IV. DETERMINATION TO ATTAIN PERFECTION.
Perfection is the absolute and complete attainment of man's final end or destiny. As a characteristic of a holy life on earth, however, perfection essentially consists in the love and friendship of God. There are three degrees or stages of this love. In the first man does as much good as is necessary to avoid offending God by mortal sin. In the second he goes farther and avoids deliberate venial sin. In the third stage he is so intimately united to God by the bond of divine charity that he corrects his natural defects and does the will of God in all things.
The general means whereby man grows in the love and friendship) of God and advances on the way to perfection are: (1) self-denial, or the subjugation of himself to the influence of grace; (2) the practice of virtue; (3) and conformity to the divine will.
The heavenly Father, being infinitely perfect, is the standard of all perfection. As the image and likeness of God, man's life-task is to reproduce in himself the divine perfections according to his capacity. Hence the Savior said: "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect'' (Matt. v. 48).
Man starts on the way to perfection as soon as he strives to know, love, and serve God. On the way he has Jesus for his model, Mary for his mother, the Church for his teacher, the Holy Ghost for his counselor, the priest of God for his director, the angels and saints for his friends, and prayer, the sacraments, and the sacramentals as the means of obtaining divine strength.
To progress securely on the way to perfection, man must advance gradually along the three stages, and be actuated by the determination not to relax until he has entered the kingdom of heaven.
1. The Christian Ideal
"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. iii. 17). Jesus Christ is the divine Model proposed for our imitation. His ambition was the glory of God and the welfare of souls; His strength, the love of God and of mankind; His daily bread, the will of His heavenly Father. He abhorred sin and triumphed over every weakness. He was the un- compromising enemy of the world and the conqueror of the powers of hell.
In us "the flesh lusteth against the spirit," while the world and the devil use even our friends to allure us to a life of self-indulgence. And yet "Time is short," ''Life shall pass as the trace of a cloud," "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this the judgment," "What things a man shall sow, those also he shall reap. These shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just into life everlasting."
We cannot escape from almighty God; neither can we turn back to nothingness. We must go onward, either on the broad road that leads to perdition or on the narrow way that leads to life everlasting.
If we constantly aim at the Christian ideal and strive to reproduce it in our lives, Jesus assures us that His yoke is sweet and His burden light. Trusting in Him, therefore, both for the grace to will and to do, we may confidently say with St. Paul: "I know whom I have believed, and I am certain that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day" (2 Tim. i. 12).
2. Horror for Sin.
Sin is a revolt, an act of the basest contempt and the vilest ingratitude towards the God of infinite majesty and goodness; an act which re- news the cause of the death of Jesus Christ. Sin robs man of the blessings of grace and of the treasures of merit and virtue. It turns him from the pursuit of happiness and plunges him into misery. From a child of God and an heir to the kingdom of heaven it degrades him into a slave of Satan, and condemns him to the punishment of hell.
The first step, therefore, in the pursuit of the Christian ideal is a horror for sin and its consequences, founded on the abiding conviction that sin is the greatest evil in the world. An abiding horror for sin thus impels man to negative perfection, (1) by guarding him against sinful temptations and occasions; (2) by prompting him to avoid every deliberate sinful action; (3) and, finally, by spurring him on to do penance for his past sins.
3. A Spirit of Reflection.
"With desolation is all the land made desolate; because there is none that considereth in the heart'' (Jer. xii. 11). In these words the prophet tells us why his people were steeped in ignorance and vice. There was "none that considereth in the heart." We consider in the heart by a spirit of reflection, by meditating on the eternal truths, and applying them honestly to ourselves.
No matter how fascinating the Christian ideal, or how shocking the malice and consequences of sin, the former will not attract us, nor the latter repel us unless we keep them vividly before our minds. Hence the older spiritual writers emphasized the necessity of mental prayer at stated times. If the stress and confusion of modern life will not permit us to set aside certain hours of the day for serious reflection, we must, to ensure our salvation,! | make up for this misfortune by cultivating a spirit of closer recollection and prayer in the performance of our routine duties. For, unless we keep the Christian ideal and the evil of sin vividly before our minds, they will gradually fade away, and, in proportion as they do, will they be replaced by worldly-mindedness and selfishness of heart. As the attitude of the mind engenders the desires of the heart and the resolution of the will, and dictates our rule of conduct, a spirit of reflection is the first requisite on the narrow way.
4. A Spirit of Compunction.
The habitual grief of the soul arising from a constant remembrance of our own sinfulness is called a spirit of compunction. It arises from concentrating our horror of sin in general on our own sins in particular. This reflection makes us realize our guilt and the punishment our sins deserve. The disposition which results is called a spirit of compunction because it pierces our hearts with a detestation and hatred of our sins, and prompts us to exclaim in the words of Jeremiah: " The mercies of the Lord that we were not consumed '' (Lam. iii. 22).
The spirit of compunction prompts us to do violence to ourselves for the kingdom of heaven, and to despise the world and the powers of darkness. It grounds us in humility and the fear of the Lord, and spurs us on to serve God ever with greater generosity and stronger fidelity.
5. Subjugation of the Flesh.
Before sin came into the world man's lower nature was under the control of his reason. Now "the flesh lusteth against the spirit" and "he that soweth in his flesh, of the flesh also shall reap corruption" (Gal vi. 8). By the subjugation of the flesh we therefore mean the bringing of our animal cravings under the dominion of reason. To effect this subjugation of the flesh we must (1) compel it to do penance for its rebellion; (2) mortify the senses and passions to bring them into subjection; (3) and pray earnestly for light to see ourselves as God sees us, and for grace to triumph in this lifelong conflict.
6. Subjugation of the Spirit.
''Where pride is, there also shall be reproach : but where humility is, there also is wisdom" (Prov. xi. 2). Pride is the beginning of all sin, humility the bed-rock on which our spiritual edifice must rest. Pride is an exaggerated idea of our excellence, humility the realization of the truth that we are nothing of ourselves but sin. Pride prompts us to be " like unto God” and to assert our independence; humility prompts us to live in grateful subjection to God, on whom we entirely depend.
By the subjugation of the spirit we therefore mean (1) the discarding of the groundless pre- tensions of pride; (2) and habituating ourselves to conform to truth and justice, especially as proposed to us by the teaching of faith.
7. Contempt of the World,
As followers of Jesus Christ we must despise and hate the world. We must despise its false principles and maxims, its selfish motives and hypocritical rules of conduct. We must hate its seductive honors and allurements, and scorn its tyrannical assumptions and implacable enmity.
The world hates the truth, and rewards its slaves with temporal and eternal misery. Contempt of the world is, therefore, both an evidence and an effect of a practical faith. The light of faith alone enables us to understand the false assumptions and the pernicious influence of the world, and to triumph over it and the weakness of human respect. Hence St. John says: "Whatever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith" (John v. 4).
8. Contempt of Satan.
Since Mary crushed the serpent's head, and Jesus triumphed over the powers of hell, Satan has become as a chained dog or as a caged beast. As long as we (1) fear and tremble at the thought of our own weakness, (2) watch and pray lest we fall into temptation, (3) and call on Jesus and Mary in time of temptation, we enjoy the special protection of divine Providence, and may safely despise all the powers of hell. In fact, an excessive fear of the power of Satan springs as much from a want of confidence in God, as a false security against the powers of darkness is an evidence of a want of practical faith. In the temptation in the desert Jesus was, humanly speaking, taken at a disadvantage by the devil. And yet He did not give way to fear when tempted, but calmly said: "Begone, Satan: for it is written, the Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve'' (Matt. iv. 10).
9. A Spirit of Prayer.
To take up our daily cross and follow the Master we need the help of God at every step. By our daily prayers and frequentation of the sacraments we ordinarily do not submit ourselves sufficiently to the influence of grace to progress with the full liberty of children of God. For this a spirit of prayer is necessary. Three pious practices combine to form a spirit of prayer: (1) the habit of recollection, or living in the presence of God; (2) the habit of devotion, or inclining to God with childlike confidence; (3) the habit of ejaculatory prayer and interior communion with God.
Sincerity is that attitude of our mind which, being free from ignorance or bias, enables us to grasp the excellence of the Christian ideal, and begets the desire and the resolution to attain it. It results from a serious reflection on the teaching of faith, united with heartfelt prayer. Sincerity enables us to view life from the true, eternal, immutable standpoint of almighty God-
It manifests itself in that single-mindedness of purpose which subordinates all things to "the one thing necessary" and renders us indifferent to all that is not subservient to this end. It was this sincere apprehension of the relative value of temporal and eternal things that made St. Paul exclaim: “I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ'' (Phil. iii. 8).
The desire of perfection is a longing to please God and to make the necessary sacrifices to do His holy will in all things. "Holy desires are the blessed wings,’ says St. Alphonsus, "on which the saints fly to the mountain of perfection." As the heart necessarily desires whatever the mind apprehends as excellent and attainable, the ardor of our desires will naturally grow or diminish in proportion as we grasp the importance of spiritual things or permit them to fade from our minds. Holy desires inspire us (1) with the courage to enter resolutely on the narrow way, (2) with the strength to surmount all obstacles, (3) with the fortitude to face the temptations and trials of life. To inspire us with these desires it is especially useful, besides meditating on the eternal truths and the life of our blessed Savior, to study the lives of those saints who at one time had been great sinners, or who lived and sanctified themselves in our own circumstances. Such examples will prompt us to say with St. Augustine: "These have done it, those have done it; why then cannot I?"
In the spiritual life a resolution is a determination to please God. We should make the resolution to belong entirely to God and to please Him in all things. "God looks for only one resolution on our part," truly remarks St. Teresa, "and He will do the rest Himself." By this resolution, firmly and irrevocably made and continually applied to the circumstances of our daily lives, we are made fit material, like clay in the potter's hands, to be transformed by God into vessels of election.
According to St. Alphonsus this resolution includes the determination (1) to avoid every deliberate fault; (2) to detach ourselves from earthly things; (3) to be faithful in prayer and mortification; (4) to keep the eternal truths and the passion of Jesus Christ before our minds; (5) to resign ourselves to the will of God in adversities; (6) to beg of God continually the gift of His holy love; (7) to do what seems most pleasing to God; (8) to carry this resolution into effect in the present.
The three general motives which prompt us to form and keep this resolution are the fear of hell, the desire of heaven^ and the love of God.
Generosity is “wholesouledness” in the service of God. The generous Christian knows his limitations as well as the timid and the lukewarm, but, serving God through love, he joyfully does what he can, and confidently relies on the assistance and guidance of heaven. With St. Paul he not only says, '^ I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me,'' but is also, like him, willing to endure all things that God ordains. Generosity is begotten by the fear of the Lord, stimulated by the hope of reward, and perfected by the love of God. It makes us detest the faults of the past, rejoice in the good we have done, utilize the present moment faithfully, and desire to do great things to testify our love and devotion. Generosity makes us seek opportunities of doing good, seize them with aridity, and produce a perfect work. It was the generosity of St. Paul that prompted him to be anathema from Christ for the conversion of his brethren (Rom. ix. 3).
Fervor is affection in the service of God. What generosity is in disposition that fervor is in action. St. Basil calls fervor an efficacious desire of pleasing God in all things. When a good will has blossomed into holy desires and matured into a practical resolution, it stimulates the affections of a generous soul and makes them glow with fervor.
Fervor manifests itself (1) by the rigor of our penance and mortification; (2) by our recollection and devotion in prayer; (3) by our zeal for the glory of God and the good of souls; (4) and by our love of humiliation and the cross.
Fervor imparts that facility and sweetness to the service of God which accelerates and insures our progress in perfection.
Docility is submissiveness to the will of God, whether made known by His law, through the voice of our superior, or by the inspiration of grace. It manifests itself in the respect we have for authority, in the reverence we have for our superiors, and in the readiness with which we welcome the inspirations of grace. Young Samuel had this spirit of docility when he said: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth" (1 Kings iii. 10). King David also gave us an example of it when he prayed: “Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God” (Ps. cxlii. 10).