“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – (Matthew 5:48).
Pat Kenny, author of the inspiring blog dedicated to the memory of the holy Irish priest, Fr Willie Doyle, describes the extraordinary simplicity of Fr Doyle’s message on how to seek perfection: “For most lay people, penance does not mean hairshirts and disciplines and extraordinary things, but rather willingly accepting the burdens of each day. The penance of getting up out of bed on time, or of not complaining if we have a headache, or as Fr Doyle describes it “the constant never-ending mortification to do each action perfectly” presents a simple, but extremely challenging road for all of us.”
Father Willie Doyle wrote in his diary:
“While praying for light to know what God wants from me in the matter of mortifying my appetite, a voice seemed to say: “There are other things besides food in which you can be generous with Me, other hard things which I want you to do.” I thought of all the secret self-denial contained in constant hard work, not giving up when a bit tired, not yielding to desire for sleep, not running off to bed if a bit unwell, bearing little sufferings without relief, cold and heat without complaint, and, above all, the constant never-ending mortification to do each action perfectly. This light has given me a good deal of consolation, for I see I can do much for Jesus that is hard without being singular or departing from common life.”
And on another occasion he added:
“While making the Holy Hour to-day, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, I felt inspired to make this resolution: Sweet Jesus, as a first step towards my becoming a saint, which You desire so much, I will try to do each duty, each little action, as perfectly and fervently as I possibly can.”
Blessed Cardinal J. H. Newman, in his extensive writings, frequently returned to the subject of looking for ordinary ways to do the extraordinary. He reflected on the hard lives of most people in 19th century Victorian England, where days of long hours of labour and drudgery, and often of material deprivation, were in themselves penance enough. He preached on how a patient acceptance of these “stones” of daily sufferings and disciplined fulfillment of duty, together with an intense prayer-life open to the Will of God, could be turned into “pearls of great price” towards one’s sanctification.
“It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.
I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.
We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.
He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.
I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.”
It would be impossible to speak about a simple, faithful fulfillment of one’s daily duty as a path to sanctification and not include a mention of the beloved saint of The Little Way, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Countless souls have adopted her advice as a means of drawing closer to God in their own lives, a daily search for perfection in the humble offering up of their work, little trials, mortifications and sufferings, described in the writings of St Thérèse. Thérèse shows how even the smallest detail or trial we encounter in our lives every day can be transformed into beautiful gifts for God. It all depends on our good intentions, our patience and humility, and an attitude of joyful giving back to God a tiny portion of the immense love He has first shown us.
As an enclosed Carmelite nun, Thérèse, whose heart burned with a passionate desire to do great things for God, realised that this desire was not going to be fulfilled in any outstanding achievements that would stun the world, or by heroic martyrdom in shedding her blood for the Faith – ways she would have chosen to prove her love for the Beloved – but instead in a far more seemingly insignificant way. She saw God was calling her to a hidden, unseen offering of every moment of her life of routine, work, prayer and silence. To transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; things of no apparent value into pure gold.
Easy? No, not at all, because it requires a constant “dying to self”, and this, as Pat Kenny says above in his introduction, is extremely challenging to our self-indulgent selves! “Perfection from imperfection” – (Card. J.H. Newman).
But possible? Yes – it is indeed possible for everyone, of any age or condition to tread this path. In fact it is something we must do to fulfill Our Blessed Lord’s commandment to strive for perfection. Then we must humbly accept the constant backsliding of our efforts as a sign of our weakness when we rely on ourselves, and to lean more heavily than ever on God’s strength and merciful, everlasting love.