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Center for Action and Contemplation

Wholeness Includes Imperfection

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi

Jack pines … are not lumber trees [and they] won’t win many beauty contests either. But to me this valiant old tree, solitary on its own rocky point, is as beautiful as a living thing can be…. In its silence it speaks of … wholeness … an integrity that comes from being what you are. —Douglas Wood, Fawn Island

Author Parker Palmer presents ways nature helps him reconnect to his own wholeness. 

Thomas Merton claimed that “There is in all visible things … a hidden wholeness.” [1] But back in the human world—where we are less self-revealing than jack pines—Merton’s words can, at times, sound like wishful thinking. Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other [and] become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

My knowledge of the divided life comes first from personal experience: I yearn to be whole, but dividedness often seems the easier choice. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not. I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in. I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions. I deny my inner darkness, giving it more power over me, or I project it onto other people, creating “enemies” where none exist….

In the wilderness, I sense the wholeness hidden “in all things.” It is in the taste of wild berries, the scent of sunbaked pine, the sight of the Northern Lights, the sound of water lapping the shore, signs of a bedrock integrity that is eternal and beyond all doubt. And when I return to a human world that is transient and riddled with disbelief, I have new eyes for the wholeness hidden in me and my kind and a new heart for loving even our imperfections.

For Palmer, wholeness includes even imperfection and heartbreak:

The wilderness constantly reminds me that wholeness is not about perfection. On July 4, 1999, a twenty-minute maelstrom of hurricane-force winds took down twenty million trees across the Boundary Waters. A month later, when I made my annual pilgrimage up north, I was heartbroken by the ruin and wondered whether I wanted to return. And yet on each visit since, I have been astonished to see how nature uses devastation to stimulate new growth, slowly but persistently healing her own wounds. 

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia,” in A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell, rev. ed. (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1974, 1989), 506.

Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 4–5. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Alma Thomas, The Eclipse (detail), 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Alma Thomas, Snow Reflections on Pond (detail), 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Alma Thomas, Snoopy—Early Sun Display on Earth (detail), 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Click here to enlarge image.

Many pieces form a collective, which makes a whole. We heal together.

Story from Our Community:  

As a cradle Catholic, a Navy junior, I never really thought much about my sexual orientation, and didn’t know anyone who was openly gay or identified as anything aside from traditional norms. Then, everything changed. After many relationships with men, I fell in love with a woman at 36 years old. That relationship sparked a journey of discovering who I really am. Many years later, my child is now a young adult attending a Catholic college, and I find myself accompanying her in her journey to reconcile being Catholic in a tradition that does not honor her parents’ relationship. I’m grateful for Richard Rohr’s loving guidance on navigating my own identity with my relationship with my faith community from a place of love. Today, I still have not identified what my sexual orientation is. I resist human labels that fail to recognize the wholeness of each human being. I am proud of who I am, and I am proud of my family. We are all children of God and I fiercely defend my Catholicism and relationship with our God.
—Suzanne N.

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