THE ASPIRATION AFTER CHRISTIAN PERFECTION
No builder leaves an edifice half-finished. If he has begun to construct a house, he does not rest until it is completed. An artist does not hand in the portrait he has painted until every feature is faithfully delineated. Let the Christian do likewise; when once he has undertaken the work of his own sanctification, and is in a state of grace, let him strive to bring the edifice of virtue to completion, and form himself to a true image of God. Our aim should be to make progress every day.
1. God requires of all the just that they should aspire to Christian perfection.
God desires the sinner to be converted, the just to strive after perfection. The duty of aspiring after perfection is included in the precept of charity, for it requires us to love God with all our strength. And what else does that mean but continual advancement in the path of virtue? “He that is just let him be justified still, and he that is holy let him be sanctified still” (Apoc. xxii. 11). Our Lord lays this injunction upon us: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. v. 48). The will of God is none other than our sanctification. He who does not aim at the attainment of Christian perfection, is in danger of losing his soul. The vessel that does not stem the stream will drift downwards. Where there is no progression there is retrogression; no man can stand still on the path of virtue. “As soon,” says St. Augustine, “as thou art content with thyself, and thinkest thou hast done enough, thou art lost.” We should aim at the highest degree of sanctity, imitating the trader, who is wont to ask the highest possible price for his wares.
2. The most sublime example of Christian perfection is found in Our Lord. After Him, the saints are also patterns of perfection.
Christ says: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John xiv. 6). When the rich youth asked Our Lord what he was to do in order to be perfect, the answer given him was: “Follow Me” (Matt. xix. 21). St. Paul bids us: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. xiii. 14). As an apprentice watches his master at work, that he may learn to work like him, so we ought to keep our eyes fixed on our Master Christ. The saints meditated unceasingly on the life and Passion of Our Lord. He is the Christian’s pattern. The saints are also examples of perfection, for they imitate Christ; their life is a copy of His life. St. Paul exhorts the Corinthians: “Be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. iv. 10), and he enjoins on the Hebrews the necessity of imitating the saints (Heb. vi. 12). The Church commemorates one or more of the saints on each day of the ecclesiastical year, in order to incite us to their imitation. The saints stand in the same relation to Christ as the stars do to the sun; He surpasses them all in perfection. Thus it is easier for us to imitate the saints; we know that it is impossible for us ever to attain to the perfection of which Christ sets us the example, but the sanctity of the saints is within our reach. And here it must be remarked that almost every saint excelled in the practice of one particular virtue. Also that the actions of each were suited to and in conformity with the circumstances, the environment in which they were placed; e.g., their calling, their means, their bodily strength and natural temperament. Every one ought to choose for his model a saint whose position and calling were similar to his own.
3. The perfection of the Christian consists in charity towards God and his neighbor, and in detachment of heart from the things of this world.
“Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. xiii. 10). Charity is the bond of perfection (Col. iii. 14). St. Augustine, when asked how sanctity of life was to be attained, answered: “Love God, and do as thou wilt;” meaning that he who truly loves God will do nothing that displeases Him. St. Francis of Sales says that the only true perfection is to love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves; all other perfection is spurious. St. Thomas Aquinas defines sanctity as the fervent surrender of one’s self to God. Sanctity does not consist in the outward observances of religion, in long prayers, in fasting and almsgiving; these are but means to its attainment. Nor does sanctity consist in complete freedom from sin; it is evinced rather by constant and energetic resistance to sin. For God frequently permits even saints to fall into sin to keep them humble. Least of all does sanctity consist in extraordinary works, which the world regards with astonishment and admiration. We do not read of the Mother of God ever having performed extraordinary works, or St. Joseph, the foster-father of Christ. In the ranks of the saints a great number will be found who never shone in the sight of the world; their life was hid with Christ in God (Col. iii. 3). The love of God is always accompanied by hatred of the world, abhorrence of its sinful, sensual delights. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in Him (1 John ii. 15). The love of God and the love of the world are like the scales of a balance; as one rises the other falls. As charity increases in the heart sinful affections die out. As one who would climb to the top of a tower must ascend the steps that lead to it, so if we would reach the summit of perfection, we must detach our hearts as completely as possible from earthly things. The greater our hatred of the world, and our proportionate charity towards God and our neighbor, the greater the degree of perfection we have attained.
4. He who makes Christian perfection his aim will attain it surely but slowly.
Our Lord says: “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice for they shall have their fill” (Matt. v. 6). A sincere desire for perfection and an untiring effort to attain it will not be unsuccessful. The desire for it is already half the battle; for an energetic desire gives force and courage, makes labor light, daunts the enemy, makes a man pleasing to God and obtains grace. On St. Thomas Aquinas being asked how one could make sure of attaining sanctity, he replied: “By a resolute will.” No one has ever attained sanctity without fervently desiring it, any more than proficiency in an art or science has ever been acquired by one whose wishes were not eagerly set upon it. But progress towards Christian perfection is very slow. Our sanctification is not the work of a single day. No one, unless he be peculiarly privileged by God, can reach perfection in a short time. It is the same in the spiritual as in the natural order: A plant does not spring-up and blossom in a night, the infant does not grow to man’s estate in a single day. The process of healing is a slow one; indeed the slower the surer. So it is with our sanctification. There are three degrees in the way of perfection; that of the beginners, who still retain a strong affection for mortal sin; that of the advanced, who cannot abstain from venial sin, and who, because of attachment to earthly things, are still in a state of warfare; and the perfect, whose heart is completely detached from earth and given to God, and who consequently are entirely at peace within themselves. These three degrees are also known as the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive way. They correspond in the supernatural life to the three stages of man’s natural life; childhood, the period of mental and physical weakness; adolescence, the period of development; and man hood, the period of maturity. St. Ignatius enjoins upon beginners meditation on the four last things; on the advanced, consideration of the Passion of Our Lord; on the perfect, contemplation of the divine goodness and of celestial joys. There is no end to the way of perfection, for the love of God is without limit. “He who is just, let him be justified still, and he that is holy, let him be sanctified still” (Apoc. xxii. 11). It is however, within the power of man to approach very near, while still on earth, to the state of the blessed in heaven.
5. There is no state or calling of life in which Christian perfection is not possible.
Saints are formed in every class, from the highest to the lowest. To love God and one’s neighbor is within every one’s power. “How easy a thing it is,” savs St. Bonaventure, “to love God; there is nothing laborious, nothing disagreeable involved in it.” In fact nothing is more delightful to the heart than to love God. From other good works a man may excuse himself, saying: “I cannot fast; I have not the means to give alms;” but no one can say: “I cannot love.” Pious practices must be proportioned to the powers and adapted to the occupations and duties of the individual. St. Francis of Sales compares piety to a fluid, which takes the shape of the vessel in which it is contained.