Can we be perfect human beings? If not, then why try?
If we wanted to try to become perfect, against all odds, what would that mean in our fallen world? What would this effort look like?
I want to start by developing definitions of these two words, "perfection" and "mystery". The first word to define is mystery, because it is only considered as mystery that we can rationally apply the concept of perfection to our fallen human reality.
Mystery, especially as applied to things like “mysteries of faith” or “the mystery of the Holy Trinity” does not mean something that is simply beyond our ability to comprehend. It does not mean that we simply/only accept things “on faith”. No, the mysteries of faith are the subject of knowledge; we need to reason, to think about with the desire to know, even things like The Blessed Trinity, in terms more similar to a mystery to be solved, like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, than as something that is just beyond our comprehension. The only caveat is that we will never "solve" the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. But, that's not as negative as one might think.
Mystery, understood properly, is something so intelligible, so full of meaning, that it cannot be exhausted. You can always learn more, understand more, gain ever greater understanding, and - this is the glorious part - you will never exhaust the treasures to be found in contemplating the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, Creation, The Mystery of Salvation, yourself as creature in relation to Creator. Imagine if you will, going to the Smithsonian Institute. You walk the halls, learning more and more, but, always around the next corner is a new hallway filled with wonders.
Quick aside, can you truly love someone who you don't know? I would say, along with Augustine, no not really. This means that to love God, we have to know Him. This necessarily means that our love is incomplete because our knowledge of God is incomplete. BUT please realize, that God, considered as mystery, implies that there is no theoretical limit to how much we can know God. This means there is no theoretical limit to how much we can love God and even though we are finite beings, this is where we touch the infinite. It bears repeating, there is no limit to our capacity to Love.
This then is Mystery properly considered. Something wondrous that we can always understand better, and never completely exhaust. A life time of learning.
What then is Perfection? If a very basic principle of life can be stated as “Good is to be done, and Evil avoided” then one form of perfection would be to always do the Good. Always choosing the good would be to always order our acts and thoughts toward God. Since we are made for God, this then gives us a working definition of Perfection: ordering all our being towards God and away from anything that would distract us from God, who is our natural end.
If Perfection is a Mystery – then we can always work toward better. But, how do we work towards being more perfectly the person who God made us to be?
Since the faculties or powers of reason that most distinguish us from the animals are the powers of mind and will, then perfection of those faculties is what makes us fully human. Aristotle taught that by subjecting our senses and lower tendencies to rational rule and using our intellect in pursuit of truth, we can realize our full nature. Perfection of these powers then is how we perfect ourselves. In other words we must exercise our moral and intellectual powers.
Exercise is a key word here – it suggests that we can, by some regular regimen, improve our moral and intellectual powers, just like we do when practicing a golf swing, going to the gym, or learning to play the piano. So, if we want to perfect ourselves in terms of moral and intellectual powers, what are the things we need to work on?
The answer is to be found in the Cardinal Virtues.
First, note that Aristotle used the term virtue differently than most of us use it today. Today, we commonly think of virtue in terms of “A woman's virtue", which is limited and usually applied to whether or not a woman is chaste. This gives us statements like "taking a woman's virtue". But what about a man's virtue?
The root words for virtue, vir (man or hero) and vis (force, power) mean literally “man” and “strength” or “vitality”. When Aristotle was telling his students to live a virtuous life, he was quite literally, telling them to live to their full potential, full of strength and vitality.
Second, for Aquinas, a virtue is habitus operativus bonus, i.e., an operative habit which is essentially good – by this I don't mean the somewhat bastardized “essentially”, meaning “almost but not quite.” No, what I mean is essential, without out which, nothing (sine qua non). Also note, the archaic meaning of the word “habit” is clothing. So, a habit would be something that you would put on, and usually associated with some kind of action (a riding habit) or some state of life (a religious habit). I think it important to retain this idea of habit as something that you own. This means that you both own and are defined by a habit. All this to say, a virtue is not simply a "good habit" like brushing your teeth.
Now the word cardinal comes from the word that means “hinge” so the Cardinal Virtues are hinge virtues, or those virtues on which the entrance to humane living turns – to quote Aquinas. These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Prudence has to do with right reason. Justice with giving what is due to whom it is due. Fortitude is the strength to do what Prudence and Justice recommend. And Temperance governs our appetites and orders them to the good. Pursuit of these virtues yields perfection in ourselves.
I also like Augustine's definition of the Cardinal Virtues in that it ties into the earlier discussion of knowing and loving God:
temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved;
fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object;
justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly;
prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it." (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)
Aristotle ranked Prudence as the chief of these Cardinal Virtues because it has to do with the exercise of our intellectual powers, those powers which most separate us from the beasts, and are the part of us that make us “in the image of God.”
But Aquinas says a lack in Temperance will undermine Prudence. I would say that today our American Consumer culture is at war with Temperance. This fact yields an opportunity: We live in a culture at war with Temperance, and it seems clear to me that our society is lacking in the common exercise of Prudence. It seems to be Cause and Effect.
But, if our culture is in fact at war with Temperance, that simply means that we have ample opportunity to exercise and strengthen this virtue. So, I will close with discussing Temperance.
I said earlier that Temperance is ordering our appetites to the good. We need to understand that by appetite is meant the desire for anything perceived as good. That can be food, sex, sleep, cigars, whiskey, etc. It can mean the desire for recognition, love, honor, etc. It can mean being hungry for human companionship, friendship, brotherhood. A thirst for knowledge. You get the point. But most or all of these can be perverted. A desire for food can be perverted to gluttony. The natural desire for sexual intimacy can turn to lust. The desire for sleep can turn into sloth. The desire for recognition can turn into the sin of pride. Etc.
How do you exercise the virtue of Temperance? One way to exercise is by deliberately choosing something other than what you want. You want a hamburger and onion rings at lunch and you eat a salad. You set your alarm to wake up 30 minutes early and you get up and pray, study, or exercise instead of hitting snooze. You ask yourself, does my desire for this help or hinder my path to heaven or is it neutral? You decide to refrain from eating meat on all Fridays, not just during Lent. You decide to fast one day a week. You decide to say a rosary every day, whether you feel like it or not.
Our culture is at war with this virtue. We are told we can have it all, we deserve it all, we should have it all RIGHT NOW. We are told not to deny ourselves. In fact we are encouraged to be selfish. We are told that no one should be able to tell us what to do. Temperance fades and along with it Prudence as our base appetites simply override our better judgment.
Benjamin Franklin systematically developed the virtues. He made a list and kept track and developed virtue through repetition. I would add to this the sage advice found in a book titled The Spiritual Combat in that "Virtues are to be acquired one at a time and by degrees" (Chapter 34):
"... do not aim at all sorts of virtue-nor even many-simultaneously, but cultivate one firmly, then another, if you wish such habits to take deep root in your soul with greater facility."
Dom Lorenzo Scupoli goes on to note that the virtues are "like rays of the sun, almost inseparably united," such that strengthening one cannot but strengthen the others.
So, if you desire Perfection, develop the virtue of Temperance. Deny yourself. Take a cold shower, don't put that sugar in your coffee, look at the menu, decide what you want, and choose something else. Start small. Be consistent, don't stop. Perfect yourself. Recognize that this never ends, that perfection is a mystery that you can forever explore. Marvel at this reality.