Friday, 19 June 2015


Why is it that whenever someone enters my room they offer to tidy it? Obviously they think it's in a mess. And they are right. Out of the goodness of their hearts they want to restore their order to my chaos. And that infuriates me. Why?

First of all, after they've finished re-organising me I’m never able to find anything. They regard oddments valuable to me as useless AND DARE TO THROW THEM OUT!!! They make me feel threatened. I fear I’m being taken over in my own personal territory. I’m being weighed in the balance and found wanting. That's the problem I have with these perfectionists.
They’re so infuriating! They’re so judgmental. For them everything has to be 'just right.' They are meticulous, scrupulous over the minutest detail. They are intolerant. I never, never were they invited them to put up with my untidiness. They are obsessed with precision and order…as though this made them virtuous... While I'm still vesting to say Mass someone tugs at my chasuble, having already given up on my being willing and able to straighten it myself. I want to scream, “Stop fussing!”
By now you will realise I am not a perfectionist -if that means being obsessed with precision and detail. Such people can be very critical of us others, who fall short of their standards. Not only do perfectionists annoy me, but they can make their own lives a misery. Tormented with scruples, they're anxious about getting every detail right.
They espy sin everywhere. They are scared their repentance may not be adequate, their confession sufficiently precise. As they leave the sacrament of reconciliation they agonise over whether they have made an incomplete, bad confession. Instead of rejoicing at being forgiven, they fear they've added to their guilt. Their scruples prevent them from finding peace through being pardoned. Aiming at such precise 'perfectionism' defeats the whole purpose of this sacrament.
Such meticulous perfectionism can be paralysing. Peter and I certainly are not expert book-binders. We have neither the skill nor the equipment. But we have learnt to repair books and add a few years to their lives. They are strong but not elegant. If we allowed our deficiencies to prevent us from doing what we could, and refused to start for fear we could not produce a masterpiece, many of the large liturgical prayer books in our two priories would have fallen to pieces by now. It would have been a mistake for us to allow the need for perfection to prevent us from doing the best we could.
It's even true that misguided attempts at perfection can spoil what we've already achieved. That's very much the case of watercolour painting. With this medium there's a great danger of over-correcting a painting. The colours become muddy and the picture loses its fresh spontaneity. The would-be author never publishes anything when he pushes his desire for perfection to the extreme. He’s never satisfied with what he has written. Fear of failing to produce a flawless masterpiece prevents him from publishing anything.
The secret is to know when to stop trying to improve what we've done. Surprisingly, that’s very necessary for athletes when training. Certainly each of them is striving for perfection. But to achieve that they will have to limit their training, otherwise they will crack up before they reach the starting blocks.
The secret is to get the balance right in a way that reacting against the precision of perfectionism does not result in slovenly mediocrity.
Jesus was not a perfectionist! That is, in the sense of teaching that meticulous observance of the Jewish Law and traditions could make people pleasing to God. Still less did He advocate mediocrity. In fact Jesus is far more demanding than any of the legal perfectionists. He tells us to, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5. 48). You can't have any higher standard of perfection than God Himself!
But here the context is all-important for understanding what Jesus meant. In the Sermon on the Mount He'd just told us that we must forgive our enemies and do good to those who harm us. We must be like the Father who pours His gifts on good and not so good people alike.
In other words the perfection Jesus preaches is not that of the scrupulous perfectionist. These people have got their priorities wrong. In their meticulous preoccupation with getting material details just right they can lack the divine love and mercy which is the true measure of perfection.
That is the only way I can meet God. And I suppose His kind of perfection means I must forgive the obsessive perfectionists who get on my nerves!

Isidore Clarke, O.P.

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