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 — 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.