“Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could.” That’s author Cheryl Strayed speaking as online advice columnist “Sugar” to someone angsting about the potential imperfections of her upcoming wedding. “There’s a day in July that’s a shimmering slice of your mysterious destiny. All you’ve got to do is show up.” “We all get lost in the minutiae, but don’t lose this day.”
Brings to mind my own wedding twenty-three years ago, to my now ex-wife but continuing friend. It was not a church wedding; we had not yet discovered Unitarian Universalism. It was in the Texas A&M University ballroom at its main campus in College Station. Flowers, candles, music—all absolutely lovely. But there was some minutiae we could have gotten lost in. Always is, right? One was the state of my father-in-law. I remember him in his sharp-looking army dress blues but with a face all pale and beaded with sweat because he was in utter pain as he walked the gorgeous bride/his daughter up the aisle. Not long before, he had had a freak accident with a stepstool—he stepped off in a crazy awkward way and had wrecked his ankle, broken it so thoroughly that he was unable to walk for several months and was eventually declared ineligible to serve in Operation Desert Storm. The pain continued to be so great that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to give his daughter away. I see him walking up the aisle: limping, face slick with sweat, but eyes resolute, eyes proud. Not how he’d ever imagined himself being at his eldest daughter’s wedding. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was what he got. And he showed up. He didn’t lose the day.
Same goes for my father-in-law’s mother, whom we all call Mama. She’s something like 95 now. A tough-as-nails goat-herding Texas mother and grandmother and great grandmother with a silly side too. At another wedding years later she and I would be dancing to some K.C and the Sunshine Band disco tune and she’d get so into it that she’d spin herself dizzy and fall down the floor. Just like that. I was horrified! I had broken the family matriarch! I had broken Mama! But not really—she just got up and giggled and we kept on dancing. But she was NOT giggling during my wedding—because of the photographer. We had hired this photographer at the recommendation of a friend, and he showed up with an impressive ego to match the impressive number of cameras he’d slung around his neck like medals. But he seemed somehow absent when important stuff was happening—like the groom’s cake being cut. My cake. Which was Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame. We’re cutting into this masterpiece, but where’s the photographer? Laura and I are stuffing cake into each other’s faces, but where’s the photographer? Now it’s the wedding couple’s first dance—oh, yeah, there he is … but his equipment isn’t working. The flash won’t go off. Turned out to be one thing after another with this drama queen of a photographer, and it was tempting to get lost in this minutiae, but Mama saved the day. First of all, she did NOT lose control and smack him like she might smack a wayward goat. Nope, she kept her cool. Second, she pulled out of her purse one disposable Fujifilm camera after another and took all the pictures that the professional was supposed to take. It got to the point that the photographer would be striving mightily with his expensive equipment, and Mama, she’d just position herself right in front of him—no apologies—and pull out a three dollar disposable, and snap happily away….
Twenty-three years later, I would not change a single thing about what happened and how it happened. All the beauty and poignancy and surprise and mishap coming together to make an unforgettable moment that we could neither imagine nor orchestrate and would not have wanted to orchestrate even if we could. A shimmering slice of mysterious destiny.
Every day is exactly that. It doesn’t have to be a wedding. Every day, we can show up to the shimmering good that is there (even if mixed in with the bad) or we can lose ourselves completely in the less-than-acceptable minutiae. It all depends on how we face the demon called perfectionism, which is a very different thing from healthy striving. “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” says the race car driver Ricky Bobby, in that hilarious Will Ferrell cinematic classic called “Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” He’d heard that saying from his Dad as a young boy and let it guide him all his life. “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Later in the film, he and his Dad are talking, and Ricky brings it up. Dad’s response: “Huh? What are you talking about, Son?” “That day at school.” “Oh hell, Son, I was high that day. That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth … hell you can even be fifth.” Hearing this, Ricky replies, “What? I’ve lived my whole life by that!” And I guess that is the way of perfectionism. Perfectionism, when seen from a larger perspective, makes no sense at all. It tries to convince us that it’s a one-way ticket to happiness, but it never pans out. “If I try very hard and I’m very careful and I follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love me and I’ll feel good all the time.” Uh, I don’t think so. What you get instead is low self-esteem, poor me mentality, burnout, procrastination, sadness, stagnation, rigidity, judgmentalism, hypercriticality, anger, even obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perfectionism makes no sense at all. But that doesn’t stop it from having power over us. The person we learned it from might even have been high, but we’re a sucker for it anyhow. And years later, here we are, repeating, like Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Which is no doubt why the good Roman Catholic brothers of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers regularly offer a “Spirituality of Imperfection” retreat. It’s needed. During the last weeks of my sabbatical, back in May, I went to it. Spent several days and nights there at the monastery, worshipping with the monks five times a day. Chanting plainsong which sounded something like this:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.
I ‘d been to the monastery before, so I knew about the worship and the amazing experience of chanting the psalms from the Hebrew scriptures. But I had never before actually interacted with any of the monks, and it was, to say the least, eye-opening. Another one of those “let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could” experiences…
Brother Michael was the first monk I met. A one-time school teacher and travel agent with a big smile and a gleam in his eye, he was the monastery’s main recruiter and shared plenty of asides about this part of his work. To aspiring monks, he likes to say, “you will never find the perfect monastery because, as soon as you enter, it becomes imperfect. “I don’t have to get married,” he said. “I have 35 wives.” The key ingredients of successful monastic life? Openness and flexibility, because “it’s not like the brochure.”
He’s not just talking about the monastery, by the way. Look around you, at this beloved community right here. “It’s not like the brochure.”
Then there was Brother Elias. Quiet. Intense. No big smiles from him. One moment, he’s sharing what he calls his “mini-exorcism prayer”: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave me, Satan, demons, and spirits.” I suspect most everyone else in the room was Catholic and so perhaps more used to this sort of thing. Me—this Unitarian Universalist—was translating furiously. But then, another moment, Brother Elias is mercilessly ticking off flaws in the translation of key Bible words relevant to the topic at hand. The part, for example, that says “Be ye perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect.” The original word actually means “mature” or “healthy and sound,” not “without flaw.” This misinterpretation has plagued people for hundreds of years!” Brother Elias thundered. Then there’s that phrase, “Fear of the Lord.” Again, another mistranslation. “Wonder” or “reverence” or “awe” does better justice to the original word than “fear.” The Bible, said Brother Elias, speaks in the language of relationship and growth, but with all the mistranslations, you’d never realize that. Then he mentioned how he’d brought this up with a key Bible authority in the Catholic hierarchy, how he asked him, “Why are these mistranslations allowed to remain in the scriptures and in the liturgy?” The answer he got? “I don’t know.”
Brother Elias knows full well he is sustained by an imperfect religious tradition, and yet, it’s good enough. Demand perfection, and no tradition is left standing, no tradition is worthy of our caring, not even our beloved Unitarian Universalist tradition. Perfection makes everything so grim that there’s no fun or creativity left, but those are exactly the sorts of things that make for progress. It’s why perfection is the enemy of progress.
I should add that I heard a common refrain from both Brother Michael and Brother Elias. Something to the effect of, “I’m just sharing my journey, I’m speaking out of the struggles of my life and faith, I’m not speaking authoritatively about Roman Catholic doctrine. So remember this before you go report us to Rome for our heresies.” It was said somewhat jokingly … but I was told later that, in the past, they’d actually been ratted on by some ultra conservative Catholics who did not appreciate what I considered to be the monks’ sheer Unitarian Universalist freedom of conscience and spiritual exploration. Really. They felt very UU to me. These monks in robes.
Even the Abbot, Brother Francis. Who told this story to a roomful of Catholics plus me. He was talking about God images—how one’s image of God can very much impact the shape of one’s spirituality of imperfection. So one day, he was talking to his therapist, and he made the observation that pretty much all the Catholic mystics, when they spoke about God, referred to God as masculine and referred to themselves in relationship to God as feminine. God was the groom and they were the bride. But,” said Brother Francis, “this doesn’t work for me. It would make far more sense if God were feminine.” To which the therapist replied, “What do you mean IF?” Then suddenly she got up and left the room for a few moments, just like that. It gave Brother Francis both a shock and an opportunity to face up to the fact that it was only in his head that he’d ever been open to the image of God as female. All his life, the image of God he’d known from his gut had been that of God as male. And not just God as any male. God as a bruising, demanding, perfectionistic warrior male. God as a judge who is just waiting to for people to make mistakes and then punish them with ruthless justice. A God who brings to mind images of courtrooms, public shaming, punishments, time served in jail, separation from loved ones, and on and on. This is what he knew all his life from his gut. (And I will add, we can know this too even if, with our minds, we don’t even believe in God! The God images persist anyhow.) Brother Francis went on to say that, after that session with his therapist, he started to play with female images of God, but that he didn’t get very far until he happened to address God as “my love.” “To my surprise, “he said, “it worked for me. And I got very different answers to my prayers. It felt like I was talking to a completely different person.”
I thought this was absolutely beautiful. Exactly the sort of thing he might get ratted on for. But he said it fearlessly. It was his experience. And now it becomes ours as we wonder about perfectionism, how it is ultimately a survival strategy meant to preserve our individuality even as it compromises it like crazy. We allow the compromise—we follow all the rules, we always do our duty, we never disappoint—because we are trying to protect our soft inner core from being hurt.
Brother Michael in particular spoke to this. He talked about the impossible success ideals of culture, together with the message that if you don’t get with the program, you’re nothing, you’re worthless, you’re unworthy. He talked about the stresses of growing up, how parents are like Gods to children (and in fact are a primary source of God images that float around unconsciously in us, whether or not our minds believe). So if you grew up with a parent who demanded obedience even if it compromised your very soul, or modeled something like this in his or her own life, no wonder the universe feels like the opposite of “my love.” Finally Brother Michael talked about the church—its demand that people strive to be perfect, or else. Its insistence that only some kind of people are the right kind, only some kind of people can be married. Know what I mean? Combine these together, and no wonder people feel there’s an angry punishing God patrolling in the skies above and, within their hearts, an angry punishing inner critic. As above, so below.
And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s what the monks were really wanting to show us, that roomful of Catholics plus me. “Tell me about Abraham,” said Brother Michael. “Abraham, one of the most important characters in the Bible and spiritual godfather of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham, who walked with God. Know what he did? He lied! He lied to Pharaoh, said that his wife was not his wife but his sister, so Pharaoh wouldn’t have him killed. Even a hero like Abraham makes big mistakes.” “And what about Moses?” Brother Michael was really getting into it. “Moses, who was God’s right hand man, who literally saw God and lived. What did he do? He murdered a man. He was a murderer!” With almost perverse gusto, Brother Michael went through the entire list of Jewish and Christian saints, sages, and wise men. David, Solomon, Peter, Matthew, Paul, on and on, all to the effect of saying that mistakes don’t disqualify a person from holiness, or from being in a state of spiritual power and fulfillment. In fact, you want to allow for mistakes, because often that’s the only way for a person to truly unfold and become themselves. It took a mistake to get to the discovery of penicillin. It took a mistake to get to aspirin, to X-rays, to Teflon, to Velcro, to nylon, to cornflakes, and to chocolate-chip cookies. If it took a mistake to get to all these amazing things, why would anyone think that they could get to the amazing heart of who they are without any fumbles, any goof-ups, any mishaps, any struggles?
And then Brother Michael said, “You want to know what the spirituality of imperfection is? It’s courage. You try and you fall and you get back up. Then you fall again. Then you get back up again. Just be sure you always get back up again and keep going, keep walking, don’t ever stop.”
The spirituality of imperfection is ultimately about becoming our true selves so we can be strong for ourselves and strong for a world that needs us. How we do this when it inevitably involves falling down. When it inevitably disappoints people with a stake in the status quo. When it inevitably provokes feelings of shame and feelings of vulnerability and feelings of fear. When, inevitably, we feel disqualified from the start because society says we just aren’t the right kind of person–not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, not SOMETHING enough. But we do it anyhow. It’s courage.
Cheryl Strayed says, “Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could.” This is not just about weddings. It’s about the mystery of who one is and the long journey of that mystery’s unfolding. All the twists, all the turns, all the surprises. The shimmering slice of destiny. There at the monastery, I sat in a classroom chair listening to monks who seemed to me to be more authentic and more whole than most people I meet in the street, and I thought about my own long journey from the Texas A&M Ballroom twenty-three years ago to where I am now, divorced, beginning a new chapter. And all I have to do is keep walking. Fall again, no doubt, but get back up again. And you too, in your own long journey. You too.