During my spiritual direction internship it was common for us to send the retreat participant out for a nature walk along the wooded banks of a small creek. Inevitably, they would return with deep personal insights.
One woman shared with me, “I was looking at the ivy growing along the path. At first it looked so perfect but then, upon closer inspection, I noticed yellow and dead leaves and places where insects had damaged it. Yet the plant was thriving. I realized that there is no such thing as perfection in the natural world God created. So, why should I demand it of myself?”
Somehow, many of us have the impression that we must be perfect. As a result, we try to uphold an outer image of perfection at all costs.
Years ago, I was sitting with a young woman who shared a painful secret for the first time. She indicated that her mother never knew what had happened and that she would like her to know. I asked if she would like to come in with her mother sometime. “Oh no!” came the quick but sad response. “In our family, we always have to look good to others. The minister is the last person she would ever want to know!”
The revelations about Catholic priests molesting young boys then hiding behind the mask of the priesthood tells me that fear of self pervades all sectors of our society. Religious institutions may have unwittingly perpetuated the lie of perfection at great cost both to themselves, those they serve and to the corporate experience of the Mystery We Call God.
The truth is now even more apparent. We cannot hide from our wounds, our feelings or our needs by going to church or being a priest, pastor, elder or deacon any more than we can hide behind a bottle of booze, political office, physical beauty or fitness, social status, work or wealth.
The mask of perfection is sustained by fear and lies and revealed by an attitude of better than, (though we would never admit it) often couched in the humility of good deeds.
We move away from identifying with those who reflect back to us a bit of our own isolation, instability, uncertainties, loss of self worth, powerlessness or failures. We do it through labels such as “deviant priests,” “bipolar,” “manic depressive,” “personality disorder,” or racial and gender slurs. If we label another, we can discount them, what they trigger in us and avoid the lessons they mirror back to us.
Many of us feel deeply about the sexual abuse of children. It’s wrong and it leads to too much pain. But the way towards healing is not to demand perfection (leading to greater shame and cover up). The way to heal is to learn to acknowledge, accept and work with our imperfections so that they do not need to be acted out in ways that wound others.
It is time for us to begin to love ourselves just as we are, celebrate the unfolding of our healing process and let go of the destructive front of perfection.