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 — 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.

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Compassion

Compassion is a quality we recognize in others but are hard put to explain. It is more than sympathy (literally, feeling with), it is actually suffering with another. It is just as well that compassion comes as a gift, because I don’t think any of us would be brave enough to ask for it if we really thought what it means. There’s nothing warm and cuddly about compassion, although when we are on the receiving end, we do feel bundled up in love and warmth. Why not spend a few minutes today thinking about the occasions when you’ve experienced compassion from others and give thanks for them. Grace grows in proportion to gratitude, we are told. We might even become compassionate ourselves.

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Our Lady of Consolation

In our monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, (originally, Our Lady of Comfort). It was a devotion popular in the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,  when it was adopted by the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai. English sailors took the devotion to Galicia in Spain where you can still find the occasional statue dedicated to Our Lady under this title. In recent centuries Our Lady has acquired other, more popular titles, but I find this one rich in scriptural allusion and content.

Consolation is a beautiful word, so is comfort in its former sense of giving strength. Consolamini, consolamini, Comfort, comfort ye my people . . . Every Christian must be, in some measure, a giver of strength and consolation to others, but it is not something we can do through our own efforts. Mary, the Mother of God, was a mulier fortis, a strong woman, a valiant woman, one who allowed grace to flower in her, an excellent teacher of what it means to be a giver of comfort to others. I like the way in which Mary is always and everywhere leading us to her Son. As she said to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ With that advice she solved the problem of the wine running out, taking nothing to herself but giving the glory to God, to whom alone it belongs.

 

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Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

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The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 1

Over the next few days I shall be writing a series of posts about St Benedict’s teaching on Lent. Today’s is concerned with the first few sentences of RB 49, On the Observance of Lent, which read as follows:

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality; but since few are capable of that, we therefore urge the whole community during these days of Lent to lead lives of surpassing purity, and in this holy season wash away the negligences of other times. That may be properly done by abstaining from all sinful habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

Let’s unpack that a little. Monastic life is a life of continual conversion, of turning back to the Lord, changing for the better, living a life of repentance in the sense of metanoia. Indeed one of our vows, conversatio morum, is precisely a vow to undertake this turning to the Lord every day of our lives. It is the dynamic of Benedictine life. What does Lent add to this? Surely it is the extra focus provided by a period of more concentrated effort.

Benedict accepts that we fall away from our ideals, that we become negligent. His remedy is to help us regain our initial fervour. The first thing he asks of us is a profound purity. It is sad that this beautiful word has come to be associated with sexual purity alone. In origin, it means much more: a focus upon God that is free from any contamination or distraction. It is concentrated energy, with a warmth and generosity about it that our narrower meaning does not really convey. So, Benedict asks us to focus on God and our search for him in community in a way that is truly joyous, and the tools he gives us are those we shall be exploring in more depth later this week

  • abstaining from sin
  • prayer with tears
  • reading
  • compunction of heart
  • self denial

Here I will just say a word about the first, abstaining from sin. We all know what sin is and how attractive we find it, despite our best intentions. The problem with sin is not only that it draws us away from God but that it quickly becomes habitual. Before we think about what we should ‘do’ for Lent in terms of what we should give up or take on, we need to look at our lives very honestly and ask ourselves if we have fallen into a habit of sin. If we have, it is there that our Lent should begin: with an attempt to root out sin from our lives. That is far more important than giving up sugar in our tea or saying one of the penitential psalms every day. It is the difference between life and death, but most of us are cowards when it comes to acknowledging our sins. That is why Benedict urges us elsewhere to begin every good act with prayer. To see our lives for what they are, to be able to bear the knowledge that act of seeing confers, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. We can be sure that grace will never be withheld from anyone who asks. In other words, we can be sure that God will accompany us on every step of our Lenten journey.

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Gracious Living

While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.

Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.

There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.

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Baptism of the Lord 2012

I’ve written about this feast, its history and theology, many times, most recently here. Perhaps today a single thought will suffice. The Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of his public ministry. It represents something new in his life, and in the life of the world, yet it was, at the time, an obscure act in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. The baptism of an unknown Galilean by an eccentric preacher out in the Judean wilderness was hardly likely to cause any ripples in Rome.

Life is full of new beginnings. Some of them seem significant, at least to ourselves; others are unremarkable; yet if we are open to the grace of God, even our most obscure actions become capable of uniting us with Christ and his mission. As many of the Fathers loved to recall, when Christ went down into the waters of the Jordan, he took us with him. We must also rise with him to become beloved children in whom the Father is well-pleased.

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Families: holy and unholy, perfect and imperfect

Readers of iBenedictines’ predecessor, Colophon, will know that neither I nor the community to which I belong really ‘like’ the feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent addition to the calendar and often sentimentalised. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were hardly an average family, so not much use to us as role models, unless we are prepared to live with a constant feeling of failure because we can’t begin to emulate their perfection.

The fact that we don’t like a feast or find it difficult is, paradoxically, all the more reason for thinking about what it has to teach us. Maybe if we could drop the ‘role model’ idea for a minute we might see more clearly, because it is not the perfection of the Holy Family we need to aim at but its imperfection.

Jesus grew in stature and understanding, just as Mary and Joseph grew in understanding and obedience. The key words, I think, are ‘growth’ and ‘understanding’. Mary gave her consent to the angel without realising all that would be asked of her in the future. She grew as her vocation grew, constantly renewing her initial acceptance of her role as Mother of God. Joseph obeyed the angel, only to find that one obedience demanded another. Jesus himself seems not to have understood all at once what his Sonship would entail. He had to choose obedience to the Father step by step, had ultimately to accept death on the cross. For all three, it was a process, a perfecting of their lives.

In the messiness and imperfection of our own lives, that is a tremendous encouragement. None of us lives in a perfect family; many of us don’t live in families at all; but each of us can learn and grow through our experience of ordinary, everyday life. The Holy Family of Nazareth prepared the way for the Holy Family gathered around the cross on Calvary. We too have to make a similar journey, perhaps with many false turnings on the way but always with the same end in view. As we draw closer to Christ, we hope that we shall be made holy, not as members of his family but as members of something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church.

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