The Tyranny of Perfection

Blog by Sr. Anne Lythgoe, shown in her pottery studio

The gospel reading for this past Tuesday (Mt 5:43-48) can be pretty challenging. You may recall the text.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
   You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s that word: perfect that gets me. I understand the call to love my enemies, be patient with those who irritate me, pray for those who cause evil in the world like traffickers, drug lords, and coyotes. Really mean and ugly people I can pray for. I just wish Jesus did not say to me, ”Be perfect.”  Yes, some translations say “be compassionate” or be “perfected.”   But the damage is done so to speak. You cannot really unhear something once it reaches your ears.

Perfection is a problem because we are not that… rather I am not that – not perfect. And there is a kind of tyranny in the word because what constitutes perfection is different in different cultures, times and traditions. Come to think of it, in different families, we understand perfection differently.

Think of Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnastics champion, she always strives for better, not for perfect, a much more humane way of life. Her goals are not perfect 10s. Her goal is to always strive for excellence – to go further, to reach higher elements of complexity in her field. And be a human being in the meantime.

What Jesus is really inviting us to, it seems to me, is a challenge to be all that God hopes for in us. To reach for rightness in our relationships – with other people and with God. And I would add right relationship with creation.

As Sarah, my mentor in pottery is always saying, pay attention to the details that improve your work, that equate to throwing clay with excellence. The turn of a rim, the treatment of the foot, the graceful line of a spout.  We know excellence when we see it sometimes. I hope that I can avoid the tyranny of a perfection I cannot achieve and live in the grace of God’s invitation to right relationship.

Dear God, save me from the tyranny of perfection and guide me toward loving others without reserve. Amen.

Posted in Weekly Word

5 responses to “The Tyranny of Perfection

  1. Hi Anne,
    I can resonate with your struggle about the word “Perfection”. I bothered me as well as I used to strive to be perfect and knew each time I failed. Thanks to God’s grace I stopped and now ask God to help me to do my best. For God loves a cheerful giver not a perfectionist. Only God is perfect in the lavishing love he pours out to us each day. Your pottery is beautiful in the background of your picture. You are learning well from your mentor. I know, too, you enjoy your work with pottery.
    Love and gratitude,

  2. Sr. Anne, You stated it as perfectly as humanly possible.
    “ We know excellence when we see it sometimes. I hope that I can avoid the tyranny of a perfection I cannot achieve and live in the grace of God’s invitation to right relationship.”
    Thank you

  3. Anne, I have often struggled with this same concept & have come to think that this “perfection” will be realized in “the Kingdom”. It will not be reached by our own efforts but only through the power of & union with the Holy Spirit. In the meantime we strive!!

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