Three different people have brought virtuous goals to my attention during this Lent, which is now drawing to conclusion. They were proposed to me in three different contexts. This post is a reflection on one of those three goals. Reflections on the others will follow later this week, probably with the last one on Holy Saturday.
They are: (1) Lord, make me faithful; (2) Lord, make me grace-ful; and (3) Lord, make me patient.
There is a difference, I was reminded a few weeks ago, between “perfection” and “faithfulness.” I have thought about how to characterize that difference, and I think it has to do with the inherently inter-personal nature of faithfulness. We are faithful to God, and we are faithful to a spouse, an employer, a client, a friend, our families. Perfection may exist almost in a vacuum, except that then it truly can be sounding brass and clanging cymbals. Perfection might be sought in a medieval anchorage alone, but faithfulness could be found there only in the company of God.
Faithfulness also entails being “full of faith.” Faith is always faith in God, or faith in someone. Such “faith” is associated with hope in Spe Salvi. Faith entails that part of love that “hopes all things” concerning another person, as love is described in I Corinthians. Our faithfulness toward God and toward others shows our hope in our future with them.
St. Edith Stein wrote of such faithfulness in one of her essays published in English translation in Knowledge and Faith, referring to the writers of Scripture. “Now when we call the sacred authors themselves “faithful,” here, we mean that they led a life of faith before their extraordinary calling and after their calling they did not stop living from their faith.” The momentary experience of light that they had in writing Scripture had lasting effects on them.
In our own lives too, being faithful implies living a life of faith in response to God’s calling (Rom. 8:28-30), and not merely living a life of moral perfection.
Pope/St. Gregory the Great wrote about the qualities of a faithful servant of God in leadership in his book Pastoral Care. “Indeed, a servant is guilty of adulterous thought, if he craves to please the eyes of the bride when the bridegroom sends gifts to her by him,” he wrote, comparing those of his priests who would compromise the truth in order to win their parishioners’ favor, to an unfaithful servant of the Bridegroom who seeks to use the gift to win the bride’s heart for himself (Pastoral Care, Part II, Ch. 8). Faithfulness to God and to others often means working to win their hearts for God and not for self, sometimes even at the cost of losing their favor for oneself.
Faithfulness implies service to the One whose glory we want more than we want our own. It implies even giving up having a reputation for perfection in the eyes of other people in order to live a life of faith in response to God.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s story of her own quiet sacrifice for the good of another sister is an example of this. One year in December, she was asked to come and help a gardener bring in the Christmas tree. Recognizing that another Carmelite sister wanted to go, she purposefully dallied in untying her apron, giving the other nun a chance to quickly get ready and go to bring in the tree. When someone complained that Thérèse was in no hurry to help, Thérèse said nothing. As the community thought less of her, misjudging her motivation, she said, “Since that day, I have never again dared to judge anyone.” She allowed other people to think less of herself as the best means of faithfulness to God and to her neighbor, and it changed her way of looking at other people’s actions in turn. She learned from those who misjudged her to avoid judging other people in the same way.
Setting “perfection” as our goal may draw our attention to ourselves and our actions as they measure against the standard of perfection that we set for ourselves, or the standard of perfection that we understand God to set for us. Setting “faithfulness” as our goal draws our attention more clearly to the person of God and the hope we have in Him and in others around us day by day.
That is not to say that I, or others, meet either of those goals entirely in this life – we do not. Nor is it to say that perfection is not a worthy goal, when perfection is viewed in the Gospel sense of "holiness" (Matt. 5:48, Lev. 11:45). Instead, we may seek, during Lent and throughout the year, to become a little more holy, a little more perfect, a little more faithful, with God’s help as we seek to imitate Christ and to become a little more like Him.
Through part of this particular Lent, one of the thoughts on which I have meditated has been faithfulness and what it means to become more faithful in living. This post is a product of that reflection.