The other day my friend, Daniel, was talking to me about Jesus' admonition to his disciples to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:48) It's one of those passages that's easy to file away in my mind as impossible to achieve (and thus not worth striving toward), or to interpret in such a way as to diminish the challenge. So I can try to understand it as the ancient Greeks understood perfection, which, as I recall from seminary, was for an object to be used in the way it was intended to be used. So, for example, my pen is perfect when I'm using it to write with. In that sense, perfection is doing that which God made me to do.
That means, of course, that discernment is critical. I have to discern my gifts, talents and skills. I have to discern what issues in the world today engage my heart and mind and don't let me go. I have to pay attention to the feedback I get from other people, as well as the input that the Lord is offering me in the scriptures and his Church's teaching.
But even in that understanding of perfection I cannot escape what is, I believe, at the root of the command of Jesus, and that is spiritual perfection. After all, the Father, while the Creator of all that is, including all matter, is not himself material. Ultimately, doing what God made me to do means doing God's will in all things.
Daniel mused, "Doesn't the fact that Jesus command us to be perfect mean that it must be possible? Not on our own, of course, but with his grace? And if it's possible, doesn't that mean that I have to seek after that perfection every moment of every day? And how can that happen unless I'm talking to him throughout my day, before and during every activity, every conversation?"
He began to speculate how often an examen of conscience might be needed throughout the day, and would it be possible to be perfect through mid-morning, or midday, even.
It's sad how easily I can dismiss the hard sayings of Jesus. Yet what am I going to say when I face him at my judgment? "Oh, I thought you were exaggerating! I knew it wasn't possible, so I didn't even bother trying." To dismiss the call to perfection is to deny the efficacy of sanctifying grace, which we are ordinarily offered through the sacraments. For me to not even strive for perfection is to say to God, "You're not powerful enough to help me overcome my sinfulness. You can't make me a new creation, steady my spirit, or turn my stony heart into a natural heart." Sure, alone I can't do it on my own, but what might be possible for God? The angel Gabriel tells Mary "nothing will be impossible for God" (Lk 1:37), and Jesus echoes that sentiment in saying, "all things are possible for God." (Mk 10:27)
It's tragic how much we try to control our environment and the people in it, while we give up so easily when it comes to trying to control ourselves. We get so angry when people don't bend to our will, or when situations, many of which are extremely complex, don't turn out the way we want.
When we were baptized and anointed king (along with priest and prophet) we were anointed so that we could govern, and the first thing we are to govern is ourselves! Yet my refusal to do so is to give into the age-old temptation to demand, "Not Thy will, but MY will be done!"
I don't fear my friend Daniel falling into perfectionism, which usually refers to a need to control my environment ("are the hospital corners on my bed really tight enough?") Nor do I fear him becoming scrupulous, because he is much too secure in the knowledge of God's love for him. If the striving for perfection is grounded in a reciprocal love for God and a desire to please him even more than we already do; if it is rooted in a desire to give him glory through our smallest actions and each word from our lips, then I don't imagine the search for perfection becoming an occasion for self-flagellation or self-absorption. Rather, my failures become opportunities to ask God's forgiveness and patience, and to beg for more grace. It places me in a stance of supplication and dependence, or what could be properly called poverty of spirit.
This search for spiritual perfection, if it is genuine, will not make me self-absorbed, but thrust me into concern for the welfare of others. Not the desire to change them (they are not to be subject to my will), or even to judge whether or not they are seeking spiritual perfection, but into a stance of humble service. I will want to serve others, forgive others, heal others, work for justice for others, protect others, because all these are commands of God.
And isn't this search for spiritual perfection really at the heart of the life of each of the saints we honor and from whom we ask for intercession? Aren't they held up to us as models for imitation by the Church so that we may imitate them? I don't mean imitating the details of their lives, but their desire to please God in all things. These men and women we call "friends of God" became his friends during their lifetime, and through their daily conversations with him and through making his will their own were not strangers to him when their lives ended.
I was challenged by Daniel's musings, but also inspired by them, which is why I share them with you. And just to add an exclamation point to his conversation with me, the reading for that night prayer was just one verse from St. Paul:
"May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thessalonians 5:23)