Abbot Anderson, The Rugged Road of the Beatitudes, pt 1

Blessed Fra Angelico, Dance of the Angels and Blessed
+ The Rugged Road of the Beatitudes
Reflections for Lent
Talk 2
Abbot Philip Anderson
Our Lady of the Annunciation Monastery of Clear Creek (OK)

 

Climbing the Mountain of Perfection

         There is another painting, quite different from the one I previously mentioned (depicting the scene of Paradise Lost), which might illustrate a point that will help us enter into the second part of these Lenten reflections.   The picture I have in mind is actually a detail of vast fresco of the Last Judgment by Blessed Fra Angelico, the famous Florentine painter, who was a priest and a Dominican Friar.  It shows us the dance of the Angels and holy souls in the Paradise of Heaven.  As these human beings are admitted to Heaven, they are invited, you see, to join the circle of this dance of the blessed in a Paradise that far surpasses the one our first parents lost through sin in the beginning of human history.  The dance leads them around about and up toward the vision of God. This marvelous scene conveys very well, I think, the whole idea of beatitude, of blessedness—of happiness in its ultimate expression.

         There have been serious discussions among theologians as to what the first principle of the moral and spiritual life of man might be.  Saint Thomas Aquinas, and with him no doubt the best of the great theological tradition of our Western Christendom, state clearly that the first principle of it is happiness—not just any happiness, but that ultimate happiness that represents the true fulfillment and blossoming of a human life.  Isn’t that surprising? Of course, we need laws and moral imperatives in order to stay on the right path toward God, but our life is not just about moral obligations.  If in recent centuries—for those who are able to take into view the tableau of Catholic doctrine– the moral life has too often been reduced to a set of laws to be obeyed, it was not so with the such incomparable teachers as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas—not to mention Saint Benedict. 

For them the adventure of human life was not so much about what we have to do in order to avoid Hell, as about what we can do in order to serve Our Father in Heaven and our brothers and sisters on earth and so to arrive at that Paradise, that Garden, that vision, which gives meaning to all life.  Everyone needs to observe the Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Church, but we need even more to follow the road of the Beatitudes as taught by Christ and to live from the law of the New Testament, defined by Saint Thomas Aquinas as the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Because of the laxness that is so prevalent in our society, practicing Catholics tend perhaps to emphasize moral obligation.  This is only natural (an understandable reaction).  But we must, in this ever-so-important domain, have a mind to find the Truth and not just react to the dangers around us.

Closely ed to the idea and reality of beatitude, of happiness as the crucial motive for the moral and spiritual life of man, is that of perfection.  “Be you therefore perfect,” says the Lord at the end of the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mtt. 5:48).  What a program of life!  This is at the very heart of the religious life, especially of the monastic way.

“Of all the stars in the long line of distinguished teachers at Columbia College,” it is said in his biography, “none shone more brightly than Mark Van Doren. Nationally famous as a novelist, playwright, critic, editor, and poet (his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940), at the College Van Doren is also remembered as the quintessential great teacher. In his nearly four decades at Columbia, Van Doren introduced generations to Western literature and became a trusted friend and advisor to students and fellow teachers.”  He also ushered into the Catholic Church, I might add, some rather famous converts, although—mysteriously, sadly I suppose–he never made that step himself.  Among those converts was my own teacher and mentor, John Senior, who studied under Mark Van Doren and was later to be at the origin of a wave of converts at—of all places—the University of Kansas.  Van Doren wrote a poem that I would like to quote here for his student, John Senior, on the occasion of the latter’s being received into the Church–I think in 1960.  

Be ye therefore perfect;
Be less and cease to be.
There is no going downward
Save into the great sea,
Where things continue falling
Forever and a day;
Except that all is darkness,
Down there, o soul of me.

Be ye therefore perfect.
But how will I do that?
Patience, little brother,
And inwardly take thought.
Breathe evenly. Remember
What many have forgot:
The hill to climb is higher
Even than Ararat.

— “Estote Ergo Vos Perfecti”–poem by Mark Van Doren, dedicated to Senior
 
The case of John Senior, convert, educator

One of the key intuitions of the Second Vatican Council, often referred to by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II in his discourses (e.g. Christifideles Laici, numbers 16-17), is that the Catholic faithful are in fact called to this perfection Christ speaks of.  In other words, whereas often in the past most people thought of perfection, or “sanctity” or “holiness” (all of these terms covering nearly the same reality) as belonging exclusively to priests and nuns and members of religious orders, this call is truly universal.  Just as God calls all human beings to the Christian faith (the Catholic Faith being this Faith in its complete form), so He calls all Christians to be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect. 

All Christians in any state or walk of life, explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity (2012)

You may think that the program is not only challenging, but quite beyond human strength.  This is quite correct, but what choice do we have?  What Mark Van Doren was saying in his poem is that if you do not put your feet in this path and climb upwards, you will eventually slide down hill into the deadly waters of nothingness, as in this life a man cannot remain neutral, cannot rest on slope of the mountain of perfection.  If you are not tending upwards, you will be sliding downwards.  If fact, the ideal here is not about being “perfect” in the sense of having no imperfections and struggles with being a good person.  The Saints, who had this perfection, were the first to admit their own sinfulness weakness.  Only the Blessed in Heaven are perfect in the sense of being totally free of all venial sins and imperfections.  Here below, before we reach Heaven—as we hope to do with the grace of God—only a certain relative perfection is possible—relative but very real (the canonization of a Saint corresponds to something true and real).  In fact, being “perfect” here below, as the Saints are perfect (Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta or soon Pope John Paul II), implies putting up with a very great deal of imperfection, not only in others, in the world around us, but even in ourselves, to the extent that we are not able to uproot it. 

continued . . .

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