Many of us had music lessons in childhood. Hours dedicated to scales, rote exercises and simple songs which laid the foundation, introducing us to the challenging world of the arts. We progressed like wayward turtles, with the thrill of strange noises soon giving way to boredom and frustration. What was the expectation, really? The parents hovered wonderingly, the bills piled up, and decisions had to be made. The same scenario could be applied to dance, sports, and a host of formative activities. Every enterprise was meant lift us out of ignorance and to offer wholesome pleasure, all the while measuring our acumen and ability.
I use this analogy to illustrate what Our Lord meant when he charged us to “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Surely this command can seem absurd — especially in light of the fact that the Genesis account of original sin was precisely because our first parents arrogated to themselves a status equal to God, the height of pride! Only God is perfect, as far as we understand it to mean excellence or lack of defect.
A little wordplay is in order, because to discover what God’s call to perfection really entails requires that we understand the original Greek, and the nascent powers that humans possess. The word translated as “perfect” is telios, which means that something is brought to its full purpose in light of why it was created. That is why I began with music. All who struggled (and all who listened patiently to those struggles!) wondered just how much potential was there. Were there prodigies at work, or just average musicians? Hard work and time would tell (just as minimal work and quitting at the first opportunity wouldn’t tell). There is the gift, and there is the response to develop the gift, and there is the true potential which is unknown until one really applies himself.
To be clear, virtue is a perfection of a power, a specific ability that a person has been given. Some powers are morally neutral — for example violin or sprinting; others are entirely moral — such as piety and courage. Perfection of a power (virtue) therefore means that a potential is stretched to reach its given purpose — a combination of human effort and divine grace; and to round out this exercise I’d like to draw your attention to a delightful virtue called magnanimity, which is when someone recognizes in himself a God-given power and uses it for the greatest good. The beauty of the Christian life is that any power can be used for great things when done with a firm intention to give glory to God. From the Carmel of Lisieux to the slums of Calcutta, the simplest of women showed us that little things done with great love could be powerful ways of “magnifying the Lord.”
And what does the Church teach about this task? She boldly proclaims of her Lord: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” You see, this definition now explains that the end (the telios) of the Incarnation was suffering and death for our sake. Out of love for us, Jesus never deviated from his purpose — that is why he came. And how do we make a return for that gift? We should develop our God-given potential in imitation of him, thereby giving glory to the Father.
So many gifts, so little time! The call is clear. There will be frustration and lapses, obstacles and suffering, but the Church has channels of grace to help all souls persevere. She has also compiled the cumulative wisdom of countless saints who took the call to perfection seriously. If we weren’t capable of this perfection, God would not have demanded it; indeed it is a false humility to say we have no gifts. Those who have gone before us are praying that we follow them in the way of perfection, and the Church stands ready to assist in the task. As Léon Bloy wrote: “Life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” Perfection is entirely accessible to all, for while many of us are tone-deaf and flat-footed, none are without adequate graces to fulfill their potential.