The Pursuit of Perfection

I wonder when the idea of perfection underwent a sea-change, so that we think of it first as a state of flawlessness and only secondarily as completion/fullness. Flawlessness can be a little chilly and remote, as a jewel gleams with cold grandeur or a stone stands smooth and straight but impresses us with its weight rather than its beauty. Completion or fullness is often a little fuzzy, a little messy even: one thinks of the newborn baby — warm, wet, wrinkled and probably wriggley, too, but undeniably ‘perfect’ — or the sleeping dog, a miracle of contentment and ease. Judging by my inbox, the idea of perfection as flawlessness causes a great deal of heartache. Most of us will never have perfect bodies, houses, relationships or whatever, if we mean by that those that are flawless. Most of us will never write a perfect poem or perfect sonata, though we may spend our lives struggling to achieve a ‘better’ poem or ‘better’ sonata than any we have yet managed. The marrying of perfection of form (which is attainable) to the more elusive perfection or fullness of the inner voice is the work of a lifetime, and most will go to their graves with a sense of never having quite attained it. The pursuit of artistic perfection is both ecstasy and anguish, a perpetual trembling on the brink of the unattainable. The pursuit of religious perfection, by contrast, has fewer highs and lows; and it is attainable.

If we really understood that we are not called to be flawless, I think there would be much less worry and grief about what we are or are not. We waste so much time thinking that we ought to be sinless. Of course, we need to try to avoid sin; but a preoccupation with sin can lead to scrupulosity, which turns us in on ourselves and is destructive of both our own and others’ happiness. (Scrupulosity is an affliction, so if you have any tendency that way, do not beat yourself up about it.) We are called to be loving instead, but not with the vapid, won’t say boo to a goose kind of love which isn’t really love at all because it has neither truth nor sacrifice in it. In Luke’s Gospel we are exhorted to ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’. If you think about it, we cannot be as God is in anything but love; and his love is always redemptive. Everything we are and do is smudged with sin and limitation, but God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and that love transforms us. That does not mean we must try to love in a way we can’t, kidding ourselves that we are being truly loving when in fact we are being faintly ridiculous or cruelly self-deceived. We must love as we are able, as God gives us strength, starting with the people and situations we find ourselves in. What matters is that we love as fully as we are able. That is what it means to pursue perfection — allowing God’s love to come to perfection in us, and forgetting about ourselves.

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