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Rediscovering the Gospel Message

Monday, July 18, 2016

Spirituality of Imperfection: Week 1

Rediscovering the Gospel Message
Monday, July 18, 2016

The spirituality of imperfection is, quite simply, the Gospel. However, in the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. From that time on, the spirituality of imperfection—Jesus’ liberating message—became a subtext, a minority position. Once you align with imperial thinking, spirituality quickly transmutes in many forms into a spirituality of supposed perfection—achievement, accomplishment, performance, attainment, and willpower—because that is how empires are built and maintained.

As the Church became aligned with power, many went off to the deserts in Syria and Egypt, seeking a lifestyle congruent with Jesus’ teachings. But mainline Christianity has by and large continued the pattern of protecting and preserving itself through power. Without even realizing it, we have foundationally compromised the core good news. It has, in fact, become bad news because no one can honestly succeed all the time. Yet there have always been individuals or communities who valued the way of simplicity and humility. After the Desert Mothers and Fathers, it showed up again in Celtic spirituality in the Early Middle Ages. Francis of Assisi called it the way of “poverty” or “minority” in the thirteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the young French Carmelite nun, Thérèse of Lisieux, now a Doctor of the Church, returned the spirituality of imperfection to mainline Christianity. She called it her “Little Way.”

One of Thérèse’s favorite parables was of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple (Luke 18:9-14). In Jesus’ time, everyone looked up to the Pharisees as good, religious people who followed all the laws. Tax collectors, or “publicans,” who were taking the people’s money and giving it to the oppressive Roman Empire, were the sinners, the “bad guys.” As usual in his parables, Jesus confounds the counting, consumer mind and honors the so called “loser”; he says that the formal sinner “went home justified” while the observant one “did not.” Have pious and observant folks ever deeply reflected on that story?

Brother Joseph Schmidt, FSC, a dear friend, writes, “In imitation of the publican, [Thérèse] embraced her sinfulness and was willing to ‘bear with myself, such as I am with all my imperfections.’ She surrendered herself to God’s mercy, as did the publican, with confidence that ‘What pleases God is that He sees me loving my littleness and my [inner] poverty, the blind hope that I have in His mercy.’”

Schmidt goes on: “In prayer, remembering her imperfections, she yielded to God’s embrace. She could not climb the rough stairway of perfection; God’s arms would lift her.” [1] This is Thérèse’s famous metaphor of a lift or elevator, which is another way of speaking of the infinite mercy. We are all saved by pure grace, no exceptions.  We must never live in such a way that grace is not needed hour by hour.

Gateway to Silence:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” —Zechariah 4:6

[1] Joseph F. Schmidt, “Perfection: A Problem and a Solution,” “Perfection,” Oneing, Vol. 4, No. 1 (CAC: 2016), 28.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (CAC: 2007), MP3 download.

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