Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Three Grades of Perfection

1. God's great commandment could create in us a sense of confusion and fear. You are to be perfect, He orders us, even as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:48) Is it possible for weak creatures like us to achieve the perfection of God Himself? At first sight this commandment seems quite impossible, but it is possible for us to act upon it with the grace of God. We must understand it properly, in any case. We shall never reach divine perfection, but we are obliged by Our Lord's command to strive towards it constantly by every means in our power. Perfection should be our most ardent desire, and not merely a theoretical ideal, but a practical aim. This practical intention can inspire our entire life in such a way that it will become a continual ascent towards sanctity and towards God. We need never lose heart even when we suffer a set-back in our spiritual progress. God allows us to fall so that we may be humbled and may place our trust in His grace instead of in ourselves.

2. According to St. Ignatius there are three grades of perfection. The first consists in being ready to avoid mortal sin at all costs, even to the ultimate sacrifice. Circumstances may require us to be martyrs for the faith by being prepared to shed our blood rather than deny Jesus. Circumstances may also require us to be martyrs for our Christian way of life by being prepared to lose everything, health, fortune, and friendship, rather than commit a mortal sin. We are all obliged to reach this first grade of perfection. If anyone refuses to recognise this, he is already in a state of mortal sin in so far as he is prepared to sin grievously rather than make' any real sacrifice. Such a man loves himself and his own comfort more than he loves God.

The second grade of perfection consists in a state of indifference to created things, to everything except God, whether it is to health or sickness, wealth or poverty, praise or blame, success or failure. All these things can be used equally well in the loving service of God and in the salvation of our souls. The first grade of perfection is based on the love of God. The second is founded on the love of God alone, so that we are indifferent to everything else as long as we love, serve and give glory to God. We seek other things only in so far as they can help us to know and love God better. We avoid them in so far as they can keep us apart from Him.

3. The third grade of perfection consists in preferring suffering to pleasure, humiliations to honours, and the cross to an easy life. By these means we imitate Christ better and show our love for Him. The way of the cross is the way of Jesus and is the only path to holiness. It is easier for those who walk this path to be detached from sin and from the world and to remain close to Jesus. This is the way which the Saints chose.

In which grade of perfection are we? Even if we are still far from the peak of the third grade of perfection, we should nevertheless work hard to reach it. It is particularly essential that we should stand firm in the first grade by being faithful to the motto of St. Dominic Savio: "Death rather than sin!"