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Why perfection seemed simple to St. Thérèse and how we get it all wrong

Jesus Christ reaching out to help those in need in a room lit with warm lights

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Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP - published on 02/18/23

This Sunday's Gospel has an impossible command. Until we understand that it's not about doing, but accepting.

Perfection is a thing we relentlessly pursue. We want perfect grades, a perfect vacation, the perfect spouse. But often our perception of perfection is itself imperfect. When Jesus commands us to “be perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is not instructing us to be flawless or faultless, to never make a mistake. 

The root of perfection

From a certain perspective, perfection here on earth simply is not possible. A classic text titled The Theology of Christian Perfection spells out why: 

Even in the heights of perfection there are voluntary faults and failures, as can be proved in the lives of the saints. The reason is that, even when the faculties and powers of the transformed soul are habitually ordained to God, they cannot be so in such a perfect manner that they will never be distracted or will never become attached to created goods and thereby commit certain imperfections or venial sins. On earth it is impossible to avoid all imperfection. 

Becoming perfect starts in frank self-knowledge. We are helped to understand this by Servant of God, Fr. Peter Semenenko, co-founder of the Resurrectionists: “The human spirit in itself is nothingness. Of itself it has nothing that could provide the human being with fullness, significance, greatness, power, and authority, that is every perfection. It has only the capacity for all these things.” 

The Lord’s summons to perfection is his revelation to us of our destiny. The best definition of “destiny” I have come across is that destiny is the urgency we feel inside to find out what makes being here worthwhile. Christ’s challenge aims to activate that urgency along with our willingness to embrace it. Because perfection doesn’t imply being impeccable. Rather, according to the root of the word, perfection is about possessing the end, the goal, the purpose for which we exist. 

Paul Claudel captures the core dynamic of the process of perfection: 

Christ tells us: I have not come to bring you paradise here and now; I have come to bring you the horizon, the sea, that is to say, freedom. I have come to bring you the desire and the direction, that secret understanding, throughout your travels, of your destination. To the burden that weighs you down, I have added longing. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In commanding us to this, Jesus is not asking us to do the impossible, but rather to accept it. Perfection happens when we allow our capacity for fullness to be filled by Another.

How to be perfect

The main trouble is that in trying to obey the Lord’s call to be perfect, we often go about it the wrong way. We buy in to the lie that we become perfect by bringing God our virtues so that he can validate them. But our attachment to our own virtues keeps us from relying on God — the only one who can fulfill our capacity for being perfect. That is the opposite of being perfect. When preoccupied with our own goodness — “perfectionism” — we neutralize and nullify God’s goodness. We make mercy moot. 

Then what should we do to become perfect? This: Bring God our weakness … our inability … our knowledge of our lack of goodness … our misery — the hopelessness we face apart from God. When we dare to stop trying to prove how good we are in ourselves … when we dare to rejoice in our very weakness, we are made perfect by God in the very knowledge of our imperfection. It is that humble acknowledgement of our real weakness which moves the Father to share his perfection with us. 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s wisdom as a Doctor of the Church radiates in a poignant remark: 

Perfection seems simple to me: Perfection consists in doing God’s will, in being what he wills us to be. I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.

Perfect like the Father

But just how is the heavenly Father perfect? St. Thomas Aquinas replies: 

The perfection of God consists in the most ample love of all people, both good and bad. It consists in gentleness, patience, moderation, and temperance of the appetites: the highest peace and tranquility of soul, so that no injury, wrath, or revenge can affect it; so that one is imperturbable and without passions. 

We begin to be perfect when we believe that the Father is loving us that way.

We are provided the perfect way to prepare for Holy Communion when at Mass we pray: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. And be made perfect.

~

Find Fr. Peter John Cameron’s reflection on the Sunday Gospel each week here.

Tags:
BibleSpiritual LifeSunday ReadingsTherese of Lisieux
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