Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 9)
On “Striving for Perfection”
Who am I? What am I? Where am I today?
Can you answer this question today? I believe most of us can. Give it a try. Briefly, write one or two sentences down now or just hold them aside for later reflection. Here is mine:
“I am a clinical social worker, married, father of three, chess enthusiast, and avid reader.”
There are about 682,000 social workers, 70.1 million fathers, and 25 million chess players in the United States. The typical American by self-report reads about five books a year, not quite avid readers, but not shabby either. I can safely say I have not reached perfection in any of these pursuits. World poverty, hunger, homelessness, addictions, and serious mental health conditions continue to plague society and individuals despite “my” efforts. Fatherhood by definition is imperfection. Chess I was only towards the bottom end of the top twenty-percent of US chess players. I certainly read more than the typical American but have no claim to exceptionalism relative to other avid readers. Crushing mediocrity! Defined solely by my “I” you can see how if left to my own devices I could fall into the abyss of insignificant singularity.
The reader may expect a pivot point here. Singularity insignificance of being attacks not only my core but yours as well. I could muster up admirable accomplishments, adversities contended with and other moments in my life to counter this proposition but honestly and paradoxically the more I counter this truth the greater my insignificance will be. And this is only relative to vast accomplishments of my current peers or perhaps even to just your accomplishments. You may be an inventor, a published author, a great orator, possessor of great wealth or prestige, any variation or adaptation of other things that we collectively validate as valued and worthy of praise.
There is a higher plane, a higher standard. Compare your statement not to the Olympiad of mortal men but to the divinity standard of perfection. Have you harnessed your God given talents and potential every minute of every day into this present moment and are now, even as you are reading this, aligned with a higher calling in all your thoughts, in all your words, and in all your actions today? Does your being supersede you and transcend to the end of a greater good, not only in your actions, but in a synergistic explosion of energy that transforms and draws out the good of others around you, sending anyone who comes into your orbit and presence, into a mind bending transformative process of their very own? Can you do that today?
I myself come up short, very short. This however does not permit me to descend into an abyss of nihilistic thought. Dietrich has other ideas. Friedrich Nietzsche once provided me a philosophical ride of descent into nihilistic thought with gripping philosophical text and a grand pronouncement of God is dead many years ago! The amateur philosopher can easily fall victim to the philosophy of total negation, to the apparent meaninglessness and absence of objective truths in everyday life. My early readings of Nietzsche came out the other side into a world of ontological existentialism. Nihilism was the threat to humanity – not the answer. I divert here to merely point out how easily we can succumb to a rabbit hole of philosophical ideas (or other worldly distractions) and lose sight of our ultimate compass and being in life.
Dietrich in much simpler terms, though not at the slightest light on theologically grounded insights, walks the reader through steps towards “Striving for Perfection.” One very quickly is introduced to the gift of our “free will” and what we choose to do in response to God’s calling. If you are reading this you have some desire already for sanctification and holiness. You have a hunger in some shape or form driving you towards fulfillment of something more.
The previous chapters of his book will have introduced you to self-examination, humility, simplicity, and a readiness and overall confidence to take the great leap of faith to truly trust in God’s omniscience and omnipresence. Now he challenges you to let go of self – not in the nihilistic fashion, though on a superficial level you could misjudge this reading, but in a revoking of the singularity of self for unity with God. Dietrich presents another high dive into the pool of humanity. While I am reading his work to find God, he is reminding me that finding God is nearly impossible if I am not aiming, striving for perfection by fine tuning all the time my affections (desires), my actions (deeds), in a manner which freely assents to and cooperates with God’s will. Dietrich goes to great lengths here to teach us to avoid building a resume for ourselves or for others to view of holy deeds and virtues – but simply to just be virtuous:
“Man is not the author even of his natural life; he is not able, as the Lord says, to increase his stature by so much as an inch.”
It sounds like double talk but is not at all once explained. Through numerous examples he paints good deeds being accomplished by the “hero” of any situation as the person simply acting on what they through prayer, meditation, and self-discipline are practicing God’s will all of the time no matter the circumstance, and if it allows them to be a hero or provider of good deeds, that is not in and of itself their deeds, but simply a consequence of living a virtuous life. The “I” disappears and is absorbed in a greater unity with God, sometimes evidenced by spiritual consolation (moments of grace) from God, but more often performed in periods of spiritual dryness and aridity.
For most of us we are only on a path of striving for perfection both in our worldly responsibilities and our spiritual ascension. Let me recommend that we only need to do the latter and the former will take care of itself. Our worldly responsibilities are our calling to do as best we can infuse with the presence and guidance of God. Complete confidence and trust will provide us a foundation to face all suffering; successes, momentary confusions and fears with the trust that the mystery and mercy of God is present and we must only cooperate with God. There is another caveat here. We are not in charge of calling God. At the same time we are called to act to be prepared and open to being guided by his presence.
The usual tools one might hear about are presented by Dietrich. Find time for prayer and contemplation. Be prepared for various experiences and challenges. Shun the trivial and unimportant. Empty oneself of worldly desires through ascetic practices (without becoming a nihilist) while also learning how to recognize the inherent beauty and majesty of worldly things that celebrate, highlight, or reveal scents of spiritual perfection or of God.
Our daily lives will present us with multiple moments where we can freely choose to move closer to or farther away for God. Our calling may not be, and most are not called to live the monastic life, to be a recluse or a great martyr for God. Sometimes the heroes are the invisible ones who, day in and day out, perform the mundane daily task of their calling sustained and driven by the mystery and mercy of God.
The greatest tool, I have not mentioned. We cannot and will not be transformed in God Christ by our own self-determination or multiple acts. The liturgical gifts, the sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reception of Holy Communion have been passed down for over two thousand years: these are important for sustaining and nurturing your faith.
Still the striving for perfection is an uphill battle and I will most assuredly stumble and flail my arms at many junctures, and if particularly distraught perhaps even vocalize my displeasure at apparent abandonment by God and outright injustice of my particular situation on any given day.
No fear. The Mercy and Majesty of God who is all-knowing will wait patiently for me to choose another path. We may not measure up to Ghandi – but we have a path nevertheless. At the end of the day the mystery of God remains to be revealed to us in hopefully glimpses today and eternity at the end of time. However, we are here today with our sentence. It is what we have today to work with in our spiritual transformation. Is our sentence that we wrote above (or thought) who are divinely meant to be and if not let’s slowly get busy on changing it. In the view of hindsight, through the many blessings and graces I have received, I could greatly expound on my sentence above. In this writing it would be trivial and non-important!
For most of us it is to continue refining and aligning our daily activities in closer alignment and proximity to what we believe God would require rather than a radical exterior transformation. Yesterday and tomorrow are not our concerns. However, we are called to radically be transformed in Christ: Saint or Sinner, Pauper or King, Priest or Lay person. No matter our station in life or our past transgressions we are called continually to transform ourselves in Christ. It is a life time journey and timeless. In our singular insignificance each of us plays a great role in the most significant event ever recorded in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
An unfathomable leap I have made in that last sentence. Instead, imagine a ballet dancer’s smooth continuous rise towards the heavens, effortlessly extending upwards gracefully with every muscle and sinew seeking perfect expression in concert with the entire ensemble, choreographed and orchestrated to a live orchestra:
Prayer and life is meant to be this way: Trans-formative and majestic. Below are some references for people seeking resources on prayer and a link on the author (that is sparking this series post). Feel free to respond with comments any resources you find valuable in your search and pursuit of living a sanctified life.