On Imperfection, As Seen in an Animation

There are different ways to look at life, and two of these are captured in a couple of seemingly contradictory sayings. The more famous aphorism is this one: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” but you’ll also hear its converse: “The good is the enemy of the best.” The second expression cautions that we sometimes settle for something that is merely good enough when we should be aiming higher; excellence is certainly something for which to strive.

In today’s blog, though, I’d like to concentrate on the original: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In striving for the perfect thing, we can miss the good. We live in a fallen world, less than perfect. Likewise, you and I are incomplete, unfinished, imperfect. Yet this does not mean that we lack anything good at all or that this imperfect world has nothing to offer.

Being more than halfway through my expected lifespan, I have moved from the perfectionist world of the second saying to the contented world of the first, though each has its place. I have come to understand that contentedness is a very great gift and that true perfection only exists in Heaven.

There is another, similar, saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” Many, believing that life should be a peachy, are resentful to discover that even peaches have pits. Such an expectation is a sure-fire recipe for resentment, discouragement, and depression.

I think this is one of the problems with marriage today. Despite the modern tendency to be cynical about pretty much everything, many still have very high ideals expectations of marriage: that it will always be romantic, joyful, and fulfilling, that love will magically solve every problem.

This is not realistic. Marriage is like life; it has its ups and downs. There are things we like and things we wish were different. There is no perfect spouse and there is no perfect marriage. There are many good marriages that are far from perfect. There are many spouses who, though basically decent, do not act perfectly all of the time.

When people enter marriage with unrealistically high expectations, they may be tempted to focus on the negative things, to magnify them because they are not perfect as was expected; resentments begin to build. It’s sad, really. The marriage may not actually be that bad; the less-than-ideal spouse may not really be so awful.

But the perfect becomes the enemy of the good; decent things are trampled underfoot in the elusive search for the perfect, the best, the ideal.

Indeed, there is yet another related saying about marriage: “Many people want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.”

We do a lot of this: discarding the good as we chase in vain after the perfect. There is always a better parish, a better job, a better boss, a better house, a better car, a better neighborhood, a better deal.

There is something freeing and calming about being able to accept the good, the imperfect, and be content with it. The perfect will come, but probably not before Heaven. In the meantime, the good will suffice. Sometimes we don’t recognize or appreciate the good until we accept that the best, the perfect, will have to wait.

All of this occurred to me as I watched this animated short about a “man” who creates a work of art. At first he loves it, but then, noticing an imperfection, he is driven to try to make it perfect, even as everything else around him is being destroyed in the process. Just before it is too late, he realizes his folly. Clinging desperately to his creation, he learns to love it as it is. To some extent this has been my journey; I pray that it is yours, too.

Image credit: saku takakusaki

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Imperfection, As Seen in an Animation

99 & 1/2 Won’t Do – A Meditation on Purgatory

I have blogged before on Purgatory. For example here: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable. I have also provided a PDF document on the Biblical roots of the teaching here: PDF Document on Purgatory .

On this Feast of All Souls I want to reflect on Purgatory as the necessary result of a promise. Many people think of purgatory primarily in terms of punishment, but it is also important to think of it in terms of  promise, purity and perfection. Some of our deceased brethren are having the promises to them perfected in purgatory. In the month of November we are especially committed to praying for them and know by faith that our prayers are of benefit to them.

What is the Promise which points to Purgatory? Simply stated, Jesus Made the promise in Matt 5:48: You, Therefore, must be perfect as you Heavenly Father is perfect. Now in this promise is an astonishing declaration of our dignity. We are to share in the very nature and perfection of God. This is our dignity:  that we are called to reflect and possess the very glory and perfection of God.

St. Catherine of Siena was gifted by the Lord to see a heavenly soul in the state of grace and her account of it is related in her Dialogue. It is here summarized In the Sunday School Teacher’s Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism:

The Soul in the State of Grace– Catherine of Siena was permitted by God to see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace. It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colours of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” [1].

Yes, this is our dignity and final destiny if we are faithful to God.

So, I ask you, “Are you there yet?” God has made you a promise. But what if it is not yet fulfilled and you were to die today without the divine perfection you are promised yet completed? I can only say for myself that, if I were to die today, as far as I know I am not aware of mortal sin. But I am also aware of not being perfect. I am not even close to being humanly perfect, let alone having the perfection of the heavenly Father!

But Jesus made me a promise: You must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. And the last time I checked, Jesus is a promise keeper!. St. Paul says, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion. (Phil 1:6).  Hence, If I were to die today, Jesus would need to complete a work that he has begun in me. By God’s grace, I have come a mighty long way. But I have a long way to go. God is very holy and his perfection is beyond imagining.

Yes, there are many things in us that need purging. Sins, and attachments to sin. Worldly clingings, and those rough edges to our personality. Likewise most of us carry with us hurts, regrets, sorrows and disappointments. We cannot take any of this to heaven with us. It wouldn’t be heaven. So the Lord, who is faithful to his promise, will purge all of this from us. The Book of Revelation speaks of Jesus ministering to the dead in that he will wipe every tear from their eyes  (Rev 21:4).  1 Corithians 3:13-15 speaks of us as passing through fire in order that our works be tested and that what is good may be purified and what is worldly may be burned away. Job said, But he knows the way that I take; and when he has tested me, I will come forth as pure gold (Job 23:10).

Purgatory has to be – Yes, gold, pure gold, refined, perfect and pure gold. Purgatory has to be if God’s promises are to hold. The Protestants have no place for Purgatory because they interpret our perfection merely to be a legally declared perfection. Classical Protestantism speaks of an “imputed righteousness.”  Imputed righteousness is  a righteous that is merely said of us but is not actually so. Luther thought of us as a dung hill, completely depraved, and God covered us with his righteousness like snow on the surface, but we were still dung underneath. For Luther we merely have declared of us a justitia aliena (an alien justice). But Catholic Theology has always taken God seriously on his promise that we would actually be perfect as the Father is perfect. The righteousness is Jesus’ righteousness, but it actually transforms us and changes us completely in the way that St. Catherine describes above. It is a real righteousness, not merely imputed, not merely declared of us by inference. It is not an alien justice, but a personal justice, by the grace of God.

Esse quam videri – Purgatory makes sense because perfection promised us is real: Esse quam videri (To be rather than to seem). We must actually be purged of the last vestiges of imperfection, worldliness, sin and sorrows. And, having been made perfect by the grace of God, we are able to enter heaven of which Scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). And again, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the souls of the just made perfect (Heb 12:22-23).

How could it be anything less? – Indeed, the souls of the just made perfect. How could it be anything less if Jesus died to accomplish it for us?  Purgatory makes sense based on the promise of Jesus and the power of his blood to accomplished complete and total perfection for us. This is our dignity, this is our destiny. Purgatory is about promises not mere punishments. There’s an old Gospel hymn that says, “O Lord I’m running, trying to make a hundred. Ninety-nine and half won’t do!”

That’s right, 99 1/2 won’t do. Nothing less than 100 is possible since we have the promise of Jesus and the wonder working power of the precious blood of the Lamb. For most, if not all of us, purgatory has to be.

A Parable on the Paradox of Perfect Power

When Moses was 40 years old he got a notion to work toward saving his fellow Jewish people from cruel slavery. He figured he could, by his own strength and eloquence free the Israelites. But Moses was a ahead of God’s plan. He was still too proud, too young and strong for God to use him. He’s trying to fix lives that God isn’t ready to fix yet. and he really needs his own life fixed first.  Moses ended up murdering a man and he had to flee for his life. It’s never a good thing to get ahead of God. It means He is no longer leading, you are, and that’s a very dangerous place to be, out ahead of God.

So Moses is now a broken man, sought by the law and not even welcomed by the people he wants to save. Off to the desert he flees and to the Land of Midian for forty more years. There he gets married and helps his Father-in-Law tend sheep. This is a far place from the Egyptian palace he grew up in. But God humbles only to exult us. It took another forty years, but Moses was finally weak enough and defendant enough for God to use him. Has not St. Paul written that power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). We have to be weak and dependent enough for God to really use us. Only when we discover our limits and our need for God are we “safe enough” for God to use. Moses needed to learn this paradox of perfect power. St. Paul writes elsewhere:

For it is written “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;  the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? ….Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1:18-31 selected)

God couldn’t use or call Moses as long as he was among the “wise and powerful” of this world, as long as he drew his strength from his status as a member of Pharaoh’s household. No, first God had to help Moses become a fool to this world, despised, no longer influential , no longer of noble birth. It took forty years in the desert but now it was accomplished. So, at Age 80(!) God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush and sends him to “let my people go.” Most of us aren’t thinking of doing great things at 80. We’re settling in for the last pages of our life. And Moses tries to get out of it. But the time has come. Now Moses is ready and God is ready too.

Do you understand the moral of this story? A lot of us are trying to fix other people in our lives when God wants to fix us first. Moses was too proud and strong to help at age forty. Now he is fixed and ready to go. He is humble enough to be used by God. He is aware of his limits, that he is slow of speech, that he stutters and is not eloquent or persuasive. He is now weak enough to be strong for now the power of God will rest upon him (cf 2 Cor 12:9)  You don’t have to wait to be perfect to help in fixing others. But to be most effective we have to let God work on us too. The more fixed you are the more effective you are.

Moses lived on to be 120 years old. But in the last 1/3 of his life he never went anywhere without the Staff of God in his hand. He was humble enough now that he had to lean on that staff and depend wholly on the strength of God.  WE think we are most effective in the prime of our life when we are on the “top of our game” but the story of Moses says otherwise. We have to be weak and humble to lean on God. Moses’ power came in his weakness, his leaning on and dependence upon the Staff of God. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Co 12:10). A paradox to be sure, a paradox of power made perfect.

This video features Louis Armstrong’s version of “Go Down Moses.”  The Cartoon is interesting but has on major flaw. It presents Moses as a young Man. He was not. He was 80 years old when God called him:

The Human Condition

In the ideal world, everything goes off without a hitch. But in the real world there’s usually a glitch. To some extent Hollywood and TV exaggerate that notion for us. We watch movies and TV shows where everything goes off like clockwork and there are no failures, except where that advances the plot. But the perfect scene on TV or in the movies may have required dozens of “takes” to get it right. Even then, splicing of scenes may be required to make the whole thing seamless.

But in the real world things are not always perfect. People show up late or don’t have the expected reaction. Things go awry. Technologies fail, computers freeze, accidents happen. Every now and then things seem to go perfectly only to discover that not everyone liked what went perfectly!  We once had what I thought was a perfect parish event, only to find out that some thought it was too long, others thought it was too short. And yes,  a few liked it just fine.

Alas, the human condition. I read a book some years ago called, “Spirituality of Imperfection.” In effect the book argues that God has placed the perfect in our heart to make us strive for and desire heaven. But he allows us to experience imperfection to teach us humility, without which we will never attain to heaven. Imperfection is something to be accepted with humility. If we do this we are learning wisdom. It is the human condition to strive for that which is best and perfect and never give up on that quest. But the human condition is also to be able to accept with humility that which is ordinary, and imperfect; that which is our very selves and a seldom perfect world. Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for heaven!

Here is a very funny video. On the TV series Star Trek the computers usually work without flaw, unless some alien has messed them up! But what if Star Treks computers were Windows based? Enjoy this video as perfect Hollywood gives way to imperfect, though still adequate  Windows. By the way there is a whole video series devoted to the imperfect. Just go to you Youtube or any video service and search “Fail” and lots of videos will pop up! Careful some of them are vulgar, but most of them are very funny.

What is Beauty?

We live today with very high expectations of many things. Culturally we have very demanding standards for beauty, especially in regard to women. We expect them to have appealing “curves” but be slender etc. Even ordinary weight is considered by many as unattractive. All this obsession with perfection leads to low self esteem among women and men too. Further, these high expectations of zero body fat and perfect shape, hair color, skin tone etc. leads to hypercritical and hurtful remarks. There is an old saying that “expectations are premeditated resentments.” Hence this attitude also may have to do with marriage difficulties as the near perfect bodies of youth give way to the more “settled”  bodies of middle age and beyond (gravity and age do have their effects and even if you weighed what you did in High School it doesn’t look the same!) Plastic surgery is a miracle for those with truly catastrophic injury or deformities but today it is too often the refuge of those who have become obsessed with how they look and how they think others regard them. Oh to be free of such obsessions! The picture to the right depicts a woman but men have the problem too.

Help me Lord to be little more comfortable in my own skin. Help me to accept that you like both tall and short people because you made them both. Both the blond and the brunette are from your hand, wavy hair, straight hair wirey hair are all from you and apparently to your liking. Thin and hefty, black, white and all between are from your artistic hand. Help me to love me as you made me. If I should lose weight for health’s sake help me, but if its only about what others might think of me, free me.

Watch this video and see how a very lovely young woman is not lovely enough. She has to be altered, “perfected.”  And when simple natural enhancements are not enough her image must be furthered altered on a computer. Message: the perfect beauty does not exist in the world of media. She must be invented. Then everyone can pine after and spend large amounts of money and time trying look like someone who doesn’t even exist.