Finding Perfection through Imperfection
"Those aspiring to the pure love of God don't need to be as patient with others as with themselves. One has to bear with one's imperfections in order to attain perfection." - St. Francis de Sales
This Lent I decided to reread Joseph Tissout's spiritual work, How to Profit from Your Faults. The work focuses on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales about God's mercy. With the exception of Saint Faustina's Divine Mercy in My Soul, it is easily one of the most influential books that I have ever read on mercy. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the true nature of God's mercy.
Now let me begin with a term that most Catholics and non -Catholics are familiar with, Catholic guilt.
This pejorative term gets tossed around a lot in Catholic and non-Catholic circles. The logic behind this guilt is fear; fear based on the assumption that a person's sins are greater than God's mercy. A person who lives with this type of guilt is plagued, regularly by the thought that God is an unforgiving, merciless, even jealous judge who metes out harsh justice for any transgression. A person living with this guilt almost imagines that God has a ledger sheet tallying a person's good and bad actions. Faced with this dreadful, pessimistic reality a person will either leave the Catholic church or live a neurotic, fearful, unfulfilled life. Who wants to be a part of a church that consistently judges and sends people to hell?
I believe that the origins of this guilt comes from the heresy of Jansenism, which overly stressed God's judgment at the expense of his mercy. Unfortunately many priests and nuns throughout the ages and even quite recently unwittingly subscribed to this heresy. The good news is that this is not the truth at all. St. Francis strongly opposed this type of thinking as he exhorts,
"Evil sorrow (guilt) disturbs and upsets the soul, arouses inordinate fears, creates disgust for prayer, deprives the mind of prudence, resolution, judgment, and courage, destroys its strength. In a word it like a severe winter, which spoils all the beauty of the country and weakens all the animals. It takes away all the sweetness from the soul and renders it disabled and impotent in all its faculties."
For many years I suffered from this guilt. Like most Catholics, I believed that the church was too happy to send people to hell. I was so preoccupied with sin that I firmly believed that in the end, I would probably end up in hell. Faced with this terrible guilt I naturally left the church for many years. I didn't know this at the time but this type of guilt couldn't be further from the truth. In the gospels, Jesus often condemned the Pharisees who believed in a punitive, overly legalistic God. It took me years to learn that God's love was greater than sin. Once I learned and accepted this truth I was set free from "Catholic guilt" and began instead to live a life of freedom and hope.
However, there is such a thing as good Catholic guilt. Let me illustrate the difference.
Good, Catholic guilt leads to repentance. This type of guilt, unlike the stereotypical bad Catholic guilt, is motivated by love, stemming from the fact that a person has offended God who is all good and loving. But the main difference with this type of guilt is that one doesn't despair or become hopeless. Instead, this guilt inspires a person to humility, to true repentance, not a fearful one, but a one based on the knowledge that God is always willing to forgive, like the prodigal son or the woman caught in adultery. This type of guilt forges a radical dependence on the goodness of God, realizing that he is always ready to heal and forgive every transgression. St. Francis somewhat shockingly further reiterates this truth in this excerpt which he wrote to a nun struggling with false guilt:
"My dear daughter, remain in peace; never be disturbed by your imperfections. Rather raise your eyes high toward the infinite goodness of him who, in order to keep us in humility, permits us to live with our infirmities. Put all your confidence in his goodness, and he will take care of your soul and everything concerning it, better than you could ever think of doing yourself."
The truth is that we are flawed human beings that sin regularly. The good news, however, is that in spite of our imperfections we can become perfect through God's mercy. The important thing is to keep on fighting, not to give into despair or hopelessness, or to "Catholic guilt." If you do this regularly and faithfully you will become a saint, naturally without even knowing it.