For the better part of 35 years Katherine and I have lived in Virginia while Katherine’s parents have lived in Western Massachusetts. Because of this accident of geography, I am familiar with just about every possible way to drive between Virginia and the Berkshires. Freeways and backroads; direct, indirect, and completely out of our way.
As it happens, the halfway point of the most direct path is quite near the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, home to those nuns we know as the Summit Dominicans. The Summit Dominicans are true nuns: contemplative consecrated Dominican women living in a cloister (as opposed to sisters, which is the proper term for women in active religious communities).
We began our friendship with the Summit Dominicans when we invited ourselves to their celebration of the 800th anniversary of the founding of second order of Dominicans back in May of 2007. Since then we have enjoyed their company in their visiting parlor many times. And they have been kind enough to put us up in their guest room on several occasions when we opted for the direct route to Katherine’s parents, but still needed two days to make the trip.
The Summit Dominicans are a very vibrant community. Given that they are contemplative, they have a surprising number of incoming vocations year after year. And we at the Fund have been fortunate to assist several of their members with entrance.
I introduce them here because one of their number has written a very good post about Perfection of Charity, a subject which I find fascinating.
A few months after my conversion to Catholicism, I found myself at retreat house listening to the Gospel reading in which our Lord suggests what caught my attention as an impossibly tall order: “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What could Christ possibly mean by this? Over the years, I have come to understand this as one of the more important injunctions from our Lord, but I still have no idea how we can hope to be as perfect as our Father in heaven.
A nun at the Summit Dominicans reflects on what Perfection of Charity means for religious. In the process, though, she imparts to those of us in the lay state some very useful insights about how to love God and how to not let the difficulty of Christ’s injunction turn into a fear that it is an impossibility.
I have reproduced her post below. You can find the original (with footnotes) at: https://summitdominicans.org/blog/2021/2/1/be-perfect-part-one
Be Perfect: Part One
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Let’s be perfectly honest for a moment. If you’re anything like me, this verse is likely to bring on a light sweat. “You… must be perfect” is rough enough, but “as your heavenly Father is perfect”? I used to have trouble keeping up with the
Martha Stewart Home Collection! What on Earth can Our Lord mean by this? Because if it’s that I ought to be pulling up my own boot straps, I’m going to go ahead and hand in my boots right now.
On this World Day for Consecrated Life, the problem appears to be made even worse for us consecrated religious (or those on the way to becoming consecrated religious). By professing a vow to maintain poverty, chastity and obedience for life, the religious is said to enter into a ‘State of Perfection’. Now, with respect to all my sisters, the closest thing I’ve seen to perfect in our house is Sr. Mary Catharine’s Triple Crème cheese. What hope is there of our living in a constant ‘State of
Perfection’ for life?
I feel tired just thinking about it.
Fortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas is here to help. After a few thousand words, he can always clear things up. With regards to Christian perfection, he only needs a few paragraphs! In Question 184 of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas makes it clear that actual perfection is not required, not for the Christian, and not even for those called to enter the religious life – “The Divine Law does not prescribe the impossible.” For which we can all be exceedingly thankful.
So, what does it mean, then, for the Christian to ‘be perfect’? And what does it mean for consecrated religious to live in a ‘State of Perfection’?
First of all, St. Thomas reminds us that, for something to be perfect, it should attain to its proper end – that for which it was made. For the human person, that ‘proper end’ is nothing less than total union with God Himself. And, since St. John tells us that “he that abides in love (charity) abides in God, and God abides in him”, it is clear that charity is the path to that end. Therefore, the perfection of the Christian life consists in perfect charity.
So far, a little clearer, but how do we reach perfect charity?
St. Thomas tells us that it can be perfected in three key ways. The first is absolute on the part of the lover and the one loved. This means that God is loved fully as he deserves to be. Since He is infinite Goodness, nothing can love Him in this way except Himself. We creatures are finite, so we could never contain that much love in our limited selves!
The second kind of perfection is at least possible for us, and that is perfection on the part of the lover. This means that the person loving (that’s us!) loves with their whole being, without any obstacle between their love and the one loved. Well, at least it’s possible for us in Heaven…
But what about right now?
That’s where the third kind of perfection comes in, what we’re ultimately capable of in this life, and that is a partial perfection on the part of the lover. This means that, while we’re still on the way to total charity, there is nothing tripping us up on the road – we’re free to run to Him, without mortal sin, or any other affections barring the way or keeping us distracted from giving our whole selves to Him. This is what many of the saints lived while on earth, and it’s the ‘be perfect’ that Jesus earnestly desires for us and knows will help us to reach total union with the Father in Heaven. That’s why He said that all of the law and the prophets rest on two commandments, “… love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “… love your neighbor as yourself”.
Does that mean that those who are in a ‘State of Perfection’ have already made it? Hardly.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
The ‘Perfect’ Jesus asks of us is the perfection of our love – not that we love God absolutely, or even with complete freedom, but that we allow the grace of God to remove every obstacle to our love. If this is the call to perfection for every
Christian, though, what does it mean for consecrated religious to be living in the State of Perfection?
Well, for those of us called to this life, a little more is asked in terms of Jesus’ admonition – though it should be clear that this does not mean that we are already perfect! Rather, we are invited to follow Jesus in a particular way.
To return to St. Thomas Aquinas, human beings are able to love at varying levels: you can love God by never doing anything contrary to charity, like mortal sin, but you can also love God by refraining even from certain lawful things in order to better turn your whole heart to Him. (Like saying ‘No’ to that extra cookie we’re all eyeing before Ash Wednesday.) The nearer an act of love is to what it was made for – union with God – the more perfect it is of itself. This doesn’t mean that those who love by other means are less perfect (that depends on how well the person loves!), but that the acts that tend to God directly are more completely like the love we will know in Heaven. It is these acts of love, and the choice to forgo some very good things for God’s sake, that define religious life.
The Church makes this distinction through the way Our Lord speaks about charity.
He makes very clear that we are commanded to love the Lord, Our God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves if we want to enter into God’s life. But He also invites some to go further. St. Thomas highlights two examples:
- Christ says to a rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”; and
- Christ admonishes the people: “… [T]here are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
In these examples, Aquinas finds three key aspects of this invitation – voluntary poverty (“… sell what you have…”), chastity (“… eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”), and obedience to Christ (“… follow me.”). These might ring a pretty clear bell, because they are widely considered to be the three pillars of the religious life. They are called the ‘Evangelical Counsels’, and while they are not exactly equivocal to the vows professed by all religious, St. Thomas makes clear that they are a necessary part of living in the State of Perfection.
This brings us to the last point regarding this State of Perfection: the vows. The invitation from Christ to live these counsels is not a requirement; we can still reach perfect charity if we choose not to accept it, and many Christians who are not living formal religious lives, keep the Counsels very faithfully. So why is it necessary for religious to vow themselves to live this way rather than doing it freely from day to day?
St. Thomas’s answer rests on one key concept: stability. When he describes a ‘state’ of life, he means a sure path toward perfect charity, a stable path that we can persevere in to reach our goal. For this reason, St. Thomas requires a commitment to that way of life under due solemnity. The most fitting manner of achieving this is through the making of public vows, which binds the religious in the same way that spouses are bound by their marriage vows. In this way, we speak of professed religious as being in a state of life that strives after perfection, or in the State of Perfection.
Ultimately, this all sounds quite burdensome! Why would anyone take aboard these additional obligations when they can love God perfectly without them? Since most of us have a hard enough time realizing the simpler end, isn’t it madness to weigh down the load? This is where it’s important to remember that every state of life is one graced by God, and that with every seeming burden there is an abundant gift from the Blessed Trinity, who burns to see us united with Him more than we ourselves do. My religious life may ask a lot, but it also gives me “immeasurably more than all [I] ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).
By: Corey Huber, Fund for Vocations Founder