Tuesday, February 18, 2014

We can never have enough of Holiness

Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year A

Motivational literature abound with success stories of athletes, musicians, business personalities and others whose dedicated striving elevated them to new heights of achievement. Such a drive for excellence is not what troubles modern society; they applaud it. But what seems problematic is having too much of it – too much of excellence or too much of perfection may end up in the personality disorder called perfectionism. And so there has been a shift from what was culturally prized, to something which society now views as a kind of malignant disease. In fact, perfectionism has come to be regarded as the enemy of everything.

This growing aversion to and suspicion of perfection has led to a broader acceptance and tolerance, and sometimes even glorification, of imperfection. In the moral sphere, this paradigm shift has also led to a reversal of values. If in the past, sin was regarded as something shameful and scandalous; today, holiness and piety are regarded as anomalies, the result of shame-driven neurosis that needs to be contained and cured.  We frequently hear the following caution from well-intentioned persons, “Don’t try to be too holy” as if the condition of being too holy could even lead to either permanent brain damage or our damnation.  Both in secular media as well as among liberal theological circles, we witness a tendency to vilify saints matched by the canonisation of villains. Thus, the emergence of a new genre of the ‘anti-hero,’ the flawed, post-villainous figure, lacking in any of the traditional heroic characteristics, but nevertheless the new idol for emulation.

Holiness as a life-goal is no longer fashionable in our society, and perhaps, even within the ranks of the Church, and there are understandable reasons for this. First, holiness has often been associated with an otherworldly mysticism that supposedly leads people away from the crying needs and concerns of daily life. The holy person then appears to be a dropout from society. Holiness has also been confused with neurotic perfectionism—the illusion that one’s best is never good enough, thus filling us with a perpetual gnawing feeling of inadequacy. Finally, holiness has been confounded with a legalistic mentality that insists on rigorous adherence to moral codes often stated in negations—no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no dancing, no card-playing, etc. Thus the preferred domain of wet-blankets and party-poopers.

For a culture that has grown weary and even intolerant of holiness and perfection, Jesus’ words at the end of today’s gospel must be a cause of confusion: “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” For many of us, the commandment to be perfect triggers feelings of anxiety and discomfort.  We are painfully aware of our weaknesses and inadequacies, yet we continue to drive ourselves to reach impossible goals.  Then, when we fall short, we label ourselves as failures and often feel hopelessness and ashame. To compound matters, Jesus seems to be advocating a new kind of evangelical perfectionism. Perhaps, the real problem is that many confuse the commandment of Jesus to be perfect with the call to perfectionism. “Perfect," in this context, means "complete, finished, fully developed.” Who doesn’t wish this?  Notice that the term does not mean "flawless!"  

People who struggle with perfectionism often believe that they could be doing better – for them it is always a personal struggle to outdo themselves. They are much too hard on themselves, expecting perfection from themselves and becoming bitter and even hating themselves for coming up short. They fail to understand God’s grace and the nature of His unconditional love.  They forget that perfection belongs to God alone, but the story doesn’t end there.  God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die as a perfect sacrifice for sin.  This is the glorious message of hope and grace in the gospel.  Though we sin, though we are flawed, we can be forgiven, saved, sanctified, and perfected.  St Paul assures the Philippians in Chapter 1 verse 6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Christ completes us. Paul reminds us that perfection and the call to holiness isn’t a singular one-off event but a process of sanctification as we continue to learn to walk in the path of Christ.  Perfection is never possible by our own efforts, that’s the illusion posed by perfectionism. Perfectionism can indeed be an obstacle to perfection in holiness. This is because it prevents us from allowing God to perfect the good work he has begun in us. Thus, we should struggle against perfectionism, yes, but always be ready to embrace perfection, especially in the area of spiritual excellence.

For a Christian, the way to reach perfection is to strive for holiness. Perfection and Holiness are synonyms. What is true perfection? Christ's words are clear, sublime and disconcerting: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." This passage plainly teaches that our attitudes toward other people must be the same as those of our Father in heaven. If not, we have no right to claim to be His children. It impresses upon us the necessity of conforming our lives to the qualities and standards of divinity. To have God as our model is a dizzying thought! Yet the Church reminds us that, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state in life, are called by the Lord to that perfect holiness. Holiness is always a call to every Christian of every age, a challenge for anyone who wants to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: "Holiness is not something for the extraordinary; it is not a luxury of the few. Holiness is the simple duty for each one of us."

Lastly, today’s gospel reminds us that holiness is never theoretical, it is always ethical. The ethic of holiness does not lie in the strict observance of some external code or set of rules. Holiness is something deeper than morality. Since, it implies closeness to the Living God, it does not conform to the conventional standards of reason and wisdom. The ethic of holiness lies in the transforming experience of the new birth of a Christian. It is an ethic that does not repay injury with injury. It is an ethic that challenges us not just to settle for the minimal but always aspire for loftier goals. And finally, it is an ethic that is not just based on retributive justice, on fear of divine punishment, but one which must always be rooted in love, unconditional love. We are driven to service of our neighbor through the paradoxical love of the cross, the love that is demanding, sacrificial, and also unconditional, going out to all people regardless of whether they are friend or foe. 

For a world that has grown accustomed to sin, holiness does often seem outdated...old-fashioned. But, as Pope Benedict XVI has taught: "Holiness never goes out of fashion; on the contrary, with the passage of time it shines out ever more brightly, expressing man's perennial effort to reach God."  Make no mistake, holiness will cost something. Those who aspire to make holiness their priority in life must count it no strange thing to be mocked, ridiculed, slandered, persecuted, and even hated. And in a world where faith and religion is held up to scorn, holiness has now become the new scandal! A Christian who faithfully lives up the high calling of perfection must submit to the fate of being called fool, idealist, and a fanatic; to have his words perverted and his actions misrepresented. But this is his edge – this is what makes the Christian salt of the earth and light of world. This is also what makes his life witness paradoxically attractive to every soul thirsting for greater spiritual depth in a world that can only offer shallow lies. In all this we remember the world does not set the standards for us. In matters of spirituality, mediocrity is never an option. Only the highest standards of excellence is demanded. We follow only one standard – “to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” As for holiness, we can never have enough of it.

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