Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Sesame Street: E is for Excellent

When my teachers handed back my tests or papers in grade school I always wanted to see “Excellent” written across the top. Or, even better, an “E” on my report card went a long way to keep the parental units at bay. There is just something about that word that makes you smile. It could be that we live in a society that prizes perfection in all that we do. Maybe it’s because we associate the word with the highest form of praise. Regardless, excellence is a quality that we strive for in all that we do.

Over the weekend, I was reflecting on excellence and a few New Testament Scriptures in which the Greek word Arte, which means goodness or moral virtue, was used. There are four instances where it may be found:

  • But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1Pt 2:9)
  • His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, (2 Pt 1:3)
  • For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge (2 Pt 1:5)
  • Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

This term was used often by the ancient Greek philosophers and scholars. It did not connote a job well done but exemplary living or a particular excellence. Homer in the Odyssey and Iliad used the word to describe his heroes who were endowed with strength and courage.

According to Bernard Knox‘s notes found in the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, “arete” is also associated with the Greek word for pray, “araomai” . (Homer. The Odyssey. trans. by Robert Fagles. Introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics Deluxe Ed, London. 1996)

It is interesting that Mr. Fagles connected this excellence with prayer. I think it is even cooler that St. Peter agrees with him. In his two epistles, he uses the word to describe the Lord’s wondrous deeds and the power that works in us to produce “excellence” and “virtue” as shown above. (Source: Ignatius Study Bible)

St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians  connects our conduct with contemplation (See Phil quote above). As that pericope continues, he demonstrates that through meditating on the Word of God our thoughts can be purified and thus be expressed through excellence in living (See CCC 1803). Scripture proclaims this as well:

And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. (Wis 8:7)

It should not be a surprise that we many times translate arete (excellence in the Greek) to virtue from the Latin. Virtue as we know is a strength that when perfected by God’s grace, ennobles the individual with a spiritual and moral excellence. So, next time when we tell our children that they have achieved a measure of excellence, maybe should renew the word and associate it with virtue.

One caution though. Remember, perfection is not a virtue. We want our kids to grow in excellence not perfection. Perfection is a work of the Blessed Trinity that deifies our excellence and transforms it into “the perfect.” We have no hope in trying to be perfect – it is an illusion. How do kids live out being perfect? Perfectionism. This twisted spawn of the sin of vanity is one of the most devastating disorders among our youth and young adults today. It only leads to depression and despair. On the contrary, let’s secure excellence using the pattern that Scripture teaches us:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word. (Ps 199:9)

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