I did my best?

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Only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man. “It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a ‘balancing of the goods in question.’ But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit” (Address to those taking part in a course on “responsible parenthood” (March 1, 1984), 4: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984), 583).

– St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 103.

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At one time or another, we all have been spurred on to “do our best.” But what exactly does it mean to “do your best”? It seems to me that this advice is frequently offered (and definitely taken) to mean “don’t expect too much of yourself, you’re only human after all.” In other words, it does not urge us to strive for excellence or perfection, but gives us a way out and tends to encourage complacency and mediocrity.  It’s like receiving a trophy for just showing up, not for winning the league or hitting the most homeruns. Many think getting to heaven is just about as easy.

Yes, everyone is responsible to do his or her best. In academics, this would mean devoting yourself to serious study (which means serious time), seeking a tutor perhaps, drilling yourself, perfecting written drafts, and the like.  In sports, it would mean watching your diet, constant workouts, working on your skills, and regularly competing. Think about that olympic gymnast who has devoted almost every waking hour and all her mental and physical energy to winning the gold medal. To be a master, we have heard about the “magic number” of 10,000 hours. People can show a lot of effort – remarkable effort – when it comes to such earthly pursuits. But what about when it comes to heavenly ones?

Let’s be honest. When it comes to the spiritual life (which includes the moral life), which of us can say we really do our “best,” that we indeed give it our all? How many of us have been tempted to the point of shedding our blood (or would even be willing to shed our blood rather than give into temptation)? Martyrdom is no longer a value and the ultimate expression of human freedom. “Death, rather than sin” is passé.  I mean, who can be expected to reach such heights given human limitations. Certainly we cannot expect such resolve from youth. Except that St. Dominic Savio – the saint whose motto that was – was 14 when he died. And us? We often won’t put forth the effort even to avoid the occasions of sin, let alone sin itself.

So, again, what does it mean to do our best? My mind turns to a wonderful passage from C.S. Lewis’ A Horse and His Boy.  Aravis and Shasta are traveling on their horses, Bree and Hwin, to warn the Narnians of the impending attack of the Calormenes. The Calormenes are fast approaching, and so Aravis and Shasta must ride as fast as they can to beat them to the Narnians, lest all be lost. Aravis drives Bree to gallop faster and faster. Shasta is tempted to shout the same instructions at Hwin, but thought, “The poor chap’s doing all he can already.” Then Lewis adds: “And certainly both horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which is not quite the same thing.”  It’s only after the fearsome lion Aslan (the Christ figure in the Chronicles) appears behind them that Bree “discovered that he had not really been going as fast – not quite as fast – as he could.” He picks up the pace and begins “going all out,” and arrives at the destination.

Clearly, God’s assistance is necessary for us to reach the goals of holiness and Heaven. We are not speaking here of a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view that would assert that we can earn Heaven and God’s favor by our own effort alone. We need God to “spur” us on and to provide His saving help! Yet, holiness (which is the “perfection of charity” – see CCC 1709, 2013) and Heaven require our effort as well. Indeed, they require our best efforts, our “going all out.” As St. Augustine (the great anti-Pelagian) stated, “God therefore does not command impossibilities; but in His command He counsels you both to do what you can for yourself, and to ask His aid in what you cannot do. Now, we should see whence comes the possibility, and whence the impossibility…” (De natura et gratia, Ch. 50).

Christ has redeemed us! He perfects our human nature and enables us to conquer concupiscence by His grace! So let us work as hard as we can! Let us truly “do our best” to root out sin in us, to keep God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church, to love as Christ Himself has loved us. And when we reach our natural limits, let us cry out to God and make ourselves available and receptive to His grace. God will provide what nature does not! St. John Paul II calls this the “hope of every day” (TOB 86:6-7).  

Jesus, I trust in you. Mary, I am totally yours. 

St. John Paul II, pray for us!

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