One of my favorite illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible shows the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, staring out from a mirror. Her face is weathered, and however else she may have acquired that look, she did not get it from an absence of toil or anxiety. In fact, as the passage from the Book of Wisdom reads, she is the image of eternal light. Her face shows the result of a lifetime of service to family, to friends, and to those in need. And in contrast with our conventional notions of physical beauty, hers is the face of eternal beauty. Hers is the face of perfection.
In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that they must be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect. That’s a tall order, and to my mind it’s a recipe for disaster. In fact it brings to mind the sin of Adam and Eve, who in their hubris wanted to be like God. They reached out for the proverbial apple, in hopes that as gods themselves they would be eternal, perfect, and in no need to report to some higher force. They would be all-knowing and entirely self-sufficient. But the price for the bite into the forbidden fruit was the awesome realization of their own fallibility. Their hopes for personal divinity did not square with the sudden shock of their own imperfection. They could never be what they aspired to be, because their aspirations were self-delusional.
We know the price that many athletes pay in their quest for perfection on the playing field. We are all too familiar with the psychological toll of those unrealistic efforts to achieve lasting physical beauty. Sometimes more than a few of us come to terms too late with goals that are clearly beyond our reach. That kind of perfection is both elusive and perhaps even self-destructive, because it seduces us with the notion that we can be who we cannot nor should not be. That disconnect from our own reality, our gifts, and the unique path down which God calls us can leave us with irreparable harm.
When Jesus asks perfection of us, that perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty or athletic prowess or professional expertise. Certainly none of these are in and of themselves bad, but Jesus reminds us that they are not what life is all about. Rather, the beautiful life embraces in its arms family, friends, and neighbors. It is they to whom we are called to pay attention, and it is they whom we should love, in the same measure that we love ourselves.
Sadly there is an unhealthy disconnect within people of obvious talent who leave a path of destruction as they wander through life. Like the muggers in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they shove person after person into the ditch, expecting someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made. God forbid that we should ever become such people, and that is what Jesus cautions.
It’s interesting that in his Rule Saint Benedict wrote no chapters on quality control or professional development. It’s not that he didn’t care about such things, because he did. But his primary concern were the healthy relationships that should exist among the monks. Love and respect should be the bonds that bring them together and congeal them into a family. All else is bonus.
So it is with all of us who strive for perfection. The perfection to which Jesus calls each of us does not preclude ideal physical health or athletic prowess. Nor does it belittle professional expertise. But all of these are secondary to our love for one another. If, come the autumn of our lives, we have no wrinkles to show for our service to our brothers and sisters and to the neighbors whom we stumble across in our meanderings, then something important is missing. We’ve fallen short of the perfection that God hopes for each of us.
+In my last post I neglected to report that a few days ago a water pipe burst in the attic two floors above my office. From a selfish point of view I was glad that the resulting flood missed me by four offices. However, it did a lot of damage to offices of several of my colleagues down the hall and to the theology department on the floor above. It turned out to be a mixed blessing for our office manager, Marie, who had put off the filing of mountains of material. She was able to abridge all that work by sending everything to the dumpster. Happily, there were electronic copies of most everything anyway. She also consoled herself with the news that her son, Ben, a senior at Saint John’s University, had just been signed to play football in Europe with the Stockholm Crusaders. I see game-day trips to Stockholm in her future.
+On February 18th the 2017 edition of Hymnfest took place in the Abbey church. The Saint John’s Boys Choir and The National Lutheran Choir were the featured singers.
+The photos in today’s post show the monastery of Pedralbes, located at the edge of Barcelona. It was founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Moncada, the young (and third) wife of King Jaume II of Aragon. He financed the construction of this abbey of Franciscan nuns so that she would have a place to live after his passing. It is a highly unusual complex, for many reasons. First off, it is the only three-storey cloister I have ever seen. Second, because they had all the money in hand to build it, it took only some twenty years to construct. As a result, it has a unified architectural style. Best of all, it never suffered the ravages of war, and so all the elements of the original monastery are still in place. The cloisters are serenely beautiful, and the dormitory (second photo) and the refectory (third photo) appear largely as they were built. The nuns continued to live in it until the 1980’s, at which point they built a new monastery on the other side of the church. I don’t blame them a bit, because the old monastery had to be incredibly cold and impossible to heat in the winter. Today it is a museum open to the public, while the nuns continue to pray in the adjoining church. (At right is the screen that separates the nuns’ choir from the main body of the church.) Pedralbes was a treat that I had not anticipated, and I’d return to see it in a heartbeat.