspirations and intentions, but first reflecting on them prayerfully and trying to figure out "the next step" from where I am. An unrealistically idealistic resolution is not much better than no resolution at all.

1 comment:

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