The Desire for Perfection


There is nothing so sad as the sight of those who once pressed forward to the goal of perfection frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial.’  – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’

There is a distinct, though often faint, voice within us that tells us we could be so much more than we currently are.  It provokes an inner restlessness that is not easy to shake off.  There are moments in our lives where this voice seems to overwhelm us. We are flattened by the disappointment we feel when we look at who we are and what we have done with our lives.  There springs into our consciousness the thought that our lives are not all that they could or should have been.

These moments can be short-lived. Most of us do not pay too much attention to them. We return to the daily grind and distractions where we forget our own mediocrity. Some people around us might notice that we have lost some of our youthful vitality that once drove us forward, now seeing us ‘frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial’. Sometimes they may let us know what they see but most of the time nothing is said, and we feel relieved by friends and family members that tell us, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’. Yet, for some, that lingering sense that we are not all that we should be does not dissipate and it is not easily blocked out. Fr Martin D’Arcy, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford University, captures this angst: ‘We are haunted by perfection, and we all long to for some golden occasion when we can exhibit our strength, write down for all time what we are and could be and so wipe out the long array of petty deeds which go under our name.’ (‘Mirage and Truth’). This sense of being ‘haunted’ leads to some seeking answers for this desire for perfection from various mental health professionals who claim to be experts or, at least, to be knowledgeable about the solutions to this angst. But what do these ‘experts’ tell us about this desire for perfection? (Footnote 1)

A Rejection of Perfection:

At one of the most popular psychological websites, Psychology Today, one of these ‘experts’, Mel Schwartz, will tell us that ‘[The construct of perfection] remains rooted in an outmoded worldview and constrains our happiness. Shifting our beliefs about perfection can permit the burden that it imposes to lift.’  And he will also tell us that ‘If someone ever could achieve this impossible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy being with, someone who was perfect?’  Mel here is telling the person who desires perfection that perfection is an ‘outmoded worldview’ or outdated concept, that we should really not tolerate anyone who is perfect, and that the concept of perfection needs to be got rid of so we can be truly happy.  The pharisees would be proud!

‘There Is No Finish Line’:

Another modern ‘life and relationship expert’, Anne Cohen, tells us that ‘It’s important to love and embrace your life and enjoy the moment as you strive towards your goals, and not just patiently or impatiently long for the end result, and assume that you’ll feel happy at that point. You won’t be. The truth is, there is no end result or finish line in life. The only finish line in life is when we’re dead. It’s important to enjoy our journey, and not to be so hard on ourselves.’ Basically, it is ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’ which St. Paul (Corinthians, chapter 15) responds to by saying ‘Be not seduced: Evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake, ye just, and sin not.’ The argument of Anne Cohen was already refuted by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, before Christ, and it was torn apart by the historical reality of the Resurrection and the preaching of the Apostles.  Yet, almost 2’000 years later these arguments that try to do away with perfection or twist it into one’s own formula persist.    

These are just two examples of the senseless nonsense that it is to be found from modern gurus who claim to lead people to happiness. Elsewhere I have outlined how professional psychologists give the completely wrong answers to those who are ‘haunted by perfection’.  So, if modern psychology cannot provide the answers, where is one to find the answer to this desire for perfection?

‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48)

These are the ground shattering words that rock the foundations of those who have settled in the comfortable home of mediocrity. For those who do not know the heavenly Father or who already think they are perfect these words will be ridiculed and scorned. For those who have come up with elaborate, sophisticated, and proud ways of justifying their imperfections they will mean little. This is how the pharisees and scribes responded and is exemplified today in the writings of Mel Schwarz above. For those who would rather enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of this life than aim at the higher path, Our Lord’s words fall on deaf ears. 

But for those who do have some idea of the heavenly Father’s power, beauty and goodness and know something of their own inadequacy and mediocrity these words are like a thunderbolt.  For these humble, generous souls who realise that they are sinners like the publican, these words send shockwaves through them. They may respond with some skepticism: ‘Me, how can I be ‘perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?’ ‘This saying is hard, and who can hear it?’ (John 6: 61). These challenging words can rock us as much today as they did then. Like Mel Schwartz, we can reject this Man who claims to be perfect and tells us all to aspire to perfection – this Man who is a ‘constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings’.  Or we can take Him and His words seriously despite how overwhelmed we may feel when hearing them. It may initially appear to us to be incredibly difficult to follow this path of perfection when we look at the example set before us. And to top it all, we now know, unlike those listening to the sermon on the mount almost two thousand years ago, that the Speaker’s life was one of suffering and hardship, resulting ultimately in His crucifixion. And he tells us to follow in His example!  This is not the road to happiness that Mel Schwartz, Anne Cohen, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and countless others posing as enlightened guides advise! Yet we know that there is something within our soul that tells us that this is the route we must take:

It is dimly felt that though the cross came to Christ only because He permitted it, the cross must come to the Christian of a necessity and the Christian is not free to evade it if his life is to reflect, in some degree, the perfection of the life of the Son of God on earth.  Christ had perfection of soul without the cross: there is a secret instinct which tells the Christian that he cannot have perfection of soul without the crossIt is this obscure but intimate realisation that the Passion is not a mere historical contingent fact, affecting one man, but a theory of life applicable to all men, that stirs uneasiness and a species of discomfort in the heart of the thoughtful and honest Christian in face of the Passion and death of Christ.’ (Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’, my emphasis)

‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23)

The Catholic Faith teaches us that there is no way to perfection except through the picking up of our cross daily.  There is no getting away from it. No matter how many elaborate psychological theories and professional associations try to twist this message the cross still remains there to be picked up. To reach perfection this is the offer that is put before us. It is not for the fainthearted and great saints do not sugar-coat the hard work and effort that we must put in on this path.  For example, St Bernard speaks to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle, and do some hard work.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’) St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, is even more direct while writing to a nun who aspired after perfection, says: ‘The spouse of Christ who longs to become perfect must begin with her own self.  She must put aside, forget everything else, and enter into the secrecy of her own heart.  When she has done this, let her sift narrowly all her weaknesses, habits, affections, actions and sins.  She must weigh everything carefully, and make a thorough examination of past and present.  Should she discover even the least imperfection, let her weep in the bitterness of her heart.’ (‘Holiness of Life’) And St Therese of Lisieux, who is often depicted in modern times as nothing but sweetness and roses, says that when we commit a fault, ‘we must not attribute it to a physical cause, such as illness or the weather, but we must attribute it our own lack of perfection…Occasions do not make man weak, but they do show him what he is.’ (‘Counsels and Souvenirs’) (See footnote 2).

The saints know man. They know our distance from God and the effort that needs to be made to try to shorten this distance. If we are to set out on the road to perfection, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge how far from perfection we really are. Yet, this is nothing more than acknowledging reality. It is establishing our starting point upon the map before we set out for our destination. Once the destination is determined, we can set out. On this journey, there will be slips, mishaps, falls, and, perhaps, moments of despair as we begin to truly understand ourselves and our distance from God. But we must be determined to keep on this path as St Teresa of Avila tells us, ‘Everything depends on people having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey’s end, happen what may, whatever the consequences are, cost what it will, let who will blame them, whether they reach the goal or die on the road, or lose heart to bear the trials they encounter, or the earth falls to pieces beneath their feet.’ (‘The Way of Perfection’). This path towards perfection is the only path to take as the alternative route only leads to misery both in this life and the next. It is the reality that a true understanding of the one true Faith holds out to us.

But what about the objections that claim that it is too hard or unrealistic or unpractical and idealistic to speak in this way about perfection? Well, the Faith has the answers to these complaints through the example and words of Our Lord, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ and through the example of all the saints who followed in His footsteps whose spirits were more free and lives happier than the world will ever know (see here and here for two blogs on this).

It is a great thing to realise that each one of us is meant for sanctity and that God will not allow us to lead a mediocre life. Christ takes us seriously and when we have the hardihood to put ourselves in His path and show ourselves ready to obey Him, He expects us to rise to the ideal He has traced for us, every one according to her own form. That is a dread thought. But He is prepared to give us the means of achieving what He asks of us…We cannot fall back. We have to face reality.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘My Last Retreat’ (See footnote 3)

Let us not languish in the errors and fables about perfection offered by modern psychology and its various proud and foolish gurus. ‘Christ takes us seriously’. Let us take Him seriously and ‘face reality’. Perfection is possible and the path He has led out before us is the only path that will bring this about.  We know that to reach our destination serious effort must be put in. However, lest we despair with the thoughts of what is laid before us, ‘fall back’, and start considering whether modern psychological answers may be right after all, let us finish with a quote from Fr Eugene Boylan describing the spiritual teachings of St Therese of Lisieux:

The perfect picture that St. Teresa of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage.  She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step.  The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but – and St. Teresa insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness – we must keep on lifting up our foot.  The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be a law of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught.  But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’)

So, keep making efforts towards perfection and may Our Lady guide you and God bless you in your endeavours

Footnote 1:

These two articles are the first and fourth results after a duckduckgo.com search with the terms ‘desire for perfection’.  They are a general representation of the dangerous nonsense written about psychological matters that is to be found in our world.

Footnote 2:

Lest the wrong impression is given that the saints were all harshness and extremely demanding towards one’s neighbour we must keep in mind that these were saints who imitated Christ in their words and behaviour. This is how Fr Edward Leen describes Our Lord: ‘He is very tender towards the imperfect, but relentless towards imperfection.’ (‘Why the Cross?’).  The above quotes show the relentless of St Bernard, St Bonaventure, St Therese of Lisieux and St Teresa of Avila towards imperfection while the following quotes show their tenderness towards the imperfect:

St Bernard wrote extensively on Divine love writing, ‘The measure of love is love without measure.’ He also pleaded with popes on behalf of those who showed the slightest sign of repentance, humility and good will as he did for Bishop of Salamanca, writing to Pope Innocent II:

When the man told me the whole story of his tragedy as it had happened, I had nothing but praise for the judge and approval for the judgement; but I must tell you, I was moved by pity for the judged.  The whole theme of his story was those words of the Prophet: ‘I have been lifted up only to be cast down and left bewildered’, and ‘so low hast thou brought me who didst once lift me up on high’. When I thought of your justice and your strong character, which I used to know so well, I thought at the same time of your great mercy which I have experienced on so many occasions…I found grounds for hope, confidence for my petition, a reason for my pity, in that I saw the man did not, as is usual in such cases, turn away in fury, and return to his native land, there to stir up scandals and foment schisms; but that he gave place to wrath, adopted an attitude of meekness, and turned his steps towards your monks of Cluny there to throw himself at the knees of the humble monks and fortify himself with their intercession, as with powerful arms from God.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’)

St Bonaventure on love of God and his neighbour:Give me, O Lord, such great fervour and immense love that I shall see no difference between this or that life, this or that state, person, time, or place, but shall do what is most pleasing to You, whatever or wherever it may be, tending always to You by the affection of my soul. Grant that I may see all things in You, and nothing but You in them, ever eager and anxious to serve You in all things; and that, all on fire and burning with love, I may not take into consideration what is easiest and most agreeable for me, but only what is most pleasing to You.

     Grant, O Lord, that I may imitate the angelic spirits who, although they are with us, never interrupt their divine contemplation. May I treat and serve my brethren by seeing and enjoying You in them, and may I always assist my neighbour, offering my heart to You.’ (cited in ‘Divine Intimacy’)

St Therese of Lisieux on patience and tenderness towards the imperfect: ‘Perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them.’ (‘The Autobiography of a Soul’)

St Teresa of Avila on compassion towards one’s neighbour: “For at times it happens that some trifle will cause as much suffering to one as a great trial will to another; little things can bring much distress to persons who have sensitive natures. If you are not like them, do not fail to be compassionate.” (‘The Way of Perfection’)

Footnote 3:

The Irish priest and scholar, Fr Edward Leen, has been quoted a number of times in this blog. It is highly recommended to readers that they check out his inspirational books such as ‘Why the Cross?’, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’ or ‘My Last Retreat’.  See here for a sample of his writing from another of his books, ‘Progress Through Mental Prayer’. These books are very helpful for inspiring and encouraging the desire for true perfection in ourselves.

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