Spirituality of Imperfection: Week 1
Perfection: A Self-Defeating Path
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
The path of union is different than the path of perfection. Perfection gives the impression that by effort I can achieve wholeness separate from God, from anyone else, or from connection to the Whole. It appeals to our individualism and our ego. It’s amazing how much of Christian history sent us on a self-defeating course toward private perfection. Union is instead about forgiveness, integration, patience, and compassion. The experience of union creates a very different kind of person.
On the day of my first vows in 1962, the preacher glared at us earnest and innocent novices and quoted the line, “Thou shalt be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48). Most of the honest guys left within the first few years of seminary when they could not achieve this supposed perfection. That’s sad because I think a lot of them would have been really good friars and priests, precisely because they were so human, humble, and honest.
Many people give up on the spiritual life or religion when they see they cannot be perfect. They end up practical agnostics or atheists, because they refuse to be hypocrites. This is classic all-or-nothing thinking, characteristic of addicts. Many formal believers keep up the forms and the words, going to church and pretending to believe; but there is no longer the inner desire, love, joy, or expectation that is usually visible in people on the path of union. Mysticism does not defeat the soul; moralism (read “perfectionism”) always does. Mysticism invites humanity forward; moralism excludes and condemns itself and most others.
It is quite unfortunate that the ideal of perfection has been applied to human beings. Strictly speaking, perfection can only be attributed to the Divine Self. Such a false goal has turned many religious people into pretenders or deniers—very often both. It has created people who, lacking compassion, have made impossible demands on themselves and others, resulting in a tendency toward superiority, impatience, dismissiveness, and negative thinking.
In the secular sphere, it has manufactured artificial ledgers of perfection that have clearly changed from age to age, class to class, and culture to culture. Perfectionism discourages honest self-knowledge and basic humility, which are foundational to spiritual and psychological growth. It has made basic social tranquility a largely unachievable goal. Grandiose people cannot create peace.
Gateway to Silence:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” —Zechariah 4:6
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), 375; and
“Introduction,” “Perfection,” Oneing, Vol. 4, No. 1 (CAC: 2016). 11.