Before we leave November behind and enter Advent, here's another Portal piece, beginning with a poem by Ann Lewin...
God’s work of art.
Then beauty must lie
In the eye of the beholder.
I feel more like one of those statues
Half emerging from the marble block;
Full of potential, on the verge of life,
But prisoned still by
circumstance and fear.
Yet part of me is free -
And you are still creating,
Bringing to life the promise that is there.
Sometimes by hammer blows
Which jar my being,
Sometimes by tender strokes half felt
Which waken me to life.
Go on, Lord, love me into wholeness.
Set me free to share with you
In your creative joy; to laugh for you
At your delight in me,
Your work of art.
'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' (Matthew 5:48). Two people sat with me in the space of a a week; both spoke about this text. The first was a new Christian. She was full of despondency after hearing this Gospel read in church: as the first enthusiasm of her conversion evaporated she felt she could never live up to what seemed to be demanded of her. The second was a man about to retire after long years of ministry. 'If I'd translated that passage,' he said with a wry laugh. 'I wouldn't have used the word perfect: it's haunted me all my life.'
The word in question is teleios. It doesn't mean quite what we mean by 'perfect'. It means 'finished' in the sense of having completed all the stages necessary for growth or development. It has, of course, the same root as Jesus' cry from the cross of tetelestai - 'it is finished'. The blood and darkness of crucifixion don't look very much like perfection.
I'm told the word teleios was used by the Greeks in connection with sculpture, to refer to a piece of stone which had been hammered, chiselled, chipped and polished until - at last - the beauty the artist had first seen within it was completely revealed. A long and painful process which, as Ann Lewin's poem suggests, is still unfinished in us.
We begin November by celebrating All Saints, and so often the saints are held up to us as examples of perfection - all too impossible to follow. But look at their earthly lives... for example St Augustine, who deserted the woman he loved - and their child; St Catherine of Siena, who defied her confessor in the severity of her fasting, and starved herself to death. Imperfect, flawed human beings, 'half emerging from the marble block'. They were not yet saints on earth. Surely it is the saints' imperfection in this life which fuelled the compassion with which they now pray for us, and with which they still encourage us: 'Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire,' said St Catherine.
The long and difficult passage in Matthew which ends with 'be perfect' begins with the words 'blessed are the poor in spirit' (sometimes translated as 'who know their need of God'). Richard Rohr comments on these words: 'This is what the saints mean by our emptiness, our poverty and our nothingness... God alone can sustain me in knowing and accepting that I am not a saint, not at all perfect, not very loving at all—and in that very recognition I can fall into the perfect love of God.'
You see, the Greek doesn't actually say 'be perfect'. The verb isn't an imperative. Esesthe teleioi means 'you will be perfect'; 'you will be fashioned into who you are meant to be'. It's a promise for the future. How wonderful that we are all still in the Artist's hands.