Perfection Reconsidered

This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, March 20, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

Last Saturday, my bride and I went to morning Mass together. In the gospel, Jesus admonishes His disciples, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I’ve always taken this to be a tall order—impossible, in fact, for anyone but God alone. It almost always makes me feel small, weak, and inadequate to the task. These feelings may be true, but do not seem particularly helpful when it comes to striving for sainthood.

But Father Joe tweaked my thinking with his homily Saturday morning.

“Notice,” he said, “that the Lord doesn’t say, ‘Do everything perfectly,’ but ‘Be perfect.’”

He went on to explain that, with our fallen nature, we cannot expect never to make mistakes—but that we should do the best we can in every circumstance, striving to love as God loves.

It makes sense: Be perfect as God is perfect. Our God is perfect love. Love is willing the good of the other. We should will the good of the other in every circumstance and do our best to carry it out. That seems doable—or at very least, attemptable—with God’s grace.

“What does it take to become a saint?” says St. Thomas Aquinas. “Will it.”

This, too, always struck me as an intimidating statement, equivalent to Nike’s “Just do it.” Despite my namesake, I’m no athlete, so the idea of lacing up a pair of Air Jordans and flying anywhere under my own power is highly unlikely. So, too, is the idea of me deciding to me holy, then strapping on wings and a halo to fly to heaven.

I will err. I will fail. I will fall. Then what?

Thankfully, our Lord is not a statistician or an economist. He is not a God of efficiency or achievement, but of grace and mercy, repentance, and conversion. Do our good works matter? Of course. But our motives matter more. We can attempt to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons and not advance an inch in sanctity. We can treat perfection of outcomes as the goal and drive ourselves to depression or madness when we fail to achieve them. Or we can do the best we are able, out of love, and let the God of Love work wonders through us.

What does it take to be a perfect? Will the good, and trust “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it” (Philippians 1:6). O Lord, do not permit my limitations to get in the way of the perfect love You wish to share through me. Amen.

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