Like many, I had a pretty typical Catholic upbringing. I was baptized as a baby surrounded by family. I went to CCD and youth group, received the sacraments of initiation, and read the lives of the saints. So growing up I thought I knew who God was and what He was asking of me.
"All Christians are called to perfection," says the Church.
"We are called to be saints," many popes have affirmed.
"Be as perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect," Jesus said during His sermon on the mount.
However, in my immaturity, I developed a skewed perception of what it means to be a good Catholic. I must never commit a sin, never be tempted to sin, and never struggle to not sin. I seriously thought this was how I was supposed to live: hyperconscious of my every action, word, and thought.
And I didn’t have anyone tell me otherwise–youth group meetings never reached this level in small group discussions, my family didn’t have close relationships with any priests or religious, and I don’t think my parents could see that I had this perception. I was barely aware of this perfectionism that I was letting shape my personality and actions.
My parents were good, teaching us how to behave in mass, taking us to confession, and praying the Divine Mercy chaplet together. They also allowed me to build hobbies in music and art and challenged me to do well in school.
Every expectation they put on me was in moderation and done in love, but at a young age I inflated these expectations. Not only did I need to be perfectly holy, but I also needed to be perfect in the secular world as well: be the best student, look a certain way, be the most sociable and friendly. And for me, anything less than perfect was not good enough.
As I said, I didn't know that I had this judgemental spirit of perfectionism in my heart. I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to get anxiety attacks while trying to complete a paper, write a job resume, or pray an examination of conscious before confession. I thought everyone felt this was, or at least to the extent that I was.
Perfectionism can also be called scrupulosity, the tendency to see sin where there is none and to be weighted down by a distrust in God's mercy. Many champions and detractors of the Church have suffered through scrupulosity, like doctors of the Church St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Alphonsus, and like heretics Martin Luther and Cornelius Jansen.
But with this intense desire to do good and be good, can come an intense reaction of despair when we inevitably fall short. Why bother trying if I'm going to fail eventually? Why go to confession if I'll be back in a week? I'm never going to be a saint, so why suffer through this anxiety and disappointment?
I lived a very double life in which I never stopped evangelizing or going to mass or church events, but in my moments of despair, I would fall into grave sins and refuse to go to confession because I didn't think I could change. And this despair would grow into self-hatred and pity.
It became an all-or-nothing scenario, either I lived up to my definition of perfect or I didn't try at all. At least until I felt guilty enough that I begged my professor for an extension on a project or I ran back to confession for fear of hell.
Yes, I read of saints who were once great sinners, such as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Paul, but it seemed to me that once they encountered Jesus, they turned over a new leaf and sinned no more. If that encounter made them perfect, how can I be receiving the Eucharist and still continue to sin? How could I justify going to confession if I'm just going to deny my Lord again?
Why would God ask me to be perfect if He knew I was going to fail?
But the thing is He isn't asking this. I thought the perfection I was being called to was the one I had defined--to never commit sin, never have to struggle to carry my cross. But through moments of suffering and prayer, I discovered the call to grow in holiness and closer to the Heart of Jesus.
I had not realized that this building up and tearing down of my own ego was a form of pride. I thought everyone went through this and that I was just especially bad at being a Christian. This pride came in the form of thinking that I could completely understand God's will and always act accordingly, that I decided the severity of my sins and if I deserved to be forgiven, that some sins are too big for God to forgive and I cannot trust in His Divine Mercy.
It was in the silence of adoration, I heard a whisper: "I made you for joy. It is not my Will that you suffer." This revelation had a profound effect on my heart and removed the scales from my eyes. I realized that God did not want me to live in self-pity nor was He expecting me to act solely out of fear of sinning. God the Holy Spirit would guide me as I looked further into this call to perfection, revealing it through prayer and scripture, Catholic books and media, and authentic friendships and counselling.
And what I learned is this: to be perfect is to be as holy as God made me to be, not in spite of my sins, but along with my weakness and strengths, with my desire to love God and my sinful inclinations.
A saint is someone who walks away from the Lord only to turn and run back to Him. Who cries under the weight of their cross and doesn't cast it aside, but allows Christ into our suffering just as He invites us into His. Who seeks to follow His Will even after deviating from it.
Also to be tempted isn’t a sin. According to St. James, temptation comes from our concupiscence or the inclination to do evil that resulted from the fall of Adam. This temptation only becomes sinful when freely given into, but when you accept God’s help and resist, it becomes an occasion of merit.
The Lord knows us so intimately and He knows that through our gift of free will, there are times when we will not choose Him, when we will not give Him the love and respect He is due, and when we will have to face obstacles that impede us from doing good and bring temptation to do evil. Because we as humans can become vulnerable to the influences of the devil and abuse this gift. However, God truly sees us as His children, as little toddlers learning to walk.
You do not immediately tell a baby, get up and walk, and expect him to walk perfectly without falling. You would teach the toddler how to take his first steps and then challenge him to keep practicing. Through the false starts and tears, growing confidence and joy, your baby grows into a child, no longer needing to constantly hold your hand.
And you hope that he will walk and never fall again--but we know even fully grown adults trip and have accidents as well. Your child grows and walks and runs, but is never completely protected from falling. But it's not realistic or healthy to never have him try in the first place. You must let him live his life fully, first under your watchful eye, and then as a man called to discern which way to walk. You watch from a distance, arms out, ready to catch him whenever he needs help.
I am called to walk with the Lord. To strive to follow His commandments and accept His help when I trip. Not to despair and give up, but through the frustration and remorse slowly crawl back to His arms and receive His strength to stand again. This change from perfectionism is not something I can do on my own, but through the Eucharist, our Mother Mary, prayer, spiritual direction, holy friendships, and all the gifts He has given us.
I still struggle with perfectionism but I know that God wants to help me and wants to give me joy. How do I know this? As I was struggling to write this, I very unexpectedly came across this book in a donation pile: The Heart of Perfection, How the Saints taught me to trade my dream of perfection for God's by Colleen Campbell. It was completely Divine Providence, a gift of encouragement from the Holy Spirit.
If you suffer from this as well, know that even the saints were not immune to scrupulosity. Pray for Us by Meg Hunter-Kilmer shares the stories of many many saints who sinned, suffered, and struggled their way to the holiness called them to be. Also It is important to not just read about the saints but to also read their actual works. Check the writings of St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and St. Jean de Chantel.
Here is a list of books that have helped me on my journey of healing from perfectionism. Here are the links where you can get them at Queen of Angels Catholic Store.
The Heart of Perfection, How the Saints taught me to trade my dream of perfection for God's by Colleen Campbell
Pray for Us: 75 Saints Who Sinned, Suffered, and Struggled on Their Way to Holinessby Meg Hunter-Kilmer
An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Saint Therese the Little Flower: The Making of a Saint by John Beevers
Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Fr. Henri Nouwen