From Glory to Glory
“BE YE PERFECT”. On the one hand the command is entirely unrealistic. On the other, our Lord may be demanding but he does not ask the impossible. The problem is that people think of perfection in terms of the summit of Everest. It is gained, if at all, only at the end of a long hard struggle. The tough and the fit will arrive at length, but the great majority do not have the least hope of ever making it.
Gregory of Nyssa questions this commonly held understanding. Change and mutability, usually thought to be the insurmountable obstacles to the quest for perfection, actually turn out to be the necessary conditions for its success. To put it simply, if something can change for the worse, it can also change for the better. Where there is no change we can only resign ourselves to staying as we are. To be perfect is not to reach a summit after which no worlds will be left to conquer. It is a continuing process in this world and the world to come in which we seek to make the best, physically, morally and spiritually, of whatever life may throw at us. There can be no seeking to dine out on past successes or previous mystical or religious experiences – if any! But neither are we disqualified by past failures and shortcomings. It is one step at a time, and we are not to weaken or despair. At any given moment we may pray “to be found – if not blameless, yet forgiven; if not successful yet faithful; if not holy, yet persevering”.
Gregory writes: “if there is no adversary there is no crown. There is no victory if there is no conquest. Let us then struggle with this very mutability of our nature, coming to grips as it were with our adversary in spirit; and we become victors not by holding our adversary down but rather not by allowing him to fall. For man does not have merely an inclination to evil; were this so it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination to the contrary. But in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of our growth in good, as it changes, more and more into the divine.
“And so my discourse has shown that what appears to be so terrifying (I mean the mutability of our nature) can really be as a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better. One ought then not to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way as we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in never stopping our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation”.
Hugh Bates is a retired priest in the Diocese of York