Word Magazine October 1965 Page 9-10
By Fr. Gregory Fontain, S.S.B.
As Orthodox Christian we sometimes feel discouraged because we cannot overcome sin. We admit constant failure in our spiritual life, repeating the same sins again and again, giving way to habits contrary to the life and teachings of Christ. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Man once was originally endowed with divine innocence, grace, and a well-balanced mind. He was in perfect harmony with God. But after his fall, man sought in one way or another to regain the summit of that perfection that once was his. He searches the heavenly green pastures and still waters and desires; perfect communion with God “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3.) This is not only the deep desire of our hearts and souls, but has been the longing of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laymen through the centuries. We pray, work, and fast like they did, but, nevertheless, we all have to cry like Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God: but with the flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:8.)
It is a consolation to know that none of the Apostles, Church Fathers, Martyrs, and Saints of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church claimed to be without sin, even after they surrendered their wills to God. We know of sin committed by even the most perfect biblical characters as Abraham, Noah, David, etc. The term “perfect,” as used in the Scriptures, does not mean sinfulness, and the “perfection,” of the saints, is spiritual maturity and surrender to God’s will. Even if our hearts and souls are filled with love of God, they are liable to involuntary transgressions. The law of sin is something that continues in us as long as we live. To live a victorious Christian life does not mean sinlessness. Life is a continuous struggle against the principalities of hell. “There is no man that sinneth not.” (Luke 8:46.) “Sure there is not a righteous man upon earth that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20.) “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8.)
So long as we are in Christ, victory and holiness are a reality, a Tabor of light and glory, but we cannot remain at all times in that glorious mountain of the “Vision Beatifica.” It seems a contradiction that the Law of God demands perfection and at the same time we claim there is not perfection in this world. We are commanded to strive for perfection, the goal being that absolute perfection which is accomplished not in this world but in the world to come. It is wonderful to remember the promise of Our Lord; that no temptation can overcome us if we pray faithfully, and that He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength. “With the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13.)
As Orthodox Christians we must walk continuously in the spirit. The saint learns to live in Christ, not in the flesh. The holy never claims to be sinless; he knows he is a sinner in need of grace, and cries with the centurion: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (John 1:8.)
The thought of sinless perfection in this world is the root of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. In Christ there is a new victory over evil. To overcome temptation is not our triumph but Christ’s. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13.) We all need to strive, to confess sin, to pray and persevere. Even the best Christians come short of perfection. Some seem very free from sin, until you shake them, then they get “riled.” But this constant struggle for perfection, this filial care to obey our heavenly Father’s commandments exercises our soul and fortifies our wills taking us to higher perfection, bringing us closer to our God. All this battle for perfection, all this accumulation of good works, prayers and sacrifices are not merits before God, according to Orthodox theology. The true Christian is not so concern how many treasures he has in heaven, but how pleased his heavenly father is. The Christian duty of every faithful Christian is to serve his Creator with the love of a son for his father; he obeys and loves without the thought of a price or reward. “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10.) Even if we completely surrender to God, the sinful nature cannot be eradicated the law of sin and death continues to operate within us. This inheritance from our first-fathers remains in us as long as we live. Victory over our temptations does not mean sinlessness, only the opportunity of striving against sin, and becoming more faithful to the will of God. So long as we fight and abide in Christ, holiness and victory are possible, and the way toward perfection is possible; the absolute perfection in heaven, the summit of charity, the eternal “Vision Beatifica.”
The Christian Orthodox who have been spiritually reborn have only one desire — a great and consuming desire — the desire of a perfect reconciliation with God. The sanctifying grace is the first step toward growing in perfection, and once the soul has started to seek the way of holiness there are no human words to explain what God can do. St. Augustine stated that “God satisfies the seeker in the measure of his capacity and makes the finder to have greater capacity so that he may again seek to be filled when his ability to receive has grown.” The soul is anxious, the love is deeper and like a majestic eagle flies higher and higher looking at the sun, trying to reach the plentitude of love, there is no rest or quietude for the godly man. He is a pilgrim through this valley of tears and he walks day by day, month by month, year by year, watching and praying and growing in grace, with the hope to reach his Creator, to love and adore him, free from bondage and weakness of the flesh.
The operation of Christian perfection may be considered from two distinct levels. The natural and the supernatural. It is only through grace and the operation of the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Ghost that man’s operation becomes supernatural and divine. But even in the state of grace, the Christian may perform two types of acts: those which are performed in a human manner under the impetus of the virtue, and those which are substantially supernatural, because of the operation of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. God perfects the Christian by working through his human nature, perfecting his natural powers and faculties by means of grace, the infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
This constant growth of the soul, in grace and charity, leads us to a greater degree of perfection. Love is the heart, strength, and essence of perfection. When we all reach that perfection of love which is the contemplation of God in His glory, our inalienable personalities, while remaining eternally distinct, will nevertheless combine into One so that each one of us will find himself in all the others: and God will be the life and reality of all. “Omnia in omnibus Deus.”
When man has learned to love God above all things and his neighbor in God, he has taken a step toward the highest perfection.
“God is a consuming Fire. He alone can refine us like gold, and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect His own Triune Life forever. As long as we refuse His love the power to consume us entirely and to unite us in Himself, the gold that is in us will be hidden by the rock and dirt which keep us in opposition to one another.”
There is not perfection without charity. I even dare to say if we practice and live the following thoughts of St. Francis, we have reached the highest plateau of human perfection.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may seek
not so much to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is
in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.
Love reflects love. There will be a continuous exchange of love between the lover and the beloved. Love is a virtue, it is a power to act, and the final goal of love is to achieve a perfect union with God.
In other words love longs to return to the infinite fountain, the source of love, God Himself: because “God is love.” In heaven, we at last reach that perfect union with God, through the eternal and glorious “Vision of God.”