On striving for perfection

Our ultimate goal in life, a supernatural goal, which is the face-to-face vision of God in heaven for all eternity, is a state of perfection. 

Gradual progress or growth from imperfect to perfect is a natural characteristic of all living creatures, both material and spiritual.  This principle applies even to angels, since they had to pass a test before being admitted to paradise.  But it is especially true of all plants and animals, including human beings who are gifted with rationality.

Plants begin as seeds, and through nourishment, grow to maturity.  Animals are generated in a small and weak state and gradually, through nourishment and with time, develop into mature animals.  Human beings are born as helpless infants, needing lots of care and protection so that they can grow strong, and eventually take care of themselves.  A “perfect” infant possesses all that a child needs to live; but he or she is not a perfect human being because the infant cannot use its innate powers until they have time to develop and mature.

What does it mean to be perfect?  Perfect is defined as that which is complete or whole.  So a perfect house, or a perfect car, is one that is complete—it has everything it needs to function well, as a house or as a car.  The imperfect is anything that lacks wholeness and completeness.  So a house without a roof is imperfect, and a car with no motor is imperfect.

My reason for raising this subject is that Our Lord tells us, in Matthew 5:48, that we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.  Also, I have noticed, in reading St. Thomas Aquinas, that he often uses the distinction between what is imperfect and what is perfect.

Our ultimate goal in life, a supernatural goal, which is the face-to-face vision of God in heaven for all eternity, is a state of perfection.  Everyone in heaven right now is perfect.  Each one is perfect, according to the degree of grace attained, according to divine providence, something similar to the hierarchies of angels.  God alone is infinitely perfect in every way.

Perfection in this life means developing all of one’s faculties, and practicing all the virtues, especially the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.  For example, what is required by the Church in the canonization process is that the individual under consideration must be proven to have practiced heroic virtue, that is, to have achieved a certain perfection.

What we are concerned about is Christian and spiritual perfection.  Many books and guides to attain this have been written by experts in the field, such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, and many others.

In the religious orders, there are different approaches to perfection, such as Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, Cistercian, Carmelite, and so forth.

Perfection for the Christian, no matter which group he belongs to—priest, religious, or lay, consists in the imitation of Christ.  Jesus Christ is the model.  He was, and is, perfect in every virtue, and it is virtue that makes a man good.  He tells us, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).

Is perfection attainable for weak human beings?  The answer is:“Yes!” but only with the grace of God, universal charity, the practice of the Beatitudes, and letting the Holy Spirit work in us through his Seven Gifts.  As the Christian striving for perfection gets closer to the goal, he or she is filled with love for God and man, radiating the joy which is manifested in the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit.  We are all called to strive for perfection. Therefore, it is important to pray every day for the grace to achieve it.  There is nothing in this life more important than attaining perfection in imitation of Christ Our Lord.

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avatar About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.

Comments

  1. avatar Tran says:

    Wonderful reflection! Thank you so much!

  2. avatar Ramanie says:

    Dear Fr Kenneth Baker S.J
    Thank you for this wonderful article.Offers very good motivation. God Bless you always.

  3. Thank you, Fr. Baker, for this crucially important message. As the Catechism reminds us,
    (#2013) “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” (LG 40 # 2) All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

    I have been saddened many times by contrary messages from the pulpit along the lines of, “Well, we do our best. No one is perfect.” No, if we sincerely longed for and did our best we would progress step by step, with His grace and through our prayers and sufferings, toward this perfection that is God’s call to us: the true maturity of human life!

    Alongside – or following – the classic authors you cited, I would add the excellent and comprehensive two-volume work on Catholic spiritual theology, “The Three Ages of the Interior Life,” by Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. I would also add my own efforts to present this journey in a way accessible and understandable to serious lay Catholic men and women, in my book, “The Ordinary Path to Holiness.” Our common and ordinary vocation to enter into holy communion with God leads us along a path well-traveled and well-described by many saints. To discover this path – to find the road-map and the markers along the journey – is the rightful inheritance of every Catholic! Few, it seems, have yet to hear of it.

  4. avatar Jim says:

    My understanding differs. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, we must not focus on ourselves or each other, but focus on God. Complete meditation on the real perfection of God can lead us to these other perfections (charity, holiness, virtues and fruits of the spirit) as a secondary effect. When focused on Jesus as our human ideal, and the Holy Spirit as our help and guide, only then will these other gifts flow and we will naturally exude these secondary gifts and virtues. In other words, I don’t practice these virtues in order to be more perfect, I practice these virtues because God is perfect and He has changed me. One can exhibit heroic virtue despite many imperfections. One can practice kindness and temperance. Unless one focuses entirely on God, these practices may not be from the Holy Spirit but the human spirit. If they are from the human spirit they are a futile exercise in being perfect by one’s own strength – an impossibility because of the necessity of grace for salvation. If you want perfection, Jesus says to focus not on perfection, but on the Father: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As you know from the gospel, focusing on the Father’s will is exactly what Jesus did.

  5. avatar Fr. Kevin L. Badeaux says:

    Fr. Baker’s article speaks of the development of our faculties and the practice of virtues which certainly require effort and acts of will on our part. However, pace Jim, I don’t think Fr. Baker is suggesting that the focus should be on ourselves and one another rather than upon God. As Jim suggests, it is a paradox that only by focusing on the Father rather than ourselves can we grow to be our best selves by God’s grace.

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