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Sunday, 29 January 2012

On Perfection Part One

Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.




(Dedicated to my seminarian friends, who in some places, are being taught to be mediocre.)


This is one of the promises given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque for those who keep the Nine First Fridays of Masses. On June 11, 1899, Pope St. Leo the XIII dedicated the entire world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

What is the connection between the pursuit of perfection and the Sacred Heart of Jesus? What is this seeking of perfection called for by Christ Himself?  In Matthew 5:48, Christ states, Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.


In this Age of Mediocrity, I have heard very weak and mealy-mouthed sermons on this passage,to the point that the priests have deconstructed the text so that it no longer means what Christ intended. We are called to perfection. We are not called to second-best, or "good enough", or "getting by". Some preachers have compare "wholeness" to "holiness". This is not so. That is a New Age confusion of terms. We are called to be like the Father, Our Father, in whom we were made in His Image and Likeness. St. Bernard of Clairvaux has said that we have kept the Image,but lost the Likeness and that Likeness is living in the life of Sanctifying Grace.


In this age of the dumbing down of everything-politics, education, entertainment, culture-we have lost the sense of perfection. I hear good Catholics state, "I shall be happy if I get to Purgatory." That is not even good enough and it is false humility. To seek perfection is to want to bring Heaven down to Earth now, to be a saint now, in the messy world of secularism and sin. Christ always calls us to the hard and narrow way. If we aim at the wide way, we shall miss the mark.


My dad taught me archery. He also taught me how to shoot. He always said, "Aim at the center." If one concentrates on the bulls-eye, one will learn the technique and train the eye. No discipline, no success. I loved learning such skills, and I had to listen, be patient, practice over and over. Like all sports, one aims at perfection. I loved hitting the mark, the bulls-eye. Those who aim at the mediocre will never be great at anything.


This is not about competition, unless one is competing with one's self. Nor is it about pride. The fake humility in the world of the West, which discourages excellence and praise mediocrity,  the point of the drama, Amadeus, creates an atmosphere of envy. Evil hates good and mediocrity hates excellence. 


So why do priests in sermons give in to this Age of Mediocrity, not merely by ignoring the call to perfection, but by undermining God's Own Words in the Scriptures? Because they disagree with God, these priests at the pulpit lower their own standards and insult the laity by not calling them to perfection.


Why do I mean by this? The priests who teach mediocrity have lost the vision of holiness themselves and no longer believe that the laity can be holy. They have fallen into a trap of modern psychological interpretation which separates doctrinal teaching from pastoral teaching. There is no such separation. Pastoral theology is the application of doctrine, not the deviation from doctrine.


How to be perfect is simple. Put on the mind of Christ, writes St. Paul in many places in his epistles. One reference is from Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world; but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and the acceptable, and the perfect will of God.

Thinking like Christ brings us into relationship with the Father and the Holy Ghost. The Indwelling of the Trinity, given to us at Baptism and Confirmation, leads us to this perfection, if we cooperate. 

There can be no compromises, no watering down of the message. Bonhoeffer reminded us of this in his discussion of Cheap Grace and Costly Grace, in his The Cost of Discipleship, a book which changed my life when I read it at 23. One chooses either the less or the more. At about the same time, I read Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind. I was also "into" C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams at the time. There are excellent reads for young minds. The earlier that one realizes that the pursuit of excellence is the Way of Christ's Call to us, the better. Disciplining the mind and the heart are easier is one pursues Christ's Mind and Christ's Heart at a early age. Perfection of the mind is a theme in Thomas Aquinas, as I have written on this blog before. The intellect must be perfected in order to live the life of virtue.

However, it is never too late. God, who is Infinite and does not merely see us as we are at one moment in time, but as we are in our entire life, can do in months, even weeks, what we have not done in years. We only need to be convinced that the call to perfection is His Call. Ignore those mediocre priests, pray for them, call them to a higher vision. 


This is what St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and Pope St. Leo XIII did for the Church-give us a higher vision. The heart of Christ becomes our heart, in the world, wherever we find ourselves, and gives us confidence and grace to live His Will in the world. The next time I cover this topic, I shall look into what perfection looks like. By the way, martyrs are not suddenly "made". These men, women and children have lived perfection before being able to die for Christ.  Another Margaret, St. Margaret Clitherow, lived in a time when mediocrity was rewarded. She lived in the perfection of grace which led her to martyrdom. This is our call.


I do not have my works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux with me, but I can paraphrase one of his sayings: There is rejoicing in heaven when a bad man becomes good, but how much more rejoicing is there when a good man becomes perfect.



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