Sunday, March 08, 2009

Counsels of Perfection: What Perfection Is

Now that some false ideas of perfection have been mentioned, to try and go deeper into a true definition of perfection.

One difficulty with developing an idea of perfection is that people are different from each other. An invalid confined to bed will look very different on the outside from a young athlete. There are different temperaments and roles. A life of contemplative prayer might be excellent for a nun or monk but misguided for me if I were ignoring my family and friends. There is also a legitimate range of personalities that you can see if you read about the saints. The gentle St Francis de Sales is very different from the daring St Francis Xavier, who is different in turn from the intellectual St Thomas Aquinas and the cultured lawyer St Thomas More.

"So I might heap up citation upon citation, but these will suffice to show how difficult it is to arrive at a formula for perfection which will fit all the saints, determine the common trait which permits us to classify them all under one head, and enables us to say of each one, "Here is a saint."
Here the example of Mary, Jesus's mother, comes up. Of all humans, she was the closest to Our Lord. He resided under her heart for nine months and was nursed at her breast and brought up by her from infancy to childhood. She alone was called "gratia plena", full of grace, which to the Catholic Church has been a testimony that there was no part of her interior that was not flooded with God's light. Yet in her earthly life she was not a queen, not a doer of great deeds; little is said about her life directly in scriptures; her life was hidden. From her life we can conclude that

"Sanctity does not at all consist in splendor or magnificence or the glitter of exterior things, but rather in an interior principles which animates the most ordinary actions, and communicates to them an almost inestimable value."
If Mary is an exemplar, does that necessarily mean that the ideal life is solely hidden and quiet and domestic? To think that would be missing the point, because saints have been kings and queens, missionaries, parents of families, lacemakers and tentmakers, explorers, scientists, anything you can imagine. Without the interior principle, these professions and vocations don't mean anything; with them, every sphere of life is sanctified.

So this brings us to a definition of perfection:

"Perfection is accomplishing the will of God in a constant and generous fashion. That person, then, is perfect who does at every instant what God wishes."
Personally, this is troublesome to me. I have a good friend who tells me that she always knows what God wants of her. Sometimes she doesn't actually do it, but she always knows. I've searched my heart, and I don't have that kind of certainty. I always feel that I could be doing something better (or worse, for that matter). I suppose though that this is not the point. The point is a radical openness. I usually know when I'm getting locked into my own will or being sluggish or fearful about carrying out something good. So maybe that's what my friend means about knowing what God wants.

During this Lent I've started trying to examine those concerns carefully when they come up. In other words, I am trying to check up on myself at various times during the day to make sure I am on track. If I have a vague uneasy sense I examine it and try to take it seriously and if there seems to be a problem, I try to confront it rather than rationalize it away as I find it easy enough to do. These intuitions are usually right on target in some way when I take a closer look, even if I can't totally put it into words. At any rate, I can act upon them by doing something I know is not harmful, and trying to do it in a loving way, while being open to the possibility that I am still not completely there. Angie M is carrying on a series at Real Learning on "how we think" -- cognitive distortions and some strategies for noticing and examining them. I've found it helpful. St Francis of Assissi, when told by God that he would "rebuild His Church" started building the church at San Damiano with his own hands. This was not the full meaning of what God had said but St Francis's work of faith certainly prepared him for his future work of a different kind.


Chari said...

so, like, I am not that friend, am I?

I like your last paragragh, about you checking on yourself. I think I have been doing that lately, too.

Willa said...

No, it's not you, it's someone else we are both acquainted with. Someone who is not, let's say, a Pacific Coast personality .. is there any total certainty about life decisions west of the Sierras? : D

Willa said...

Hey, but I found the book at your house! want to read through it with me? (yeah, if I could lend you the extra time, right?)

Chari said...

Phew....I was worried that if YOU thought I thought THAT.........that you must not understand me very well......whew!

Well, as soon as I saw your Lenten reads....I pulled it off of my shelf so we could read it together......or at the same time anyway.....but I have been distracted and have yet to pick it up....but it is actually sitting right here beside me....what page are you on? You always move faster than me!

lissla lissar said...

We also have a friend who generally seems to have a much more direct pipeline to God's will than Geoff or I ever have. In my experience the language of certainty has been from people who are Evangelical, and it tends to make me uncomfortable, and sometimes suspicious, which I know is an unworthy reaction, and probably related to some jealousy on my part- why doesn't God speak that clearly to me?

So there are people East of the Sierras who have certainty. I like your breakdown of it- listening to your intuitions instead of hearing a trumpet blare.

Sanctity resides in becoming what we were created to be, and God really likes complexity and colour. Progressing towards sainthood always means becoming more and more yourself, and less of the rubble and dust of sin, which obscures us from ourselves and each other. It's one of the wonderful things I realized during my first few confessions- sin is actually boring, dull, and repetitive. Goodness is shocking, scary, and beautiful.