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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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.

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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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