The correct answer to the unconditional question “Who is like God?” is the unconditional response “No one is like God!” Only God is truly infinite. Only God exists essentially. Only God is absolutely perfect. All finite substances have real essential powers, but every finite nature presupposes a divine Nature who possesses these powers infinitely and perfectly. Human nature has essential powers such as knowledge, reason, choice, and love, but these powers are very prone to error. No being is like God essentially. Contingently, however, every being is like God, at the very least just by existing, and by the proper exercise of its other powers as well. In speaking about God, we must grant that the way of affirmation is just as true as the way of negation. The reconciliation of these two true but opposing ways of speaking about God is the way of analogy. Every power that a creature possesses and exercises in accord with its nature is analogous to the Creator’s infinite power and absolute goodness. And the Creator’s uncaused perfection is the primary cause of every perfection that a creature possesses and exercises contingently by nature and participation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, St Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross call us to the way of moral and spiritual perfection. “Be perfect,” they tell us, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Is perfection a reasonable goal? Is it even possible to attain? Is it not far too demanding? Isn’t the desire to be like God a sin against humility? Isn’t the desire even for merely human perfection a disordered desire? Doesn’t the call to Christian perfection commit us to endless frustration and disappointment from the start? Certainly the call of Christ is unrealizable if it requires us to be like God essentially, but if it only requires us to be like God contingently, then the call is analogically realizable. And if by faith it is grounded in the hope that God desires to complete the good work that he has begun in us and to bring us to moral and spiritual perfection by grace, then the call is eminently reasonable. We are already like God by our very nature, and we are on the way of moral and spiritual perfection by our personal cooperation with grace. God is actively guiding us and forming in us the stable dispositions of faith, hope, and charity which constitute perfection. Often we might wish that God were not working so relentlessly for our perfection.

The goal of the moral life is to become more like God—true, good, and beautiful in our actions, habits, and voluntary desires. What is the difference between desiring the perfection of spiritual union with God and desiring instead the perfection of never making mistakes or doing anything wrong? In the former kind of desire, we are convinced and peacefully accept that we have limited powers and make mistakes necessarily by nature, even apart from sin. We thus are content with our finitude. In the true way of perfection we are happy that we essentially are not God and are not essentially good, and by grace we are striving to do his will. We are happy that we are only human and only contingently good. We desire to be one with God only contingently, not essentially. We do not divinize ourselves and our own judgments and desires. We habitually practice self-accusation and self-abnegation. We are happy to be corrected and thus to grow in virtue.

But the other kind of desire—the desire never to be in error—is the desire to be God essentially. Such a desire is a product of the original sin which rejects God’s will and self-divinizes one’s self and one’s own will. It is the intellectual desire that also led to the fall of the angels. In the false way of perfection we cannot stand to be wrong, and thus we habitually practice self-justification and self-affirmation. In the true way of perfection we are happy to be wrong, to be weak, to try and fail and try again, and to be recognized as imperfect. Indeed, we are even happy to be misjudged and to have our virtues overlooked, as Christ was. We spiritually desire poverty, not wealth, weakness, not power, and rejection, not fame. Spiritually we even desire pain, not pleasure, but we never desire it morbidly as an end in itself. We desire it as a means of perfection, like an athlete must also desire it. “No pain, no gain” is the universal law of growing in virtue, for spiritual, intellectual, and moral virtues as well as physical virtues.

The distinction between the true and false ways of perfection is related to the distinction that Pope Francis makes between “the fraternal conscience” of “the converted self,” biblically exemplified by the publican Zaccheus, and “the isolated conscience” of “the beleaguered self,” biblically exemplified by the prophet Jonah (Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis in conversation with Austen Ivereigh, Simon & Schuster, 2020, pp. 72-76). Zaccheus humbles himself and accepts the salvation and community that Christ offers him. Zaccheus is converted and begins to practice self-accusation and spiritual poverty. He is reunited with his people and puts his wealth at the service of others. “He accepts mercy and is changed by mercy.” The prophet Jonah, by contrast, is self-righteous and hardens his heart against the mercy that God intends to offer to the Ninevites through faith and repentance. Jonah initially rejects God’s will, refuses to accept the mission to the Ninevites, and self-justifies his own disobedience. He thus isolates himself in his own self-concern and ignores the needs of others, especially those whom he regards as morally inferior to himself.

“For Jonah, God came once, handed down a law, and ‘I’ll take care of the rest,’ Jonah says to himself. In his mind he was saved and the Ninevites were not; he had the truth and they did not; he was in charge and God was not. He had erected a fence around his soul with the barbed wire of his certainties, dividing the world into good and bad, and closing off the door to God’s action. How the heart of the beleaguered self hardens when it comes into contact with God’s mercy!” (Let Us Dream, pp. 72-73)

As the story unfolds, the relentless mercy of God goes to great lengths to soften Jonah’s heart and to set Jonah free from his self-imposed isolation. God wants to do the same for all of us.

The doctrine of St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, and the other Doctors of the Church is that the Cross of Christ is the universal way of perfection. The state of perfection is found in the fullness of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—which have the power to bring us into complete conformity with God’s will. The Way of the Cross is the asceticism of the human body and the human soul, which includes above all the self-discipline of the human powers of intellection and volition. Grace perfects the intellectual and moral life. Wisdom is perfected in understanding the Cross, and holiness is perfected in embracing it. The intellectual-moral order requires the training of the intellect and will and the pursuit and practice of virtue, which entails hard work, self-denial, persistence, and sacrifice for the sake of true happiness (natural and supernatural perfective goodness). Happiness is an ordered set of virtues. Thus we see that the doctrines of Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, and St John of the Cross are compatible.

In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that most people turn away from what will really make them happy—virtue, contemplation, reason, and wisdom—and St John of the Cross applies this principle to supernatural wisdom as an infused virtue. Why do people generally fail to seek happiness in God, who is the perfection of happiness? St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross say that it must be due to ignorance (i.e., lack of catechesis), or bad spiritual accompaniment, or lack of generosity (The Book of Her Life, 11.1; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II.7). Jesus says, “The way is narrow and difficult; few there be who find it” (Mt 7:14). Only a few of the faithful ever attain the higher degrees of perfection and love that God offers them in Christ. Indeed, few there be who even seek it. An arrow can be directed to a target only by one who sees the target and desires to hit it. The goal is total and perfect union with God through faith, hope, and charity, which is a grace that is offered to everyone in the circumstances of their lives, whether they realize it or not.

The struggle (and thus mystically the Cross) in the natural, intellectual, and moral life and also in the spiritual life is to be transformed in the heart by nature and by grace subjectively (ego, mind, self) so as to be united with one’s immortal soul objectively (intellect, will, spiritual memory) and with God’s presence in the soul by nature and by grace, thus to become like God through a contingent participation in his loving Wisdom. Prayer is a universal battle with the world, the self, and the devil. The most difficult attachment that God must break in our hearts is our attachment to our own judgment and will. The union of reason and faith (nature and grace) is intrinsic and objective. The challenge is to unite one’s self with truth and to know and love it subjectively. Faith and reason are already one, already harmonized by God. And through the Cross of Christ, God offers to bring them to perfection in us. We just need to recognize (re-cognize) it, to appreciate the truth, goodness, and beauty of it, and then to surrender ourselves to it unconditionally in the imitation of the Mother of Christ.

Pope Francis points to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the model of human perfection in faith, hope, and charity. We are called to be perfect also as our heavenly Mother is perfect. She understands and embraces the Cross perfectly in the imitation of her Son. Her participation in divine Wisdom and Love will always be greater and more intense than ours is, but we can and should desire to possess by grace the same kind of transforming union with God that she does. Pope Francis also points to her as the model of spiritual accompaniment. She nurtures us and intercedes for us on the way of perfection. She assists us in understanding and embracing whatever her Son asks of us. Thus she offers us a participation in her own perfections and attitudes.

“The Virgin Mary is a great teacher of discernment: she speaks little, listens a lot, and cherishes in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19). The three attitudes of Our Lady: she speaks little, listens a lot, and cherishes in her heart. And the few times she speaks, she leaves a mark. For example, in the Gospel of John there is a very short phrase uttered by Mary which is a mandate for Christians of all times: ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (cf. 2:5). It is curious: once I heard a very good, very pious elderly woman, who had not studied theology. She was very simple. And she said to me, ‘Do you know what Our Lady always does?’ [I said,] ‘I don’t know, she embraces you, she calls you….’ ‘No, the gesture Our Lady does is this: [points with her finger].’ I didn’t understand, and I asked, ‘What does it mean?’ And the elderly woman replied, ‘She always points to Jesus.’ This is beautiful! Our Lady takes nothing for herself; she points to Jesus. Do whatever Jesus tells you: that is what Our Lady is like. Mary knows that the Lord speaks to the heart of each person, and [she] asks for these words to be translated into actions and choices. She knew how to do this more than any other person, and indeed she is present in the fundamental moments of Jesus’ life, especially in the supreme moment of death on the Cross.” (Pope Francis, General Audience, 4 January 2023)


Image: Assumption of the Virgin (Titian). Public Domain.

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Tracy Jamison is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a secular Carmelite (OCDS) and a professor of Philosophy at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology (MTSM). Tracy and his wife Joyce met in a Protestant seminary and have been happily married for over thirty years.

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