Spiritual Articles

Perfection and Feasibility

pope shenouda iii

All of us are required to be perfect, as the saying of the Glorious Lord Jesus Christ: “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48)

God is the only who has absolute perfection. As for us, the best we can achieve is considered relative perfection; relative to our capabilities and God’s Grace given to us. What we are required to achieve is the feasible, what we can achieve. When a child starts to learn Mathematics, they first teach him addition and subtraction. He passes his exam and gets the full mark. We say that he has achieved perfection in Arithmetic according to his level, though his level is considered nothing compared to high levels in Arithmetic, but still he achieved relative perfection.

While discussing relative perfection, I would like to recall the saying of St. Paul the Apostle: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." (Ro. 12:18) The Apostle does not ask for absolute perfection but for what is feasible as he says: “as much as depends on you”... We are supposed to live in peace with all people. But sometimes a wife can’t live in peace with her mother-in-law if they were living at the same house. So instead of them having a fight daily, they better separate: each of them should live in a house. As Abram said to his nephew Lot: “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; ... Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.” (Gn. 13:8, 9).

Therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ was blaming Scribes and Pharisees when saying: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” (Mt. 23:4). And for they have asked people for the impossible, the Lord told them: “You shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Mt. 23:13). This obliges all spiritual mentors, speakers and all teachers not to ask people for more than they can bear, in the area of the commandments and teachings. We would like to say the same to fathers and mothers and all those who work in the field of education. Ask them for what is feasible for them; what they can do... The Lord once said to his apostles: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (Jn. 16:12) And in temptations St. Paul the Apostle says: “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1Co. 10:13).

In the Parable of the Talents he gave “to each according to his own ability” (Mt. 25:15)... He was not distinguishing when he gave one five talents, the second two and the third one. But he was giving “each one according to his own ability”. In the gain he did so too. The one who was given two talents gain the same blessing that was given to the one with the five talents; “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Mt. 25:21, 23). If the one with the single talent had traded and gained another talent, he would have gained the same blessing..! God then repays everyone according to his or her potentials. And the same blessing will be given to everyone if they come with outcomes according to their capabilities.We see the same situation again in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13: 3-9-23). The Lord said that: that who sowed on good ground “yielded a crop: some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty.”. Everyone was considered to have yielded a crop even the one who only yielded thirty! Each of the three according to his potential reached the possible perfection, according to the ground’s nature, the fertilizer and irrigation, the seed nature and the sower attention.

As God repays people he definitely takes into consideration the differences in their levels and capacities: Each has a certain level. And strives according to this level. We read a nice phrase by St Isaac the Syrian: “Because God knows the diversity in people’s characters, he created so many ways for salvation. So that if someone could not follow a certain, can follow another way...”. St Isaac the Syrian was a monk representing very strict solitude. And yet he did not ask everyone to reach the same level of solitude that he lived and taught through. He gave standards: “the monk living among monks, the novice solitary monk, the one who can lock up himself for weeks, then the hermit... On steps...”. Not every monk can live in a cave, and not every cave inhabitant can live a hermitic life. But each according to his potential. And there are good monks living in the monks’ community like St. Tudor the student of St Bachomious the Great...

All these reach the possible perfection level...

There are also those who do not follow monasticism; they get married and get children and they reach the relative and possible perfection level. This is how our great fathers: Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among the prophets there was Moses who was married and Elijah the virgin. Among the apostles there was Peter the married and John the virgin. Among those who were famous for their kindness to the poor: There was Bishop Abram the bishop of Fayoum city and Ibrahim El-Gohary the holder of a State job. Each, according to his potential, circumstances and mission, lived a possible perfect life. With good spiritual life that can be accepted by God. There is also that who gets married then his wife dies, so he gets widowed, then gets married again (after his wife dies) and his life gets accepted by the Lord and sometimes reach the relative perfection. There are many examples among prophets like Abraham the Father of fathers (Gn. 25:1).

God looks to the capabilities of each person and not to those of other people. People vary in their levels even the spiritual ones: There is the novice person, the one who is not experienced and mature, and both are different than the spiritual person with has gifts given to him by the Lord. People also differ from the age point of view: what a Youngman can do is different than what an old man can do, which is also different than what a child can do... Also the capabilities of a sick person, is different than those of a strong healthy one. And a person who received a special grace from the Lord is different from an ordinary person. And possible perfection for each type of all these people differs from one to another “each according to his own ability.” (Mt. 25:15).

Furthermore, the level of the commandments in the Old Testament is different than in the New Testament... According to people’s abilities to fulfill. The Lord is the same and his measures of perfection are the same... But the level of people living in an pagan atmosphere where people worship so many Gods is different than the atmosphere of the New Testament where paganism has vanished and the New Testament age had the prevailing of the act of grace, and the Holy Spirit dwelling in People (1Co. 3:16) guiding them to what is righteous and aiding them... This is an age different than that at which Moses was delayed coming down from the mountain because he was with the Lord, so they fashioned a golden molded calf and worshipped it!! (Ex. 32:2-6) So the level of the commandments given to people in the Old Testament was according to their potentials... So it was said that Moses allowed them to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts (Mt. 19:8) although that “at the beginning it was not like that”. And Prophet David has married eight wives. And yet it was said about him that his heart was loyal to the Lord (1K. 11:4). This is possible relative perfection. All these matters that were allowed in the Old Testament became forbidden in the New Testament because the all the conditions changed, under grace possibilities and the end of the pagan atmosphere that affected even Solomon the wise (1K. 11:3, 4).

Now let’s talk about some virtues. Let’s see perfection in then and what is possible taking into consideration differences in levels: Absolute perfection in giving can only be achieved by God. But what is the relative perfection that a person can achieve? And what are its levels?

Giving

Relative perfection can be found in the Lord’s saying: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mt. 19:21). St. Anthony achieved this commandment to its perfection in his perfection. Not everyone can do like St Anthony did. So no one may say: “I am totally lost because I did not do this commandment”!! No, God only asks you for the possible, which has levels as well. You give what you can. Give out of your musts like the poor widow, who paid the two mites, did; she was praised from the Lord for that. (Lk. 21:3, 4). If you can’t give out from your necessities, then act according to another commandment, which is: “Give to him who asks you” (Mt. 5:42). Or do as was said in the Old Testament: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in the power of your hand to do so. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,” When you have it with you.” (Pr. 3:27, 28) Notice the sentence “When it is in the power of your hand to do so” meaning the (possible). Also the part “When you have it with you” is the same. If you could not do all this: At lease pay your firstlings and your tithes and this is an Old Testament commandment. At least also pray for those needy, and try to redirect them to charity institutions that take care of them. Doing so you would be giving them indirectly. But if you do not do this or that, meaning: you go for neither the relative perfection, the possible, nor the indirect giving, then your conscience is neglectful.

Prayer

Perfection in prayer is to always pray and not lose heart (Lk. 18:1). If you could not achieve this perfection, then go for the possible, which is the seven daily prayers (agbea). If this is more than you can do, at least start your day with a prayer and end it with a prayer before you sleep, you can also raise your heart with a fast short prayer all the time, even if it is only made out of one or two words... Asking God for blessing, help, or forgiveness, or expressing your feelings towards the Lord... Pray as much as you can. If you cannot reach the perfect, then do not ignore the possible.

Fasting

Fasting is an abstaining from food, followed by eating food that is free from animal fats. Perfection in fasting is measured by the duration of abstaining from desirables, as Prophet Daniel said: “I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did anoint myself at all” (Dn. 10:3) Yet, if you cannot do that, the church – as of the possible – gave permissions – in the reasonable boundaries – to the sick, old, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children. But these permissions should not be taken a reason for exaggerating in abandoning fasting if the health of one is ok. Once, St Pishoi fasted around 20 days with hard abstaining. Then he looked out of his room and saw a young novice monk who had abstained from food for one day and he cannot walk straight. He asked God about the reward of that poor youngster and he was told: “He gets exactly the same reward as you. Because if he was given the grace that was given to you, he would have fasted the same way you do” So the amount of grace a person gets from God is taken into consideration while measuring the possible perfection that can be reached.

Service

Perfection in service is that a servant reaches the life of full dedication, so that his whole life is fully dedicated to God. Not every person can reach the level of full dedication. The family and social circumstances of each person differ than others, and have to get an extra job to be able to support his family.
So what is the (possible) then?
It is to use his free time to serve God. If one cannot, then at least one hour a day. If he cannot, then at least whenever God puts someone who needs serving on his way, he gives him as much as he can. And to be ready in his heart to serve each as much as he can.

Dealing with hurtful people

Perfection in that is what is described by the Lord’s saying: “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and prosecute you” (Mt. 5:44). If you cannot do that, then what is the possible?It is what is said in the bible: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” (Ro. 12:20). Meaning that by you doing so, he will be embarrassed from you and your charity will capture him.If you could not turn your other cheek to the one who slaps you (according to the Lord’s commandment) (Mt. 5:39), then at least bear the first slap, don’t get even and slap back. And pray that God forgives him and keep his evilness away from way.

The last word I would like to say to you in the topic: If you go for (the possible), and not for perfection, do not turn (the possible) into loosening... Do not neglect the commandment, and cover up that neglect with excuses and by saying that it was more than you could have done. No, let your conscience be righteous in front of God and in front of yourself honestly and with careful inspection. So that you do not be spoiling yourself in running away from the commandment and loosening up.

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"How easy it is for your aim to change along the way unless you stay watchful" - H.H. Pope Shenouda III #coptic #orthodox #vigilant #watchful

 

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