Chimps, Champs and the Problem of Perfection

Chimpanzees have a sense of fair play which makes them share resources with one another; Lance Armstrong has fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again, because he won his famous races by breaking all the rules about doping; and Benedictines are celebrating the feast of two near-perfect disciples of St Benedict, SS Maurus and Placid. The connection is not the obvious one (viz. we are genetically very similar to chimpanzees but have somehow become less altruistic as we have developed), nor is it the contrast between Lance Armstrong’s elastic sense of honour and the unhesitating obedience of Maurus which saved the life of Placid. It is, rather, the whole idea of perfection and the burden it frequently places upon us.

As far as I know, chimpanzees are untroubled by the need to appear better than others. Male chimpanzees will fight to assert their right to breed, but for the rest of the time they apparently live in social groups which rely on mutual support to thrive. Hence, all that food-sharing which has so impressed recent researchers. Human beings are more competitive; they are also more devious. We often desire the appearance of something even more than its substance. Lance Armstrong wanted to win at any price. Had he become so obsessed with the idea of winning that he could not face failure? What tipped him over the edge, from competitive sportsman to someone prepared to use dishonest methods to achieve his aim? Who can say? We feel the disappointment of his failure because we wanted him to succeed. We wanted him to be perfect, and we feel let down to discover that he wasn’t.

Maurus and Placid present us with a different kind of problem. They are presented to Benedictines as exemplary disciples. Maurus saves Placid from the dangers of the lake through heroic obedience, but, enchanting though the story is, it has often proved anything but encouraging to those in monastic life. Modern novices are more likely to ask whether Maurus wasn’t perhaps a little soft in the head, dangerously literal-minded, hardly a model to emulate. He is just a little too perfect for our modern taste. We would prefer someone with a few flaws, just enough to make us feel he is one of us. We don’t want a perfection inhuman in its faultlessness.

The good news is that we are not called to be chimps, though the chimpanzee life-style may have its attractions at times; most of us are not called to be champs, though I daresay some of us would love to be really good at something. We are, however, called to be perfect. The perfection we have to aim at is not some inhuman flawlessness but a very human flowering of love and obedience β€” in other words, the kind of perfection the Gospels talk about, the being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Happily for us, such perfection is attainable and not burdensome because it comes as sheer gift. Which is an encouraging thought.


7 thoughts on “Chimps, Champs and the Problem of Perfection”

  1. Maurus being chastised for rejoicing in the death of Benedict’s monastic enemy Florentius is, perhaps, the more useful lesson for the growing novice. Well can I recall respective liturgical factions rejoicing or bemoaning depending on whose cause appeared to be in the ascendancy; whereas dear old Placide would simply smile and smile and chant whatsoever was put in front of him.

  2. As I was reading this I found myself thinking about the difficulties many (including myself) have with confession (and more broadly confession of thoughts in a monastic context) precisely because we have a very stubborn but also very subtle tendency to present ourselves as better than we are. And, ironically, we only get anywhere near perfection when we are able to acknowledge ourselves as the worst of sinners.

  3. Chimps also wage territorial war with other chimp groups, including murdering each other and are accomplished hunters of smaller mammals including monkeys. They really are just like us……

  4. I worked very closely with Chimps on PG Tipps commercials for 15 years.I’m told our DNA differs by 0.1% but our temperament by 99.9%.The young females are aggressive in their pursuit of a strong partner from a very early age and my experience is that it is a matriarchal society. Sweet as they seem they are hugely aggressive and have no problem with murder.
    I suppose if you add a soul we may well change the % points !

  5. Thank you for all your comments.

    Peter, you nearly got your preferred title but I desisted at the last minute!

    The difficulty we have with the seventh degree of humility! I suspect the struggle with self-image and truth gos on until our last breath.

    And as for the comments about chimps, I should have learned my lesson by now: never use a topical allusion because it will always prove more interesting than the subject of the post! πŸ™‚

  6. I wonder if the illusion to Chimps is because of their similarity to us in so many ways – I can remember the images of the Chimp’s Tea Parties when I was younger – and how cruel were the animal trainers for taking them from their natural environment to such an artificial, mock human one?

    However, the simplicity of relationships we observe in many of the animal kingdom demonstrates that while we think that we are the only sentient beings, many other creatures seem more calmer and compassionate by instinct than many humans.

    I wondered about the comment from Macrina above regarding confession in a monastic setting. Confession is a hard thing to do and public confession seems to me to be the complete baring of one’s soul while also unburdening yourself of the baggage that can be buried if you refuse to be completely frank and truthful with yourself in preparing or confession.

    When my son became a Mormon, he was required after his baptism to stand up and make a public confession to the whole congregation witnessing in their temple. I was disturbed by this, as I see confession as a one to one with God with a Priest or Confessor as the mediator. Public confession to me seems to go against honesty and truthfulness as others have observed here, we will tend to try to present ourselves in the best light, or at least the least worst light.

    As for my son, his public confession was brief and he was obviously a saint beforehand πŸ™‚ To my relief, his conversion only lasted 9 months before he returned to his mother church. Thanks be to God.

Comments are closed.