Magazine article The Christian Century

Short Rules to Perfection

Magazine article The Christian Century

Short Rules to Perfection

Article excerpt

ANDY, FIVE YEARS OLD, is standing on his chair at the dinner table and using his fork to make the sign of the cross. Having coated his spaghetti with grated cheese until it is a lovely paste, he is now draping a strand over his ear. From where I sit, I can see piles of junk mail on the radiator and peeling linoleum in the kitchen. Every unoccupied chair has a pile of books on it--here are books on prayer, here are books on polar exploration, here is Star Wars, Pokemon and Asterix. The mantelpiece has an icon of Elijah with a yo-yo in front of it. At the foot of the stairs there is a Buddhist scroll with a smudged handprint next to it. Wherever my gaze travels, I see something untidy, There are moments when it seems that everything is crumbling and the daily work of shoring it all up is more than I can hope to do. The mystery is that other people seem to manage these things so well.

Sitting in the midst of this disarray, I think about Christ's call to perfection ("Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect") and St. Paul's elaboration: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:1-3).

Working out what is meant by this summons to perfection has occupied Christians for the full span of the millennium. The trouble is that perfection can mean so many things.

Our 13-year-old is downloading a game from the Internet. My curiosity piqued, I kick John off the computer and ask "Google" to search for the word "perfection" on the Web. In 0.24 seconds, Google finds 131,999 occurrences. Judging by the top ten or so, they fall into five categories: spiritual theology (St. Teresa's Way of Perfection, John Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection); athletic endeavor ("Doyle's second shot at perfection"); technology ("scanner perfection," "desktop perfection"); pornography ("nude celeb perfection"); self-help, as in this excerpt from Be Your Own Therapist: "A most liberating and happiness-generating belief that one can have is to believe in the perfection of everyone around. Not only is Mother Teresa perfect, but so is Saddam Hussein and everyone in between."

By this measure, our culture seems to be seriously confused about perfection. Either we mistake it for an inhuman perfectionism or we empty it of meaning by proclaiming everything perfect. It is easy, under such conditions, to lose sight of the distinctively Christian understanding of perfection: maturity, wholeness and obedience in a life consecrated to the law of love revealed by Christ.

Ever since the early days of monasticism, a remedy for confusion has been sought in the form of short rules that show the way to Christian perfection. …

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