The Desire for Perfection
The Gospel of today, the second Sunday after Pentecost, recounts the parable of the ungrateful guests. Despite being invited to a marvellous by the gracious host, they chose to decline the invitation at the very hour in which they should have been making their way to the banquet. Excuses are given and absences justified: “I have bought a farm and must needs go out and see it…I bought five yoke of oxen…I have married a wife and therefore I cannot come”. (Luke 14:18-20).
The result, of course, is that the generous host sees through the excuses of the selfish guests, and responds “none of those men that were invited, shall taste of my supper”. (Luke 14:24)
These excuses sound all too familiar in our own daily lives; how often do we find ourselves producing similar excuses for avoiding daily prayer or even the general pursuit of perfection? The struggle between the call to perfection and the duties and frivolities of temporal life are very aptly found in this parable. Be it through the call of work or pleasure, it is all too common that we can become like the ungrateful guests, rejecting the union with Christ found in the practice of the spiritual life. We have been called, given the grace of Baptism and then nourished by the sacraments of the Church, particularly the Holy Eucharist. Just as with those guests, we are underserving of the riches to which the Host, our Eucharistic Lord, calls us to share in.
So how can we guard against becoming like these ungrateful guests? The answer lies in the first of the inner means of perfection outlined by the spiritual authors, namely the desire for perfection.
No action would be taken in any area of life if there were not some purpose or motivation behind the action. Even if the motivation is very slight, the person performing the action still has a desire to achieve the end, else we can be sure he would not put himself to trouble. For instance, the first step in the entire process of building a ship is to have the firm desire to build a ship. In the same way the first step in the spiritual life, the pursuit of perfection, is to have the desire for perfection. All the spiritual writers agree on this matter, man cannot take even the slightest step in his path to sanctity if he does not wish to. St. Alphonsus’ first line of advice to the soul desirous of perfection is “to desire ardently to increase in the love of Jesus Christ”.(1) God created us with the great gift of free will, which can be used either to follow God or to turn away from Him in the path of sin. No one can commandeer this free will, for it must remain entirely free in order for our actions to be attributed to us. For example, if God did command man’s will to love Him, then this would be not a proper act of love, since it would not be free. Consequently, in order for us to attain perfection, we must first engage the will and actually wish for perfection. God will not act in violation of our free will: if we choose to desire something else rather than the spiritual life then we are permitted to do so, but we are choosing ourselves instead of God. So it is that this desire for perfection is a necessary part of the spiritual life, without which perfection cannot be reached. Abbé Tanquerey defines such a desire as “an act of the will, which, under the influence of grace, ever seeks after spiritual progress”.(2)
Why is this desire such an important aspect in the spiritual life? The saints and spiritual writers have often used the image of the spiritual life being a great mountain, which we must climb in order to attain the glorious summit. We cannot hope to reach the summit if we do not even begin the climb. Another image used is that of a spring or river: Christ is the river that nourishes and all who come to Him will be given the water of eternal life. (John 4:14) In order to reach this spring of life, we “must thirst for virtue and walk generously along the narrow way of abnegation”. (3) God is ready and eager to pour out His love upon us, if only we should turn to Him and ask. The greatest gift anyone could wish for, God Himself, is ours if we truly desire. This desire must therefore be put into effect, by stern resolution. It must have certain qualities in order to be an aid to perfection; notably, it should be supernatural, fervent, persevering and practical.
Such a desire must be supernatural by its very nature, since the object and origin is God Himself. The desire for perfection must be grounded in faith, based upon such reasons as the nature of perfection and man’s ultimate end. Grace is needed to illumine our minds, in order to make this firm resolution to desire perfection, since the end of this desire is ultimately God. St. Alphonsus warns that the man who wishes to attain perfection must do so ardently and without hesitation. This is because if we have only a half-hearted desire we shall not reach the goal, but instead run the risk of becoming lukewarm. Instead, we must “desire, with a very great desire, to attain a lofty height of divine love”.(4)
It follows then that our desire must additionally be persevering, ever driving us to finish the race, to reach the summit and receive the eternal reward. Christ warned that our resolve must be constant: “No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. (Luke 9:62) We cannot seek perfection if we still cling to the sins of our past, or try to fool ourselves into allowing a break in the spiritual life. The devil makes great use of human frailty, and should we pause on the mountainside, he will endeavour to make the summit appear too far off, leading us into despair and sin once more. Alphonsus warns of such an occurrence when he counsels the soul, “always to renew your determination of becoming a saint, saying, ‘My Jesus, I desire to be all Yours, and You must be all mine’ ”. (5) St. Teresa teaches that “perseverance is the first essential” in response to the countless attacks of the devils. (6) The soul who practices the desire for perfection, remaining firm and resolute in the face of the enemy, enjoys the divine aid of God who ever invites the fervent and persevering soul into an increasingly intimate union with Him.
Some care must be taken here, for the devil can seek to tempt souls from the path of perfection by means of apparent holy desires. He places before us the life of some great saint or mystic, that we might imitate their ascetical practices in pursuit of perfection. Yet such a path may very well be inconsistent with the duties of our state in life, and consequently even a hindrance to the spiritual life. For instance, a soldier defending his country from unjust aggressors, would not be fulfilling his duty, or increasing his spiritual life if he practiced extreme fasting which rendered him too weak to fight. Or again, we might be filled with a strong thought to leave our house and possessions, to practice penance in the desert. But it is very likely we cannot pass through one day without failing in charity to others, or carrying out our duties with love. Leaving the comfort of our surroundings for such a harsh life of penance will probably leave us discouraged and disconsolate with the spiritual life. Instead of seeking to correct the small, yet persistent faults of daily life, we are often tempted to do great things which are not compatible with our state of life. Yet the Gospels warn us that “he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater”. (Luke 16:10) Hence, the desire for perfection must be practical, calm and steady. It should grow reasonably, with steady increase, not in great peaks and troughs. St. Alphonsus warns that these grandiose ideas of attaining perfection can be “nothing better than mere fancies, which, instead of benefitting [men], do them great harm”. (7)
In order to develop and maintain this desire for perfection, which is a necessary starting point of the spiritual life, we should have recourse above all to prayer and meditation. By turning to God and asking for His help, along with meditating upon the beauty of the truths of the faith and God, our desire should be strengthened and increased. Certain occasions, such as retreats or even the daily temptations, can serve as a time when this desire can be greatly nourished by God. Should we fall and our desire weaken, instead of allowing ourselves to become despondent, let us rather throw ourselves at the feet of Mary Co-Redemptrix and beseech her help in the spiritual life.
Hence, the Gospel calls us to foster a lively desire for perfection, lest we become like the ungrateful guests and reject the gift of grace which has been won for us.
- St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Maxims for the direction of a soul that desires to obtain perfection in the Love of Jesus Christ, 1.
- Abbe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, 205.
- Abbe Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life - Volume One, 272.
- St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Way of Salvation and of Perfection, 184.
- Ligouri, Maxims for the direction of a soul that desires to obtain perfection in the Love of Jesus Christ, 50.
- St. Teresa d’Avila, Interior Castle, 2nd Mansion, 5.
- Ligouri, The Way of Salvation and of Perfection, 185.