There are some dysfunctions in my life that I enjoy having and living with and delight in occasionally taking self-deprecating pot-shots at. One of them happens to be the prevalence of certain aspects of OCD (obsessive compulsive behaviour) in me. I do not purport to suffer from it in some terribly neurotic and debilitating way, but I do think that there are things positive to be said about how being meticulous and punctilious can make the world neater and certainly more organized place to live in.
Problems may arise though, when we consider and ruminate on what place perfection has in the search for holiness. The Church, especially in her recommendation for frequent confession, seems to promote the idea that we should try to make headways to holiness by seeking spiritual perfection. It can appear that being thorough, detailed and perhaps even particular can aid in our collective striving for that point of hagiographical existence.
Even the language used in liturgy seems to foster this idea of sinless perfection. The embolism at Mass after the Lord’s Prayer has the celebrant praying “deliver us Lord from every evil, and graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be kept free from sin and safe from all distress”.
Just looking more intently at the words used, it does appear that we should be seeking some sort of perfection whilst we are still alive on this planet, and while the blood is still coursing through our veins. Yet, when we humbly accept the reality that perfection is rarely if ever attainable, it makes us wonder what we are in fact praying for. Though sacred scripture does have evidence that Jesus asks us to be ‘perfect as our heavenly father is perfect’, we also do know that the just man sins ‘seven times a day’. It does seem to be a quixotic dilemma at best, or a conundrum at worst.
Perhaps the main problem lies in the way that we define and interpret ‘perfection’ and ‘holiness’. Though way easier to see them as end points and destinations, it does seem to suggest that they are in fact journeys, pathways and a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. I believe that it was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who said with such insight that “holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning. Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance and willingness to begin again, and above all, with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.”
It would help greatly that this be something that we mull over as we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in the coming weeks, fulfilling our ‘Easter duties’ once again. Just as Karl Rahner noted accurately that all symphonies in life remain unfinished, neither then is our communal yearning for holiness. Indeed, it is only with the reliance on the mercy of God (something mentioned specifically in that embolism prayer after the Lord’s Prayer at Mass) that we can even hope for anything that hints of the perfection of holiness. We can truly get a glimpse of this in the tender mercy that we encounter in any celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation.
On the confessor’s side of the confessional, it pains not only me but many of my fellow brother priests to see the struggle that some penitents cope with when their OCD creeps into their spiritual lives, causing them to be what the church deems as scrupulous. Scrupulosity can become something that engenders one to have Pelagious (or semi-Pelagious) beliefs, which gives one the erroneous notion that one can make it to heaven by one’s own efforts. In this case, it would be efforts of being perfect. It is, as St Paul wrote, “by grace alone” that we attain godliness.
So while we do pray for the attainment of holiness on one hand, the reality is that we struggle with its being almost ephemeral and fleeting on the other. Just as Peter may have wished to pitch those tents on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration to make the moment take on some permanence, our encounters with personal holiness may want us to do the same. We may just lose the ‘moment’ if we do so.
Posted by Fr Luke Fong