Working Toward Christian Perfection: Gleaning wisdom from St. Philip Neri

Carlo Maratta - The Virgin Appearing to St Philip Neri

What is perfection? For the world, it is “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects, or a person or thing perceived as the embodiment of such a condition, state, or quality”. To the media, perfection is the latest celebrity or supermodel or actor who seems to “have it all.” But the Christian need not be discouraged by these definitions of perfection, which are fulfilled only by a very small percentage of the human race. On the other hand, Christian perfection is to “be holy, to possess fullness of being”. With this definition, the average person, who is not a supermodel or famous actor, can in fact reach perfection.

The ironic part of Christian perfection, or this “fullness of being,” is that fullness of being does not mean being full of “things,” full of worldly desires, or even full of oneself. Rather, one of the first steps to work toward Christian perfection involves emptying oneself of, well, oneself, and opening that space so that another, God, may fill it with His desires, chiefly that we may be united with Him forever.

St. Philip Neri is one who understood this concept very well. In a letter to Sr. Anna Maria, Neri writes that “to acquire the love of God there is no truer and shorter way than to detach ourselves from the things of the world, even small and trifling things, and from self love, rather loving in ourselves the will and service of God than our own satisfaction and will” (Letters of St. Philip Neri). Philip Neri recognizes that this detachment from everything concerning the world is a crucial step in the journey toward sanctity. However, this is easier said than done, and simply stating that attaining perfection is a long and difficult process can be extremely discouraging if only seen in that light. Therefore, in another letter, Neri expounds upon the motivations and rewards for this emptying of oneself and detachment from the world:

A person must strip himself of this filthy skin, painful though such a stripping may seem to be; and we shall not feel the pain, if we seriously consider, that so soon as we are stripped of the foul covering, we are clothed with a royal and imperial garment, namely with the virtue opposite to avarice:…charity, by which I not only mean that we are to despise gold, and silver, and pleasures, and all that is vainly and ignorantly prized by the blind and beguiled world, but that we are to give our life itself, which we love so much, for the honor of God, and for the salvation of our neighbors (St. Philip Neri).

Here Neri illustrates not only an inspiring, lofty motive for emptying oneself and working toward perfection, the glory of God and the salvation of souls, but also the reward: the grace of receiving the highest theological virtue: charity! When seen with the eyes of faith, it is obvious that the “filthy skin” of self love and attachment to one’s own desires cannot compare to the royal robe of charity, which guides us toward Christian perfection.

As shown through the example of Philip Neri, Christian perfection can be attained by the average man, and is not reserved only for a select few that fit the world’s very subjective and superficial definition of perfection. Although the path of perfection that has Christ as its model may seem long, and the step of detachment daunting, man need not simply stop and give up. For with the gift of grace that God so graciously bestows, and with a simple heart that is willing to be open to God’s action, it is possible to take off the stained garment which is our own attachment to this world, and let God exchange it for the robes of royalty which come with being a true child of God. To strive for the fullness of being which constitutes Christian perfection, one need not detach himself completely from the world overnight, but only, with tiny steps, begin to empty his heart so that God may begin to make that same heart His royal throne. There is nothing more perfect than being prepared to be the dwelling place of the King of the Universe, and to be united with Him forever!


About Ashley Osmera

Ashley Osmera is a junior at Belmont Abbey College. She is the oldest of 5 children, and enjoys basketball, singing, piano, and photography.
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