Jesus looked lovingly upon a young man who practiced the Commandments and invited him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk 10:21).
This call to abandon everything in order to follow the Divine Master first came to the Apostles and, in subsequent centuries, to many souls thirsting to give themselves entirely to Christ. Initially, martyrdom represented the royal road for following in the bloody and glorious footsteps of Jesus. But as the danger of a cruel death became increasingly remote, this surrender took the form of “fuga mundi”, with sights set on dying, no longer in the arena by the jaws of beasts, but to any human expectation, putting into the most radical practice the advice of St. Paul: “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2).
The hermitic movement, monasticism and religious life in general have become a privileged place for responding generously to Jesus Christ’s call: “Follow Me”. During more than twenty centuries of Church history, His word has moved thousands of hearts, forming a constellation of Saints who have assumed the state of supreme freedom to serve the Lord as His slaves of love.
However, the call to follow is not exclusive to a few in the Church. The Lord also addressed it to the crowds: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk 9:23).
Different means to achieve the same end
Thanks to the emphasis placed on the universal call to holiness, made to the faithful of whatever state or condition,1 this perspective has come back to the fore in our days, after several centuries of neglect and conformism.
It means reawakening in the baptized the interest in perfection, which is the following of Christ, since, regardless of the way chosen, holiness concerns everyone without exception! Furthermore, it is necessary – avoiding great disparities, but without reversing the order of things in the Church – to properly demonstrate the position of the state of perfection and its relationship to the call to the plenitude of charity proper to the lay state.
To this end, we propose to the reader a reflection on perfection based on Thomistic doctrine, in order to demonstrate the harmony existing between the state of religious life and secular life, so often set at odds in modern history. In effect, the fragmentation of theology into Dogmatic and Moral, and its subsequent segmentation into treatises dedicated to cases of conscience and ascetical manuals, ended up suggesting two parallel levels of Christian life. The first would be that of perfection – understood as following Christ by the renunciation of material goods, marriage and one’s own will – and the second would consist in avoiding moral evil, represented by mortal sin and vice, although without aspirations to holiness, reserved only for religious.
St. Thomas Aquinas would never have so much as imagined the formulation of such a theory. For him, as we shall see, all are called to follow Christ, which consists in the perfection of the spiritual life, or holiness. The only difference existing between the different states resides in the choice of means for obtaining the same end.
What constitutes perfection?
First of all, it is fitting to inquire what constitutes perfection. St. Thomas answers with the words of St. Paul: “Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). Let us look at the theological reason given by the Angelic Doctor after citing the infallible authority of Scripture: “A thing is said to be perfect in so far as it attains its proper end, which is the ultimate perfection thereof. Now it is charity that unites us to God, who is the last end of the human mind […]. Therefore the perfection of the Christian life consists radically in charity.”2
The next step to be taken is to ask whether one can be perfect in this life by bringing charity to its full realization. The common answer tends towards the negative: “Perfection, let us leave it for Paradise.” However, the Angel of the Schools did not think so: “The Divine law does not prescribe the impossible. Yet it prescribes perfection according to Matthew 5:48, ‘Be you… perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Therefore seemingly one can be perfect in this life.”3
It is clear, as St. Thomas himself explains, that there is a difference in degree between the perfection that is possible while on pilgrimage in via and that of the blessed in patria. In Heaven, perfection “answers to an absolute totality on the part of the lover, so that the affective faculty always actually tends to God as much as it possibly can.”4 In the present life, it is impossible to reach this very high level of affective contemplation, which means a definitive immersion in divine charity. Nevertheless, there is a way of perfection by which one excludes “obstacles to the movement of love towards God,”5 and this can be acquired while yet an earthly wayfarer.
Moreover, Aquinas firmly establishes the relationship between charity and the practice of the commandments of God’s Law, and he does so, as always, by means of various authoritative arguments from Sacred Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Dt 6:5); “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18); “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:40). Finally, he concludes: “The perfection of charity, in respect of which the Christian life is said to be perfect, consists in our loving God with our whole heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore, it would seem that perfection consists in the observance of the precepts.”6
This is a conclusion of great importance, and should be underscored: perfection consists in keeping God’s Law. To be saved, everyone must observe it and, therefore, the call to perfection – as is clear in the Gospel – is universal; it is not restricted to a few.
How to attain perfection?
Having clarified what perfection is; another question now arises: how can we attain it in this life? In two ways, replies the Angelic Doctor: “First, by the removal from man’s affections of all that is contrary to charity, such as mortal sin; and there can be no charity apart from this perfection, wherefore it is necessary for salvation. Secondly, by the removal from man’s affections not only of whatever is contrary to charity, but also of whatever hinders the mind’s affections from tending wholly to God.”7
Some might see outlined in this reply a subtly attractive “minimalist morality.” To be perfect, it would suffice to “merely” avoid mortal sin, as was just affirmed. But could St. Thomas Aquinas, the sun of theology, be leading Christians along a secondary path? Foremost, it is necessary to consider that the rejection of mortal sin requires heroism. Moreover, it cannot be achieved without a holy life, permeated by the rays of the theological virtues and regulated by the cardinal virtues.
How, for example, can a young man be pure – overcoming the devil, the tempestuous incitement of passions and the seductive example of the world – if not by striving hard, with the help of grace? And we might apply questions like these to people of all ages, in the face of the most varied moral situations. For human beings abandoned to their natural powers, it is impossible to abstain from mortal sin; this can only be done with God’s help (cf. Mt 19:26).
Precepts and counsels
Returning to the preceding question, however, if perfection consists in the practice of the Commandments, how is it that one can be even more perfect by not only avoiding violation of the Divine Law, but by removing any obstacle that distances the will from the love of God? Let us leave the answer to St. Thomas himself:
“Perfection is said to consist in a thing in two ways: in one way, primarily and essentially; in another, secondarily and accidentally. Primarily and essentially the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity […] [and] the observance of the Commandments. […] Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the [evangelical] counsels, all of which, like the Commandments, are directed to charity; yet not in the same way. For the Commandments, other than the precepts of charity, are directed to the removal of things contrary to charity, with which, namely, charity is incompatible, whereas the counsels are directed to the removal of things that hinder the act of charity, and yet are not contrary to charity, such as marriage, the occupation of worldly business, and so forth.”8
Thus, counsels, whose elective character is indicated in their very name, are ordered to the fulfillment of precepts9 in the manner of an instrument. St. Thomas further clarifies the argument by means of an example that touched him closely, as we shall see: “Something is ordered to the end in two ways: in a way that is necessary to the end, without which the end cannot exist, as food for the preservation of life; or in a way, so to speak, that is necessary to the end in the sense that without it the end cannot be so well reached, as the horse is ordered to travel, not because one cannot travel without it, but because with it one travels better.”10
The good and corpulent mendicant friar knew this well. In fact, almost all the roads taken by St. Thomas were travelled on foot: from Naples to Bologna, from Bologna to Cologne, from Cologne to Paris… walking in rain, cold, sun and heat. How often, when he saw the riders of beautiful mounts passing him, did Aquinas think of the efficiency of this animal transport as an almost necessary instrument to reach his destination?…
In any case, the doctrinal application follows this expressive example: “In a similar way, counsels are ordered to the precepts, not because without them it would be impossible to observe them […] – in fact, Abraham, who made use of marriage and riches, was perfect before God, according to the words of Genesis: ‘walk before Me, and be perfect’ (17:1) – but because by means of counsels the perfect observance of the precepts is achieved more easily and more quickly.”11
With his characteristic precision, St. Thomas establishes the just relationship between precepts and counsels, saving the possibility of being perfect in obeying the Law even when, by vocation – as in the case of Abraham – the paths of perfect continence, poverty and obedience are not embraced. Just as the friar always reached his distant goal after long journeys on foot, without this almost necessary instrument called a horse, so it is possible to be perfect without practising the evangelical counsels.
Perfection and following
On the other hand, St. Thomas equates perfection with following Christ. Commenting on the Lord’s invitation to the rich young man, transcribed at the beginning of this article, he explains it thus:
“In this saying of Our Lord something is indicated as being the way to perfection by the words, ‘Go, sell all thou hast, and give to the poor’; and something else is added wherein perfection consists, when He said, ‘And follow Me.’ Hence, Jerome in his commentary says that ‘since it is not enough merely to leave, Peter added that which is perfect: and have followed Thee; and Ambrose, commenting on ‘Follow Me,’ says: ‘He commands him to follow, not with steps of the body, but with devotion of the soul,’ which is the effect of charity.”12
In this way, all those who are called to perfection, that is, all the baptised, have heard Jesus’ invitation to follow Him. For some, like the rich young man, it is to abandon everything; others, like Zacchaeus, to leave their life of sin and embrace a faith enlivened by good works such as almsgiving and restitution (cf. Mt 19:1-10).
Called to tread the same path
In conclusion, in these times so much in need of a true spiritual renewal, it is fitting to rediscover the value of the theology of following, as the evangelical proposal for reaching the perfection to which the Divine Master invites us. This following, however, is proposed to us in varying ways, not as different, parallel or opposite ways, but as distinct ways of travelling the same path, which is Christ himself.
Some have been called to married life and have the merit of completing the number of the elect, bequeathing to them the Faith and educating them in it. Others have been gifted with a more demanding vocation, that of leaving everything. Free from the concerns of the world, they travel the path of salvation with greater ease, without ever forgetting that they are at the service of the Church, to complete its beauty, as standard-bearers of perfection, giving everyone the necessary courage not to give up halfway and tending continually towards Christ, the goal and perfection of our life. ◊
Taken, with minor adaptations, from:
La centralidad del seguimiento de Cristo en la santificación del cristiano.
In: A vida religiosa hoje [Religious Life Today].
São Paulo, Lumen Sapientiæ, 2018, v.I, p.11-44
Originally published in the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #180.
1 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Lumen gentium, n.41.
2 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, q.184, a.1.
3 Idem, a.2.
4 Idem, ibidem.
5 Idem, ibidem.
6 Idem, a.3.
7 Idem, a.2.
8 Idem, a.3.
9 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Quodlibet, IV, q.12, a.2.
10 Idem, ad 3.
11 Idem, ibidem.
12 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, q.184, a.3, ad 1.