Each year, I begin a new daily devotional. This year it is Cultivating Virtue (TAN). For the January 3rd reflection, I read about the four degrees of Christian perfection. As a self-described recovering perfectionist, I usually wince when I read the word “perfect.” It’s primarily because I’ve come to accept and even embrace my imperfections as the source of my constant dependence on God, so acquiring true Christian perfection required some pondering on my part.
I recall the words of Jesus as recounted in Matthew’s gospel (5:48), “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In Luke 6:36, the word “merciful” is substituted for perfect. Christian perfection, then, isn’t about never sinning or being scrupulous about every foible or flaw. Rather, it’s about the steps we take each new day toward holiness.
Yes, we will fall and fail. But these four steps toward perfection necessarily mean that we are slowly but hopefully growing closer to our heavenly destination. It means we are striving for sainthood in whatever way God is calling us.
1. Develop Purity of Conscience
The first stage, or step, toward true perfection in holiness is to develop what the aforementioned author (anonymous) called “purity of conscience.” There are three hallmarks listed in its description:
- Never thinks ill of others
- Unshakable interior peace
I would also add that this beginning stage would be akin to the beatitude of purity of heart. It’s also part of the Purgative Way, according to Carmelite mystics, such as St. John of the Cross. Purity of heart involves a stripping of all pretension, complications, and cynicism. It’s a restoration of innocence, which is that childlike faith we read about in the scriptures.
Purgation is a necessary requisite for spiritual advancement, in that it involves an initial renunciation of sin, rejection of temptation, and development of charity. This is why we see that, when our conscience has been purified, we no longer think badly of others, because charity has replaced bitterness and judgment. The spiritual fruit, then, is peace.
2. Grow in Prayer and Authentic Christian Charity
The second stage of Christian perfection is to deepen one’s prayer life and thus grow in the virtue of charity while overcoming the vices contrary to it (e.g., scandal, sloth, envy, discord, contention, quarreling, etc.). Built upon the foundation of purity of heart, it remains an aspect of the Purgative Way but begins to cross over into the Illuminative Way, which involves overcoming all mortal sin and practicing virtues more regularly, especially charity.
The characteristics of this level toward Christian perfection are unselfish and based on seeking and living Truth. Here, one may move from mere vocal prayer to daily meditation on the Incarnation, the life of Jesus, and the Cross. One’s heart is being transformed by the burning love of God as it relinquishes its attachments to the world and falls more and more into surrender to the Divine Will.
3. Take Up Your Cross and Grow in the Cardinal Virtues
Mortification is a crucial aspect of any soul wishing to become truly holy. Sanctification cannot occur without such suffering. I say suffering, because it is always a blow to one’s ego and passions when one’s soul is emptied of life’s comforts and pleasures. Mortification often feels like self-annihilation. It is initially very painful, because self-love must completely die and one must begin to fade into the love of the crucified Christ.
Here the hallmarks of this stage of perfection, which is a further removal of sin and vice, can be identified as:
- Led from fruitful prayer life
- Springs from the virtue of fortitude
- Involves mortification of vices, poverty of spirit, dying to self, and transformation into crucified Christ
4. Achieve Perfect Union With God on Earth or in Heaven
This final stage may be what is also called the Unitive Way, which is the final stage before acquiring sainthood, or as we are discussing here, true Christian perfection. The soul who has achieved union with God is neither disturbed by failure nor excited by accolades. Rather, it is always serene and abandoned to God’s providence and the Divine Will.
It is also known as the condition of perfect charity, because the soul in this state turn to God constantly in thought and prayer and thus are habitually moved toward acts of virtue. The soul in this state is accustomed to regular meditation and acquired contemplation, with periods of vacillation between spiritual consolations and desolations.
If this step intimidates you, you are not alone. For someone like me who is struggling to overcome my weaknesses and vices on a daily basis, full union with God seems eons away. But I know it is possible. And my hope is that you, dear reader, will believe this too.
It seems to me that a large part of our growth as Christians is to maintain unwavering confidence in God’s mercy, clinging to it always, despite our inevitable shortcomings. God always rewards the person whose deepest desire is to become a saint. The path is arduous, yes, and often dark. But grace leads us onward toward our heavenly home.