Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. This article is adapted from her latest book, “The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
The perfectionism that has reached epidemic levels in our culture today is an ancient problem the saints struggled with long before we did. The ranks of recovering perfectionist saints include soldiers and scholars, bishops and beggars, mothers and monks.
One thing nearly all of them had in common was an intense devotion to the heart of Jesus, which Catholics celebrate this Friday (June 28), the feast day of the Sacred Heart.
Unpacking the mystery and apparent oddness of the Sacred Heart devotion was never a project that interested me before I started wrestling with my own perfectionism. I’d seen Sacred Heart images since I was a child: those soft-focus portraits of a sad-eyed, slightly androgynous figure pointing to an exposed, blood-red heart. The pictures were maudlin. And they did nothing for me.
Then I discovered the recovering perfectionist saints, and I decided I needed to understand what it was, exactly, that spoke to them about the Sacred Heart. Why did they see meditating on and imitating the heart of Jesus as the key to their victory over perfectionism?
Even before I dug into Scripture and church history for an answer, I sensed it had something to do with that part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, that has always haunted me as a spiritual perfectionist.
The passage in question is one in which Jesus spells out exactly what it takes to achieve Christian perfection, in terms clearer than any others he uses in Scripture aside from his sell-it-all advice to the rich young man:
“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.”
To be perfect, Jesus seems to say, is to love others even when they hurt us, and to keep loving them even when they keep hurting us. To be perfect is to love as God loves.
It’s a daunting standard. And the more I learn about how perfectionism has shaped my life and personality, the more daunting it seems.
When you’re buried in the pit of perfectionism, you think you have a fighting chance of clawing your way toward this sort of limitless, all-merciful love.
When you’re halfway out, you realize how disoriented you were and how far you still have to go to reach freedom. You see your life in a new and less flattering light: the people and events that taught you as a child that you had to be perfect to be loved; the opportunists who later spotted your perfectionism and exploited it for their own purposes; the mistakes you made with your own children before you realized you were making them — and those you keep making even after you know better.
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Source: Religion News Service