March 20, 2011

The Search For Perfection In Orthodoxy and Society

On March 18, 2011 the New York Times published an article titled "Our Imperfect Search for Perfection" by Carina Chocano. It is published in light of the two recent movies “Limitless” and “The Adjustment Bureau”. In the former "Bradley Cooper plays a failed writer named Eddie Morra who stumbles upon a stash of magical pills that allow him to blossom into the ultimate version of himself," while in the latter David, played by Matt Damon, "is the perfect politician — but he perfects himself only as a human being, the movie suggests, in his struggle for the transcendence of true love." Ultimately both movies present secular notions of perfection within ourselves to fill that dark void as we all long to do. They are about mastering our own destiny in a world where, to the ordinary individual, destiny cannot be mastered. The article goes on to examine the notion of perfection throughout history where "We’ve collectively moved away from thinking about perfection in ethical, moral, aesthetic or social terms, toward the more limited concept of self-perfection — the attainment of a personal competitive edge. Nobody believes that an eight-figure bonus and six-pack abs are achieved in some quest for the greater social good." The quest for perfection in our days has become soulless and a form of lust that only leads a thinking person to greater despair: "That you must outsmart, outwork, outrival and outdream everybody else or consign yourself to a life of frustrated obscurity or worse. Perfection has always held a kind of promise, but this conception of it sounds less like a promise than a threat."

In light of how perfection is currently being portrayed in our culture, the picture Orthodox Christianity gives of perfection is radically different. Whereas in the worldly way of thinking perfection has been reduced to a selfish passion and lust, in Orthodoxy perfection unites us with God's love which inspires the heart to love others in imitation of God's love. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:38: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In context He says this after explaining how we are to love our neighbor with the same love God loves His creation.

Further quotes from Orthodox Christian Saints on the issue of perfection are also enlightening to steer us away from worldly notions of attaining a selfish form of perfection to a selfless love in imitation of Christ - Who is both perfect God and perfect Man.

- "A person is perfect in this life when as a pledge of what is to come he receives the grace to assimilate himself to the various stages of Christ's life. In the life to come perfection is made manifest through the power of deification." (St. Gregory of Sinai, Philokalia, Vol. 4)

- "When the intellect has been perfected, it unites wholly with God and is illumined by divine light, and the most hidden mysteries are revealed to it. Then it truly learns where wisdom and power lie... While it is still fighting against the passions it cannot as yet enjoy these things... But once the battle is over and it is found worthy of spiritual gifts, then it becomes wholly luminous, powerfully energized by grace and rooted in the contemplation of spiritual realities. A person in whom this happens is not attached to the things of this world but has passed from death to life." (St. Thalassios, Philokalia, Vol. 2)

- "While we are still in this life we shall often waver in our self-determining, hesitating whether to fulfill the commandments or give way to our passions. Gradually, as we struggle, the mystery of Christ will be revealed to us if we devote ourselves totally to obeying His precepts. The moment will come when heart and mind are so suffused by the vision of the infinite holiness and humility of the God-Christ that our whole being will rise in a surge of love for God." (Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, Chapter 13)

- "But we also know that the fulfillment of the commandments of God gives true knowledge, since it is through this that the soul gains health. How could a rational soul be healthy, if it is sick in its cognitive faculty? So we know that the commandments of God also grant knowledge, and not that alone, but deification also." (St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads)

- "The dispensation of our God and Saviour concerning man is a recall from the fall, and a return from the alienation caused by disobedience to close communion with God. This is the reason for the sojourn of Christ in the flesh, the pattern of life described in the Gospels, the sufferings, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection; so that the man who is being saved through imitation of Christ receives the old adoption. For perfection of life the imitation of Christ is necessary, not only in the example of gentleness, lowliness, and long suffering set us in His life, but also of His actual death. So Paul, the imitator of Christ, says, `being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.' How then are we made in the likeness of His death? In that we were buried with Him by baptism." (St. John Chrysostom, On The Holy Spirit)

- "We unite ourselves to Him [God], in so far as this is possible, by participating in the godlike virtues and by entering into communion with Him through prayer and praise. Because the virtues are similitudes of God, to participate in them puts us in a fit state to receive the Deity, yet it does not actually unite us to Him. But prayer through its sacral and hieratic power actualizes our ascent to and union with the Deity, for it is a bond between noetic creatures and their Creator." (St. Gregory Palamas, On Prayer and Purity of Heart)