Almost every single time I try to write "Counsels of Perfection" I type an "f" instead of an "s" in the first word. LOL! This is what my Dad used to call a Freudian slip. This inadvertent intrusion of "self" into my attempts to live out the imitation of Christ is like a verbal paradigm of the very thing I struggle with, moment by moment, day by day.
When I left off on the book study of Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers, back in early May, I promised a wrapping up post. Only 2 months late, here it is....
We were going to reflect on what, if any, changes we had made or insights we had gathered during the study.
I would love to hear what you have to say.
Please comment, even if you don't feel like you have much of significance!
What did you get out of reading this book? Have you made any lasting changes as a result?
I put that on the top just in case you don't make it to the end of this long post.
In order to answer that question, I initially started to write a post about the logistical changes I made as a result of the study -- how I made a Rule of Life, and what I am doing to follow it. But I got bogged down.
The reason is that these practices are so circumstantial. If you go to that link, you will find what the book author thought was most important, and also some other practical examples of other peoples' rules of life. Take what is valuable to you at this moment, and leave the rest.
This reflection from Opus Dei today really struck me and gave me a way to approach my summary of what I got out of the book study. The insight wasn't entirely new but studying the book and trying to follow a few resolutions gave me a deepened experience of the idea:
This doctrine of holy Scripture, as you know, is to be found in the very nucleus of the spirit of Opus Dei. It leads you to do your work perfectly, to love God and mankind by putting love in the little things of everyday life, and discovering that divine something which is hidden in small details. The lines of a Castilian poet are especially appropriate here: ‘Write slowly and with a careful hand, for doing things well is more important than doing them’ .
I assure you, my sons and daughters, that when a Christian carries out with love the most insignificant everyday action, that action overflows with the transcendence of God. That is why I have told you repeatedly, and hammered away once and again on the idea that the Christian vocation consists of making heroic verse out of the prose of each day. Heaven and earth seem to merge, my sons and daughters, on the horizon. But where they really meet is in your hearts, when you sanctify your everyday lives. (Conversations, 116)
When I had babies and toddlers, I thought it was because of the babies and toddlers that I never got to everything I needed to do in a given day. Now that my children are older, even though I have my hands free more of the time, I still don't get everything done. I think now that like clutter or dust bunnies, "to-do's" simply multiply to fill the available space.
When Monsignor Lejeune wrote Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers, he carefully did not advocate for a perfectly kept house, always totally groomed, polite and wise children, or a precisely ordered daily schedule. Yet he was advocating excellence, or even more ---perfection. So what did he mean?
The idea of the Counsels of Perfection, as I know you already know, derive from what Jesus told the rich young man who already kept the :Law faithfully (and notice that nothing in the commandments says anything about formal perfection in house, hygiene, culture, or productivity, either). Jesus told the young man to sell what he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Him.
In a more general sense, He was telling the young man to take to heart the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes or benedictiones. He was talking about that holy prudence and detachment from worldly things that I tried to describe in this post,
So this is our yardstick. It seems to me that many, if not all, of Flannery O'Connor's stories try to pinpoint this radical truth, so I am going to the penultimate moment of a rather difficult story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, to evoke it. You can go and read the whole story, if you want and haven't already, at that link. If you are like most people when they first read it, you will be somewhat shocked, dismayed and confused.
“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”Seriously! while I was shocked and horrified when I first read this in college, the older I get, the more I understand it. If I was brave enough, I would even pray that somebody (metaphorically) would shoot me every minute of my life, so I wouldn't waste most of it as the Grandma did.
Instead, I pray for peace and comfort, which is thoroughly legitimate too, but God's peace and comfort is not in contradiction to the idea of being under fire. It's not the peace of being wrapped in cotton and indulged, but the crystal peace of the Compiegne nuns in the tumbril on the way to the guillotine or the peace of St Thomas More at his execution:
Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had committed no Treason.Or of Boromir:
’’ Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. ...As St Josemaria Escriva indicates in the passage I quoted above, and indeed, throughout all his teachings, most of us are not called to be under fire in this particular kind of way, but little ordinary deeds are shot through (no pun intended) with no less significance.
’Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’
’No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ’You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!’
Indeed, Escriva talks about the heroic minute of rising in the morning.
How prosaic! We all get up every day! Even if we are bedridden, there is a moment of waking up and starting the daytime hours. His point is that HOW we get up, the serviam! as soon as we are aware that there is a struggle within, is what counts.
This is a way we can in a sense, do the redemptive violence that the Misfit did to the grandma (thence the traditional concept of "mortification")
The idea of mortification is never complete on its own but has to be paired with the Serviam! of St Michael, our defender in battle; it has to be paired with an evocation of the peace of "into Thy hands I commend my spirit."
And when we stumble, we just have another opportunity to trace in small-font, in some way, the last moment redemption of the Grandma in O'Connor's story, and of Boromir, and of Sydney Carton in Dickens' tale of the Terror. Ultimately, of course, we hope in Jesus' name to precast the happy result of our own final struggle.
Failing can be productive too, even in purely human terms. It is part of that experience of being shot, like the Grandma, or frozen into a moment of ongoing humiliation, like Asbury in another of O'Connor's stories, The Enduring Chill. It hurts, badly, but it hurts the very thing that needs to be shot (or frozen) on an ongoing basis. ... self-regard, pride. It allows our stony, cold hearts to be crushed, broken and opened to grace.
So when I am looking at Counself of Perfection -- as I always write it before I correct it -- I can once again see it as a paradigm, as God's gift of letting me try, and fail, and get helped up and given the strength to go on, time and time again. When I succeed, I will know thoroughly that it is because of Him, which is way more delightful than fantasizing that it is me.