Friday, March 06, 2009

Counsels of Perfection: Reflecting on the Goal

So here goes: As the title Counsels of Perfection indicates, the book is composed of counsels or pieces of advice. The first section of the book is about obstacles, the second is about means to the end, and the third is about "the means par excellence". The "end" mentioned, of course, is Christian perfection and the means are how we reach it.

Perfection is a word that needs some explanation. It doesn't mean that redemption is unnecessary or that there is some human ideal that we can reach by our own efforts. Nor does it mean something absolutely unachievable or presumptuous to attempt, either.

Rather, it comes from the gospel: "Be ye perfect; as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Christian perfection consists not only in the habit of charity, i.e. the possession of sanctifying grace and the constant will of preserving that grace, but also in the pursuit or practice of charity, which means the service of God and withdrawal of ourselves from those things which oppose or impede it.

As you see, there are a few things here: (1) there has to be a habit, not just an occasional sporadic act (2) it depends on God's grace plus our will to preserve that grace (3) it involves action plus (4) withdrawal from things that are obstacles. Except for the bit about God's grace, Aristotle would have agreed with all these conditions, and he clearly laid out convincing reasons why the only road to true happiness "eudaimonia" was through virtue.

Later in our civilization's history, important thinkers tended to disregard Aristotle as well as the Christian tradition, and got bogged down in various confusions -- for example, thinking that "happiness" meant "pleasure" or virtue meant "duty" or various other things that only overlap and do not sum up the essence. Probably most people intuitively sense though that "pleasure alone" is like getting sick on too much candy and "duty alone" is a draining and insufficient prospect like the leech cure of olden days.

Perfection springs from love, and in fact, the book uses "devotion" as a synonym for perfection. Jesus said in Luke 10:27:

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbor as your­self.”

Thomas a Kempis writes:
Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as thought it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection.
So I guess it's pretty clear that love is the means by which we approach closer to what we are supposed to be as human beings. However, most of us know by now that Love is not just a feeling, a desire or impulse to draw closer or do well, but a matter of the will and intelligence. If we didn't already know it, a long stay in the ER with a sick child, or a rough patch in our marriage, would show us the truth of it. Love, perhaps "devotion" would be a more targeted word, is an integration of emotion and intelligence and will.

Although charity is at times intensely emotional, and frequently reacts on our sensory faculties, still it properly resides in the rational will: a fact not to be forgotten by those who would make it an impossible virtue.
As you see, there is both a positive and a negative aspect to these efforts, just like there might be if you were trying to strength train or lose weight or learn something new. You want to increase your strength -- your ability to do the thing. And you want to avoid things that will present obstacles or hurt your attempts to grow. Even though growing in Christian perfection is something that can't be done by ordinary human means, that doesn't mean it doesn't INVOLVE human means -- it just means that it has to go beyond those.

That is why the book starts with some of the obstacles that commonly present themselves -- misconceptions and problems -- just like a book on strength training might start with some of the mental and physical mistakes that beginners might make that would cause lack of progress or actual injury. Then once those are understood, the writer can go on to the actual positive steps to make towards improvement.

This distillation of human aspirations to one simple command -- Love-- is difficult to understand fully, it seems. The word "Love" is so often misused. "I did it out of love" -- the punitive parent, the cheating scoundrel, the wimpy enabler all use the language. I find I only get the meaning of it in tiny glimpses. I was just reading the last bit of Plato's Phaedo with a discussion group this evening. One of the things he talks about is opposite qualities and how they can't stand together in the same place -- one has to decrease as the other increases.

  • Heat flees at the approach of cold.
  • Life recedes as death approaches.
  • As I get fatter, I get less thin, and vice versa.
  • As love increases, hatred and indifference decrease

Sometimes it seems to me that love is generally glimpsed this way, by the extent of its presence and by what is still lacking. I see something done and think "There was not much love in that, however right the person thought he was in doing it"; or I cuddle my nursing infant and I think, "This is true love, though it is not Love in its infinite form." (I don't really think like that, but somehow I'm aware that my love is a reflection, like the moon reflects the sun's light).

So there you go, for now, with a half-thought out thought. If Christian perfection is love, then it has to get rid of all the things that are an obstacle to its full effect, and it has to increase in its strength. This does not mean simply affectionate or tolerant feelings, but something that is what Aquinas called a "habit", meaning a firm disposition that was consistent and not easy to block or divert.

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