Monday, July 20, 2015

Why pursuing the perfect is a stilted notion

I’m currently re-reading a book entitled ‘The Spirituality of Imperfection’, a work which was co-authored by two lay people, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.  It was one of those books I had stashed away in my collection of books, some which were given by well-meaning friends who either knew of my predilection for books with a particular spiritual bent, or who were sympathetic toward my perfectionistic flaws in life.

This one was given to me by a long-time priest friend of mine even before I entered the seminary.  I remember asking out loud why he thought I needed to read this book, but was only given a knowing smile as a reply.  I guess it took me almost 20 years of life’s experiences and challenges to not only see that my perfectionist streak in me was already somewhat visible back then, but also to see that the very notion of perfection is an imperfection itself – a paradox indeed.

What makes us human beings such strange rational animals to have such notions as perfection in life?  In the animal kingdom, the pursuit of perfection is hardly evidenced.  There seems to be an almost imperceptible acceptance of the way things are to these ‘lesser’ beings around us who walk on two legs and have rational minds.  The very beauty of nature seems to almost have to include imperfections so that beauty is seen in its splendid array.  Imagine how dull and uninteresting any landscape would be if every blade of grass, and every tree was symmetrical and straight.  Yet, it is precisely from such a varied array in nature’s existence that we see its beauty emerge.

Apparently, the way that the rational mind views life and how ideas or notions of perfection affects it has something to do with whether we have a Greek or a Hebrew mind.  The Greek mind has very clear definitions of what it means to be perfect.  It includes but isn’t limited to ideas of having no deficiencies and is devoid of flaws and faults.  One has in one’s mind the notion of an ideal to be reached, however unattainable, and it is applicable to all that is true and beautiful as well.  If one extends this to the moral world, then it would have to include a notion of being sinless or as free from sin as possible. 

But the Hebrew mind, apparently, has a very different understanding of perfection.  It has something to do with being able to walk with God, despite our having flaws.  It includes the notion of being present to Presence, and to accept to a certain extent, the reality that there is beauty, goodness and truth in things that are not quite perfect. 

This story, which follows, brings to light the apparent contradiction of the two minds:

The chief executive of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive.  But he suffered from one embarrassing weakness:  each time he entered the president’s office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants!

The kindly president advised him to see a urologist, at the company’s expense.  But when he appeared before the president the following week, his pants were wet yet again!  “Didn’t you see the urologist as advised?” enquired the president.

“No, he was out.  I saw the psychiatrist instead, and I’m cured,”  said the executive.  “I no longer feel embarrassed about it!”

Clearly, the Hebrew mind was given scope and breadth to live in harmony with something as flawed as such a bad case of incontinence. 

At the priests’ annual retreat, which we came out of last week, one of the things that we were brought to appreciate is that there are stark differences between the presence of problems and the presence of mystery in life.  The Greek mind deals with problems with an almost German-like precision.  Problems require solutions, and issues need fixing.  The Greek mind does this, and does this with aplomb and sangfroid.  But the spiritual quest that the rational animal (read us human beings) is invited to cannot be seen as a problem that needs fixing.  We are not broken people that are in search of mending, and neither are we imperfect creatures seeking some sort of restoration and rectification.  In fact, it is the very fact that we ARE alive that decries our flawed existence and imperfections.  As human beings, we do not “have” limits; we ARE limited and this shows that we are alive.  It is when this reality of our shared limitation is denied and viewed with some repulse that we suffer in our spirituality.

There’s another difference between the minds and their dealings with what lies before them.  If the presence of problems require solutions that fix them, the presence of mystery cannot be answered with the same mind.  Gabriel Marcel, the noted French philosopher said that if problems require solutions, mystery requires not a solution, but rather invites a response.  To think that mystery requires a solution is a problem in itself.

Imperfections, like illness, like psychoses when treated only as problems can only give us relief to a certain extent.  But it is when its presence in life is seen as mystery and invites not so much a solution but an entering into a response with our lives and the whole of our being that gives us the ability to live with these imperfections and flaws on another level.  Solutions tend to make the issue go away, but responding to mystery with our entire lives allows us to live WITH them in harmony despite their imperfections.

When Jesus asks us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, it is not perfection in the Greek sense.  It is the perfection of having that breadth of love of the Father who gives his love equally and without bias whatsoever so that his rain ‘falls on the just and unjust alike’.  It is the ability to walk with God, in the cool of the evening as at the beginnings of creation, without needing to hide from him at all, bearing, perhaps even with a tinge of honest pride, our flaws and imperfections. 

That would make things perfectly imperfect.  An oxymoron?  Go figure.


  1. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Thank you for explaining the following :
    When Jesus asks us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, it is not perfection in the Greek sense. It is the perfection of having that breadth of love of the Father who gives his love equally and without bias whatsoever so that his rain ‘falls on the just and unjust alike’.

    How often has this phrase "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" been misunderstood. I often squirm when I hear this phrase and in my mind and heart, I'd be saying, "We can never be perfect as we are imperfect."
    Now knowing that this phrase means having the breadth of love that our heavenly Father has, does give me a better insight, that we too have and can give that breadth of love to others (correct me, if I am wrong).

    I also heartily agree with you that if everything is perfect, life will be boring.
    It is our imperfections, our flaws, our differences, our weaknesses, our failures that truly make us ALIVE.
    This makes me recall to mind another phrase "It is when we are weak, that we are strong." When we are weak, we realise how much we need God in our lives, how much we depend on HIM, who is our pillar of strength, our tower of refuge.

    So let us celebrate our imperfections, our flaws and our strengths too, because these make us unique sons and daughters of God.


  2. ‘ The very beauty of nature seems to almost have to include imperfections so that beauty is seen in its splendid array.’ Whilst I do acknowledge the soundness of this, I do beg to differ that symmetry and straight lines do not delight the eye too. When I open my storage cabinet and behold the Tupperware containers neatly stacked according to shape and size, seemingly inviting one to use them, the sight gladdens the heart. It is a thing of beauty too ! This does not bespeak of perfection but rather a sense of order, a departure from chaos and I believe this is actually what one sees in creation too. The splendour of our world is seen in the seemingly random scattering of the constellations and like you said the ‘imperfections’ of nature’s beauty.............yet in all this, one senses a ‘deliberatness’ in the flawed beauty.

    Perhaps it is God’s way to show that there is beauty to be found in ugliness, in the flawed, the imperfect. It is a way to give ‘character’ to a thing or person. I do recall how a lop-sided smile or a toothless grin can be endearing, making a lasting imprint on the mind whilst a ‘faultless’ pretty face leaves one unmoved. So it would seem that it is perfectly alright to be imperfect for it will remind us to be humble and remember that we do have (Robert Frost) “miles to go before we sleep”

    God bless you, Fr.


  3. The quest for perfection is not a bad thing in itself, as long as we understand that it will always remain out of our reach, no matter how clever, talented or determined we are. The problem arises when we look down our noses at others who have fallen short of our own ‘level of perfection’ (as if there were such a thing).

    This is especially true in the spiritual realm. No matter how ‘holy’ we pretend to be, we all fall short of what we ought to be, except for a very special few. Even St. Paul wrote about the ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12: 7). Although he did not elaborate, we can assume that he struggled with being imperfect and was told in no uncertain terms that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

    And so we struggle, daily, not so much against things external but rather against our own failures and weaknesses. The real sin (pride) is NOT to acknowledge our complete dependence on God, and especially - His mercy.