Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Spirituality of Imperfection

"The Blossoms and the Thorns"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

"Being Perfect" is a highly prized virtue in today's popular culture. Perfectionism is the standard and the goal directing much of the course of everyday life. People aspire to the perfect body.  They want to be the perfect student, the perfect wife and mother, the perfect employee. If someone is referred to as a "perfectionist," they feel they have been paid a great compliment. 

Personally, I think "perfectionism" is way too over-rated. For one thing it is not possible for any human being to be perfect. Worse than that, the constant striving to be perfect often gets in the way of finding deeper peace in life. Perfectionism is an impediment on any spiritual path. 

As I see it, spiritual seekers need to adopt a "spirituality of imperfection" as the standard for advancing on the journey. 

The priest and author Richard Rohr has coined a fascinating phrase. He describes the spiritual life as a process of "Falling Upward."

Falling upward is the secret of the soul

I find great wisdom in this provocative, paradoxical, and yet very descriptive phrase.

When we talk about falling, we are talking about "falling down." And of course, no one ever wants to fall down. Guided by the standard of perfectionism, we resist failure, we don't want to appear weak. We hide our mistakes from others and even from ourselves. We avoid pain and suffering at all costs.

But the interesting paradox of the spiritual life is that when we acknowledge failure and weakness, and embrace imperfection, it is only then that we are able to walk "up" the ladder of spirituality- into a place of deeper peace. 

In his Epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wisely says:

It is when I am weak that I am strong

I think about the myriad of 12-step programs that will be meeting all over the world today- such a perfect icon of the wisdom and the truth that is found in a "spirituality of imperfection." It is only when an addict is courageous enough to acknowledge the "weakness of addiction" and embrace the pain,  they can find the strength to overcome it. 

Only when we are weak, when we fail, when we experience the pain of a ruptured relationship, when we suffer from physical ailments or addictions, can we come to a place of "holy vulnerability." And whenever we become vulnerable, the walls we have built up around our ego become porous and pliable. 

Then, if we have the courage, we can use the times of our weakness as opportunities for letting down our guard, allowing the walls around the "false self" to crumble and fall.  And as we reach out and connect with others, we discover that we are all in it together - we all suffer from failures, we all know pain. No one is perfect. 

Falling upward is the secret of the soul

As I sit in my garden this morning, I look at the cacti in bloom at this time of year. Before they blossom, desert cacti look very fierce, ominous, and they are really quite ugly. They do not have anything that even resembles a "perfect" shape. Their outer leaves are rough and rubbery and they are covered with spiky thorns that can be very painful to the touch. 

But when the cacti bloom in the spring, you will not find a more beautiful or elegant flower anywhere. I could sit here all morning and bask in the elegant, simple beauty of those flowers sprung up among the thorns.

The greatest beauty is often found in the harshest places. 

It is when I am weak that I am strong

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