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Thérèse of Lisieux, Part III: A Spirituality of Imperfection

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 4

Thérèse of Lisieux, Part III: A Spirituality of Imperfection
Wednesday, August 5, 2015

After her “complete conversion” on Christmas, Thérèse turned from striving to be good to accepting her imperfections and trusting God to remove them in God’s time. Thérèse brought what some of us call a spirituality of imperfection back to the mainline Christian tradition. This had become a subtext, forgotten and ignored, beginning when Christianity wedded with empire in the year 313. Once you align with the mind and will of empire and success, your spirituality focuses on perfection, achievement, performance, attainment, and willpower.  This “ladder theology” has dominated much of church history, both East and West, down to our own time.

One of Thérèse’s favorite parables is Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is not hard to see why. “[Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and therefore despised others. Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector” (Luke 18:9-10).

For the Jewish people listening to Jesus, the Pharisees are the good guys who try to do everything right. The tax collectors are the bad guys who have aligned with the Roman Empire and are taking money from their own Jewish people to give to the empire. So no one likes the tax collectors, and everyone looks up to the Pharisees. As always, Jesus in his non-dual way turns this deep assumption on its head.

The parable continues: “The Pharisee stood and he prayed thus with himself: ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Jesus concludes: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:11-14).

The tax collector admits his powerlessness. That’s why Jesus says he goes home “justified.” On the other hand, the Pharisee, who has followed the rules and done it right, is too filled with himself to have any room inside for God. The religion of the tax collector is religion as receptivity, rather than religion as self-assertion and willpower. Perfection is not the exclusion of the contaminating element—the enemy, to use Jesus’ language—but, in fact, perfection is the ability to include imperfection.

I think imperfection is the organizing principle of the entire human, historical, and spiritual enterprise. Imperfection, in the great spiritual traditions, is not just to be tolerated, excused, or even forgiven. It is the very framework inside of which God makes the God-self known and calls us into gracious union. It’s what allows us—and sometimes forces us—to “fall into the arms of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Gateway to Silence:
“My way is all confidence and love.” —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), MP3 download.

Image credit: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, age 15 (detail), April 1888.