“Be Perfect”

“Be Perfect” March 3, 2014

In his reflections on February 23rd’s Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:38-48), Carl Olson draws attention to the ease with which a priest and his congregation glossed over Jesus’ words: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Perfectionism can lead to pride and personality disorders.  Better to acknowledge our limitations, and try to be “the best policeman, or fireman, or Indian chief, that we can be,” Olson’s priest advised in his homily.  This is no doubt good advice, but Olson points out that this is not what Christ says. Christ’s words in the Gospel do not demand a moral perfection that is impossible in this life, but they do ask us to be holy. It costs something to be a child of God.  Yet the Gospel’s literal injunction to be perfect scandalizes us, and our discomfort discloses something about our modern habit of being.

The great exegete Origen of Alexandria, writing in the early 3rd century, did not shy away from the Gospel’s literal call to perfection.  For the Christian, becoming perfect is simply growing up.  In his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen links the Bride’s words: “Your breasts are better than wine” (Songs 1:2) to Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  “As long as a person is a child,” Origen perceives, “and has not yet offered himself wholly to God, he drinks the wine which that field produces, which holds within itself the hidden treasure too; and he is gladdened by the wine he drinks.”[1]  But the mature soul, having found the treasure and enjoyed the wine, sells all that he has and becomes perfect.  Perfection, Origen realizes, begins with the free commitment of one’s freedom to God, without reservation.  And so Origen recognizes the Bride in the Song as a perfect soul, for she promises not to hold back any part of herself from the Bridegroom.

Living in an age of martyrs, Origen had no trouble perceiving that Christ asks us to offer ourselves wholly to God.  John Henry Newman, however, recognized this single-minded commitment to be peculiarly difficult for modernity.  According to Newman, the thoughts and sensibilities of our liberal age have been formed by men like John Locke, who offered a therapy for the pathology of enthusiasm in Europe’s 16th and 17th c. Religious Wars. Too much enthusiasm, or too strong of belief, proved to be dangerous, and so Locke came up with a philosophy to moderate people’s convictions. As Newman points out, however, once the therapy is no longer necessary, it becomes a new pathology.

In A Grammar of Assent, Newman demonstrates that it is the normal condition of the human mind to make judgments, or to give unconditional assent to truth claims without lengthy processes of reasoning.  The truths of faith, in particular, ask for the mind’s full adherence.  This involves an act of will, since truths never force themselves upon the mind with a certainty that leaves no space for freedom.  But Newman recognizes that another feature of the modern age is to divorce the mind and the heart.  We have forgotten that the ability to recognize truth depends upon one’s character.  In his Oxford University Sermon “Willfulness, the Sin of Saul,” Newman explains that a habit of obedience is necessary for belief.  The fear of freely yielding one’s mind and will to the word of another obstructs a clear view of reality.  But this fear lurks in the heart of our age, overshadowing all of us whether we realize it or not.

Perhaps those who have not yet found the treasure of God’s word, and tasted the Church’s wine, need to learn to trust the Father’s goodness before they commit their whole selves to him, body, soul and spirit. Origen recognizes that there is a time of preparation before the Bride is ready for marriage; she must first hear about the Bridegroom from his messengers, and learn to recognize his voice as the true one.  But this preparation period is only for a time. “We call the soul a little child, but she is not so essentially,” Origen challenges.  “The King, the Word of God, reclines in the soul who has already come to perfection.”[2]

Christians have no excuse not to be perfect, and not to grow up.  We make our freedom real by exercising it, not by withholding it.  When we freely consecrate our minds and wills to Jesus Christ as members of His Body, the Church, promising to accept her words as the true ones and conform our life to them, we embark on the road to perfection. We become children of God by acting as if He is Our Father, and giving Him our freedom so that He can give us His holiness. It is good to be the best policeman, or fireman, or Indian chief that we can be, but let us not be held back in immaturity by the fear of risk and commitment that enervates our age. Origen’s singleness of mind helps us forward: “The other songs that the Law and the prophets sang, were sung to the Bride while she was still a little child and had not yet attained maturity. But this song is sung to her, now that she is grown up, and very strong, and ready for a husband’s power and the perfect mystery.”[3] We Christians have received the grace of Baptism and heard the Word of God. We are ready, as mature adults, to consecrate our freedom to God, in obedience to His Church, so that He can give us His perfection.

[1] Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs 1.2

[2] Origen, Comm. 2.8

[3] Origen, Prologue.4

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