The Problem with Being Perfect

Yesterday I made use of the Twitter hashtag ‘phrases that annoy’ in connection with a mild joke. I was surprised to be taken up by another Twitter user who said that he thought being annoyed was contrary to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. My reply, that it wasn’t the being annoyed that was the problem but what we did with it, and that the Rule is for those who are not yet perfect, probably didn’t cut much ice. However, in the context of today’s reading from the Rule, RB 7.62–70, the twelfth step of humility, I think it highlights a problem we are all familiar with: ‘religious people’, nuns especially, are expected to be ‘perfect’; and when we don’t measure up to the other person’s expectations, there is grave disappointment.

Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that most people think of perfection as something static whereas I think it is much more a process of endless becoming. Take that being annoyed again. Someone who is unaffected by others, whose temper is always calm and unruffled, is not necessarily exercising any virtue. He/she may simply be ignoring what is happening, refusing to engage, living a rather inhuman life. The person who is annoyed, admits it, tries to turn the annoyance into changing things for the better is, in my view, much more virtuous, much more human. He/she is also likely to experience repeated failure and so will need to keep on reaffirming his/her original choice. That, to my mind, is part of what it means to grow in virtue.

When today Benedict talks of humility existing not only in the monk’s heart but also affecting our outward bearing, he is doing exactly the opposite of what most people expect. Nearly everyone thinks that one begins by practising humility outwardly and letting it percolate inwards. The reverse is true. We start by keeping the fear of God before our eyes and end, if we can ever be said to end, with a humility that is manifest to others β€” which is why most of us are going to go on appearing very imperfect to others. Moreover, the perfect love of God to which we aspire is not something in which we rest; it is something in which we move and act. For Benedict, the perfection of humility draws us into an ever more demanding observance in which the keynotes are love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. Nowhere does he say that we shall be free from temptation or that we shall not fail.

So, as we read Benedict’s words, I think we should take heart. Unless we are quite deliberately rejecting God, the messiness and imperfection of our lives is something to be treasured. If we were perfect, we would have no need of a Saviour; and I, for one, would much rather the Lord Jesus stooped to my need. Our struggles are transformed by grace, but even grace needs a chink or two to find a way in.


16 thoughts on “The Problem with Being Perfect”

  1. Do you distinguish between annoyance and anger? Your article calls to my mind the response of Jesus when He overturned the tables of the money lenders in the Temple.

    • Thank you. You have highlighted another problem. When I talk about the Rule of St Benedict or monastic living in general, I am doing so from within the tradition. So, for example, when writing this morning’s post, I had running through my mind the teaching of the Fathers on the passions, and in particular, what Cassian has to say about anger. If you (meaning, any reader) are familiar with those writings, you will readily see where I have used a kind of monastic short-hand. If you aren’t, my desire to be concise probably makes my meaning less clear.

      We have many different words in English for anger and its various degrees and manifestations. When I use the word ‘annoyance’, I tend to mean a negative reaction to something as trifling as the buzzing of a fly. I am not going to roll up a newspaper and swat the fly; still less am I going to zap it with chemical sprays; but my concentration has been broken, and I don’t like that. So I say that I am annoyed. It is all about me. The anger of Jesus in the Temple was not annoyance, it was purifying fire, and it was concerned with God, not himself. He drove out the moneychangers because of zeal for his Father.

      The trouble is, very few of us ever experience that kind of righteous anger, because our hearts are not pure. We’re still stuck in the annoyed/irritable/unreasonably flaring up stage of selfishness; and Cassian warns us, as indeed does Benedict, to be very careful about that. We don’t pretend that we aren’t angry/annoyed/whatever, but we take the anger to the Lord for transformation.

  2. Thank you for this very reassuring post. Being a perfectionist is not, contrary to what many people think, a good or a pleasant thing. It is hard to live with yourself if you never feel you have done well enough. Thus the idea that a chink of imperfection is important if we are to allow God a role in our lives is a very welcome thought; something I will remind myself of, next time I feel the inevitable ‘could have done better’ creeping up on me.

    • Perfectionism is like having scruples. In the seventeenth century it was very fashionable to suffer from scrupulosity, and what an agony that was for everybody! We must do our best and be content that God seeks ‘not a perfect work but an infinite desire.’ (St Catherine of Siena)

  3. Thank you for your post.

    Whenever people ask if I am ‘religious’ I always reply that I am a practising Christian; that it is similar to playing the piano in that I am trying to be perfect (whatever that is) but get it wrong so have to admit my failures, and then carry on practising.

    • lovethis parallel! as a piano teacher it speaks directly to me! I, too, am a “practising” Christian, and as we all know, practice makes – no, not necessarily “perfect”, it makes “permanent”. So the more we “practise” living with Jesus and allowing HIm to live in us the more perfectly we will do just that and the more like Him we will become. QED! πŸ™‚

  4. Thank you. πŸ™‚

    About the teachings of the Fathers on the passions, which you mentioned in one of your responses, would you say to whom you are making reference? I am familiar with Cassian’s works, and would like to know of others attached to the tradition.

    Are you meaning English Benedictine tradition, or Christian tradition more generally?

  5. I like your description of annoyance being used to make things better, rather than worse. And that being annoyed isn’t a sign of an ‘angry man’ but a sign of being fully human.

    I find that being annoyed by small things tends to be spontaneous and inevitably short lived. The person who cuts you up at a roundabout, the person who jumps in front of you in as you are about to pay at a parking machine. But, I try very hard to turn the other cheek, smile and allow it to pass from memory.

    It’s the small things that make me angry that worry me. Because unfocused, unjustified anger is a dangerous thing and I saw enough of it from people in my younger days not to want to allow it to be part of me. So, deep breaths, pause or even walking away from a situation is the means that I employ to avoid angry confrontations, particularly where I see little sense in making things worse by opening my mouth.

    I’ve occasionally seen righteous anger, normally at the inadequacy of our ability to deal with situations such as the Tsunami, or other disaster which seem to leave us helpless. Do we rage at God for our inadequacy or turn that anger to action to work towards trying to stop it ever happening again, or at least to mitigate the worst effects of it.

    And I know that when my spouse was recently so ill, I was incoherent with frustration and raged at God for a while, until I realised how futile I was being. Strangely, a calm and peace came over me, which I attribute to the Holy Spirit laying a hand on me to calm me down.

    Jesus had a right to be angry when he turned the tables over in the temple and whipped the traders out with knotted cords, but I wonder how often I could or should have been treated in the same way, after all, we are all sinners.

  6. A great post and very opportune for me as I know that tomorrow morning I will inevitably be annoyed by something or other at mass. It annoys me that I’m annoyed. I have a reputation for being calm and cheerful at work but on a Sunday morning I turn into a grumpy old woman!

  7. Interesting that you make a connection, in reply to a comment above, between perfectionism and scrupulosity. I struggle with the former, and my priest tells me that I must guard against the latter! πŸ™‚
    Thank you for this post, with its wise and encouraging words. Much needed.

  8. Thank you Sister that is so what I needed to hear. I
    struggle with being annoyed and feel it a failing I shall
    see it in a different light from now on. For none of us are perfect all we can do is try to lead an exemplary life but its so hard.

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