Sunday May 19, 2019
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Spencer
Perfection and Desire
Saint Augustine called the Sermon on the Mount “the perfect standard of the Christian life.”
“Enter through the narrow gate;” Jesus says in the piece of the Sermon on the Mount that we have today, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Biblical scholar and Catholic priest Frank Matera writes that “the Sermon on the Mount calls us to single-minded devotion to God. It invites us to be perfect as God is perfect by being wholehearted and undivided in our allegiance to God. It is a call to perfection for all Christians to be lived out in the whole of life.”
“Be perfect,” Jesus says earlier on in the Sermon on the Mount, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect. How do you feel about that word: perfect?
Me: I love it and I hate it.
I love it because I am a bit of perfectionist. Perfection seems like a really clear orienting concept of life. It points us in a clear direction. And our culture has all sorts of messages about perfection. Look at the beautiful, chiseled airbrushed people with their fabulous lives and perfect homes in advertisements and in popular culture and on social media. At work, in our professional conduct, in the world of business, too, we are supposed to be near enough to flawless, not making any mistakes. Culture and society seems to say: Be perfect, be flawless, be cinematically gorgeous. And our flawed, ordinary human lives, of course, don’t and can’t measure up.
And then if you’re anything like me, you very helpfully beat yourself up for that imperfection. For falling short. For being human.
So the seemingly clear life-orienting goalposts of perfection turn into a kind of curse. Like Sisyphus with his boulder. Because, as an ordinary human being, a sinner, I keep stumbling and falling down. And so the perfection I love and chase is also the perfection I hate and resent.
For Saint Ignatius of Loyola, desire was central to the spiritual life. One of the purposes of his Spiritual Exercises is to help one “find better what one desires.” The deepest, most authentic desires of our hearts, Ignatius says, are from God. They speak to our truest selves - the selves we are created to be. But so often we are distracted by what Ignatius calls “inordinate attachments” or wants that are not from God. Wants that are merely selfish or wrongly directed - coming from a place of greed or fear or even deep hurt. The desire to chase “perfection” and the sense of self-loathing when I fail can be one of these “inordinate attachments” for me. God speaks to us, the Ignatian tradition claims, through the truly free desires in the depths of us. The spiritual work of our life is to uncover those deep desires in the weedy garden of our “inordinate attachments.”
The Sermon on the Mount, like so much of Scripture, is meant to help shape or uncover those deep God-given desires. To orient our desires to accord with Jesus’s own desires and the way in which he lived his life. “To hunger and thirst after righteousness,” as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. The Greek word telos means “end” or “purpose” or “goal.” The Greek philosophers talked about the “end” of human life. The purpose or goal of it. And interestingly enough the related Greek word translated as “perfection” in the Sermon on the Mount is teleioi - a word which has more to do with completeness than flawlessness. Completeness as in a work of art that’s finished, or a race that’s run. It calls to mind Jesus on the Cross proclaiming “it is finished.” Completeness as the end of a project. Or completeness as in maturity. And maturity, whether it is in fine wine or human development, takes time.
We are to see our lives as a journey towards God and into maturity. And it is along this pilgrim path that we are to desire the narrow way of Jesus. The hard road that leads to life, as Matthew recounts for us in today’s reading. We are to desire to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Which is to say to seek after that completeness that comes at the end of a journey when we reach our destination. To my perfectionistic heart’s great annoyance, it does not mean we do not or will not fall along the way. Nor does it mean flawlessness.
And yet we are assured of the assistance of God’s grace in our desire to find the narrow way to completeness in God. As Jesus says in today’s reading, “search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
God, as Jesus reminds us, is good and merciful. God understands our imperfection. The Church does also. It’s why we confess our sins regularly. The Didache, a collection of early Christian writings considered authoritative by some of the early fathers of the Church, says, “For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able.”
We do what we can. We keep seeking, asking, knocking. Attempting to follow the Lord. Imperfectly trying to faithfully answer, with the help of God’s grace, the questions that are posed by our desires. Desires that point us towards our completion, our telos.
There’s a famous prayer by Thomas Merton that speaks to a deep desire to walk in the way of Jesus and to the reality of the imperfection of that walk. Merton prays,
“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. “