Sunday, June 27, 2010

Struggle and Perfection

Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

So ends the fifth chapter of St Matthew's Gospel. It, of course, is part of the discourse that Our Lord gave on the mountain setting not only the standards of social behaviour but, further, standards of intention, sincerity and modus vivendi. Following that sermon through from the Beatitudes right at the beginning to this statement, which is about a third of the way in, we are presented with standards which become progressively harder to the terrible "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you..." I don't see how one can read that statement and not shudder at its implications. To cap it all, we are to be Perfect as our Heavenly Father is Perfect. Well that puts the icing on the cake really, doesn't it?

We have had quite the interesting discussion about this on the Anglican Diaspora in particular with regard to the nature of repentance. I wish I could remember the precise wording, but I believe that one Desert Father was asked "what does it mean to repent?" and he replied "never to commit that sin again." Compare that with the Lord's edict, "go and sin no more."

Do we lose heart at these? The Lord teaches us that no less are the standards for Godly living and we can see these as legal, imperial edicts designed to impose the Will of an Imperial God and fear the consequences. One looks at the history of Christianity and Judaism and one can see attempts by moral authorities to control others by brow-beating them with absolutes and punishing with sword, rope, knife, axe and fire.

And then one can read the glorious Psalm cxviii (cxix) - all 176 verses of it - and realise that the Psalmist loves the decrees and commands devotedly, and yet he still manages to stray from them in the very last verse.

Perhaps then, we should understand these commandments of God as Absolutes only in the context of the Being of Our Absolute God whose being encompasses Eternity. Below, I make mention of the problem of tense whereby seeing a fixed progression of events one after another results in confusion. As temporal beings, we find ourselves bound in a fascinating matrix of cause and effect. Our tendency to sin is caused by the tendency of our fathers to sin, and the sins of our fathers do really affect the children to the third and fourth generation and far beyond. I would go as far to say that every sin that has been committed has affected every one of us, and that every sin that we ourselves commit affects everyone in our future (I could talk about the propagation of light-cones here, but I won't).

Clearly we struggle to keep the Lord's commands but we must understand that these commands have a freedom for us. I believe I see this freedom in the words that the Lord Himself uses.

Look at the word the Lord uses for "perfect" - τέλειοι - and compare this with one of the Seven Last Words from the Cross -Τετέλεσται- which defies a simple translation (and yet I, in my arrogance, tried here). This perfection is a fulfilment of intent, a becoming of what was intended, the end of growth, of a process. And this, for me, is key to the ideas of understanding the hard words of the Sermon on the Mount.

As temporal beings, we are in a process and we will continue in that process until we are perfected. I believe very strongly that this process for may of us will continue in a Purification after death which is called Purgatory. That is wherein our perfection lies. We have to go along with this process and by intending to go along with this process and allowing that growth to happen, nay, working for that growth to happen, then we find ourselves growing according to the edicts of the Sermon on the Mount. By seeking God, we become able to love our enemies, turn away from sin and do good. We don't become sinless at one point of time unless we are given grace so to be. We are to struggle and, even if we are sinless, we must struggle to be perfect.

Christ's ministry to us, while He walked with us, had to grow. It was not completed at the first utterance, or at the first miracle. No-one was saved at the moment of His birth, but He was expected to complete the same by His death.

His ministry was only truly perfected when He dangled, bled and died for us upon the cross, hence that glorious last word "Τετέλεσται". Christ as fully Human struggled to become perfect because He had given Himself up to the ravages of Time and although, being fully Divine, He was perfect, still He did not cling to that perfection, just as He did not cling to equality with God.

And He struggled. Dear God, how He struggled!

But He succeeded.

And saved us.

And He set the pattern for us. We have to wrestle with His words in the Sermon on the Mount. They are hard, and we cannot and should not just gloss over them in their being hard. We need to struggle with His words and put them into practice, continually repenting of our sins and being assured that in His love for us we WILL be forgiven. If there is no struggle in this life then we have settled for second best which is nothing at all. Our days should be filled with trying to bring the needle of our spiritual compass into line with Christ.

Further, if we try to eliminate all struggles from our worship of God and anaesthetise ourselves to this fact of hardship, then we are not giving all of ourselves to God - we will not be worshipping with all our hearts and minds and strength. How many Parishes have now given up on trying to teach the hard truth and deny their members struggles, and support them in their struggles through life? How many parishes dumb down so to "reach more people" by presenting them with an anodyne rather than give their struggles worth and meaning, removing the truth of the sheer foetidity of even the smallest sin and the spritual dangers to the soul?

We have to struggle and the Church exists to support that struggle, not relieve it because that relief comes through the perfection instigated and completed by God, first through his open arms upon the Cross and last through the painful, yet joyful, act of purification in Purgatory through which I fully believe the Divine Smile permeates to propel the inhabitants to their truly happy end. Look at the Beatitudes again: the blessed are those who struggle in life - the poor in spirit, the bereaved, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake. Each one has a particular and hard struggle in life.

I do pray for people as they struggle that they may be given enough rest to revive them before they continue to fight their way to perfection. But I also pray that their struggles produce the most magnificent effects that fling them joyfully into the arms of their Creator.

It is truly worth any struggle.

1 comment:

poetreader said...

This is a fine piece. Thank you. I especially like how you develop the notion of perfection as an eschatological objective, rather than as as something achievable in time. I am especially impressed with your mention of Psalm 119 -- the love of God's law by one who inescapable violates it -- precisely St. Paul's point in Romans 7.

I have very little to add to this, and not much further comment than this.

ed pacht