BE PERFECT AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT (Mt.5: 48) This directive of our Lord was addressed to all his listeners not only to his chosen apostles. His words were recorded by Matthew in his Gospel and ever since have served to challenge all those who truly believe in Christ and take their faith as a norm for life. Surely they have a particular application to monks who are committed by their vow to strive after perfection. 

Perfection, then, is the aim of the Christian life in view of attaining to eternal life in God. Union with God, partaking in the very life of the Trinity is, to be sure, the ultimate, final purpose of our life as believers and children of God. Thus one of the most important questions arises as to what do we understand by perfection. What are the characteristics of the perfect? As one of our brothers asked in class this past week: ’How do you know if you are one of the perfect?’ 

There are any number of conceptions concerning human perfection and what it consists in. Philosophers defined it in a variety of ways, as consisting in fortitude or wisdom among other views. Psychologists have their own manner of understanding what perfection consists in. Politicians, physicians, sociologists among others have something to contribute to the discussion of the perfection of homo sapiens. The various great religious traditions have their proper conception of perfection, such as the Buddhists, the Hindu and the Muslims. But the kind of perfection we are concerned with here is spiritual perfection as revealed in the New Testament  

That Jesus himself was concerned to teach a life of religious perfection is abundantly evident from a number of his sayings and, indeed, from the whole tenor or his life. That he taught a radically new manner of conceiving just what perfection consists in is brought out in the first discourse of his public ministry as presented by St. Matthew. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land.” And again in that same Sermon on the Mount, he stated it in explicit language: “BE PERFECT AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT’   The Lord left no doubt what he intends under the term “perfection” in this passage for he states insistently ”You have heard that it was said :’You shall love your neighbor and you shall hate your enemy’. But I say to you: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you…’ ” So, this is at any rate, one way our Lord himself views perfection.  

On another occasion in response to a question by a young man concerned about his salvation, Jesus told him: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you posses and give to the poor and come, follow me.” (Mt 19: 21) Here our Lord outline a general formula for entering upon the way of perfection that was to become one of the foundation stones of religious and monastic life. He implies in this response that following him would teach the perfect life, and a condition for that following is poverty and detachment from worldly possessions. Elsewhere we know that following him included renouncing family as well as home and goods. Both of these sayings make it clear that perfection develops from following our Lord.  

Note that Jesus does not say “ imitate me”, but “follow me”. Each of his disciples has to find his own way of responding to our Lord’s example and teaching. No one is expected to become an exact pattern of our Lord’s personality. Although later on the imitation of Christ became a legitimate way of speaking about the following of our Lord, yet it does not consist in the futile attempt to conform exteriorly to his life and manner of relating to others. His person is divine and he is, even as a man, endowed with unique gifts of mind and heart and spirit.  Our task as disciples is to assimilate his example and teaching in keeping with our own personality with its gifts and limits. Perfection consists in so identifying with our Lord by loving trust and attachment to his person that we take on his ways of thinking, acting and relating to others in the measure of our abilities. 

St. Paul puts the case well when he speaks of knowing Christ, not according to the flesh, that is to say, not by imitating his human manner of doing things and viewed from the outside. Rather, he speaks elsewhere of Christ as ‘set apart as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of sanctification from the resurrection of the dead.’ (Rom 1:4) Paul’s own perfection then entailed an interior transformation of values and loves assimilated through absorbing Christ’s spirit and teaching. Paul used the term ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection fairly often in his writings. At times it is equivalent to ‘maturity’, which is, after all, a kind of perfection, a fullness of development. “We speak of wisdom among the perfect”, Paul writes to the Corinthians. But he is obliged to speak to them of their defects and abuses that prevent his sharing with them concerning spiritual truths of a higher order: “And I could not speak to you, brothers, as to spiritual men, but rather as carnal” (1Cor 3:1). He then lists the kinds of defects that attest to their imperfection: bickering and jealousy which lead to divisions. Thus he implies that the perfect are those who are united with their brothers, devoid of jealousy .In another letter he indicates that peace, joy, kindness and other such virtues are indications that a believer is led by the Spirit and so numbered among the perfect.  In his Epistle to the Philippians he states that “forgetting the things that are behind, I press on in pursuit of what is appointed to the reward of a heavenly call by God in Christ Jesus. All of us who are perfect have this same intent.” (3:15) 

St. John, on the other hand, prefers to present the perfect Christian as one who loves God and the brothers.  “Perfect charity casts out fear.”  Such love, he goes on to say, makes it easy to obey the commandments of God, gives confidence in the day of judgment and overcome the world. (cf. 1John 4 passim) He even describes perfection in terms of obedience: ’He who keeps his word, truly in this person the love of God is perfected. (1John1:5).

Thus in the New Testament there are a diversity of ways of conceiving perfection , and even varying degrees of perfection. How one conceives and evaluates perfection depends on the particular person and the circumstances of the situation.   The later preachers and spiritual writers who transmitted faithfully the teachings of our Lord and the apostles as members of the Catholic Church, took up the theme of perfection with this same flexible approach. How they viewed perfection and wrote of it depended in a certain measure on the circumstances in which they lived and wrote. To follow the history of this theme is instructive. It would require a very large book to treat of it fully for in one way or another it is taken up by all the notable spiritual writers. Even where it is not treated explicitly, it is often implied by the way the topic under treatment is presented. In fact, whenever some aspect of the spiritual or moral life is preached with a view to practice, there is   nearly always one or other concept of perfection that influences the treatment of the subject.   

While we cannot give a full presentation of the various ways of conceiving of perfection, we can touch of a few of the views developed and propagated by some of the great spiritual masters and theologians. St. Ignatius of Antioch was perhaps the earliest who writings disclose a personal and concrete view of the perfection of the Christian life. For him it consisted in the desire for martyrdom out of love for Christ. “Allow me to reproduce the passion of my God”, he writes to the Romans. “By suffering I shall be a freedman of Jesus Christ. . . . It is the bread of God that I desire, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ.” (cited in Olivier Clement, “The Roots of Christian Mysticism”, 260) 

In other accounts of early martyrs we find this same idea of perfection as the willing, loving acceptance of suffering and death with stress on the fact that it is the grace of the Spirit that turns this suffering into joy. This is brought out by the experience of St. Perpetua who was so sustained by the Spirit that she was unaware of being stuck by a fierce bull until she examined her robe and saw evidence of her being thrown to the ground. Various other reliable accounts of martyrs provide witness to the gift of fortitude and even joy that attest to the working of the Spirit as a sign of perfection in the martyrs. 

In general, patient endurance of suffering, willing endurance of humiliation, joyful spirit in situations of stress, poverty, misunderstanding, all these have characterized those Christians who had arrived at an advanced stage of the spiritual life that can be called perfection. St. Francis of Assisi displayed consistently all of these attitudes and virtues, remaining at peace and even joyful when he was expelled even from the Order he founded.   

Various fathers of the Church have left us brief descriptions of characteristics which indicate a high spirituality that can be considered indications of perfection. For instance, St. John Chrysostom has written that “In union with God, the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart and the two become one.” (O. Clement, 242) Diadochus of Photike makes the same point I spoke of in class concerning the certitude of the individual who attains to a high measure of love and knowledge of God. He says of the ascetic life that “its sole purpose is to come to love God with a sensation in the heart of total certainty, which means with all your heart, and with all your, and with all your strength and with all your mind.”(O. Clement, 244) The word he uses here for certitude, parresia in Greek, is a Biblical term, that expresses the certainty imparted by the Spirit of God. Anyone who receives such spiritual graces as to bring him to the state of perfection, Diadochus, explains, does not have to ask if he has truly arrived at a high knowledge of God: he knows it and is confident. 

One of the great spiritual masters of the Eastern Church was an anonymous writer who lived in Syria, and wrote in Greek. He had considerable influence on the development of spirituality for he gave prominence to the feelings lined to spiritual experience. He passed his writings under the name of Macarius and is known as Pseudo-Macarius. In the following paragraph we find a characteristic expression of his teaching that gives an idea as to how he would describe the person who has attained to perfection. 

If you have become the throne of God, and the heavenly driver has used you for his chariot, and your whole soul has become spiritual vision and total light, if you have been fed on the food of the Spirit, if you have drunk the water of life and put on the garments of indescribably light, if your inner personality has been established in the experience and the perfection of all these things, then indeed you are truly living eternal life. (O.  Clement, 248)  

As the mystics and Fathers of the early Church gained further experience and, often under the pressure of movements and ideas that threatened to undermine the truth of the Gospels and the apostolic tradition they became more keenly aware of the meaning of the new life imparted by the risen Lord.  That this new life was bestowed at baptism was clearly affirmed in Scripture seemed evident enough to all. That it is the Holy Spirit himself who comes through that sacrament to confer that new life was widely understood and soon became the basis of further reflection and insight into the mystery of sanctification.  What does it mean that the Holy Spirit himself dwells In the newly baptized?  

St. Cyril of Alexandria answered this question in the following terms: “Participation in the Holy Spirit gives human beings the grace to be shaped as a complete copy of the divine nature.” ( (O. Clement, 264)  This statement is a bit general and so led to further exploration as to its concrete significance. Centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that this participation in the Spirit brought with it a change in the person baptized by virtue of sanctifying grace. This grace carries with itself all the infused virtues, moral and theological, as well as the gifts of the Spirit and his personal indwelling. 

On the other hand, both the Greek and Latin fathers spoke of the new life in Christ and the conferral of the Spirit as a process of progressive deification, that is transformation into God. This bold expression was employed with all the more conviction as the reality it speaks of is justified by Scripture. St. Peter states that God “gave the most precious and greatest promises by means of which you are made partakers of the divine nature (2Peter 1:4)”. Not long after this , the Bishop of Lyons wrote: “We were not made gods from the beginning, but were first made men, then at last gods. ( Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’ 4.38.4).” In Alexandria, at the height of the Arian controversy, St. Athanasius formulated this line of thought succinctly when he wrote: “He ( the Word of God) was made man that we might be made God.” (On the Incarnation., 54.3) He was careful to make the proper distinction so that it was clear that this Godlike state did not consist in a fusion with the essential nature of God but was a participation by virtue of the presence in man of the Spirit.  Centuries later Maximus the Confessor took up the same theme: ”Because God has become man, man can become God.. He rises by divine steps corresponding to those by which God had humbled himself out of love for man.” (O. Clement, 263) 

This deification is the highest form of perfection. The way to attain this has been traced out by our monastic fathers through the centuries. Our understanding of the practices of prayer in its various forms, contemplation, and the life of virtue is greatly aided by the writings of great spiritual masters such as John of the Cross and Ruysbroeck and further developed and modernized by writers such as Thomas Merton and William Johnston. Let us make it our task to profit from their teaching and example in order that we might effectively advance to the same goal they purposed. This consists in attaining to that fullness of charity which is possible only to the pure of heart. If we wish to know what is the surest sign we have attained to perfection, this is what to look for: the love of God and of our fellows that is ardent and forgetful of self. Fulfilling this undertaking will bring us to the perfection of our human nature and achieve the purpose of our life on this earth.! ( Guimaras, The Philippines)

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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