The Heart of Perfection

How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Howard Books, 2019
256 pages, $26 (hardcover)
To order: amazon.com

 

Colleen Carroll Campbell once again writes of saints — this time in light of perfectionism and her own efforts, with holy help, to overcome such traits.

Highlighting such spiritual mentors as St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal to Sts. Benedict, Francis, Ignatius and Thérèse, she offers readers pointers for overcoming perfectionism.

Perfectionists, of course, suffer from “people-pleasing and excessive caution in decision-making.” They are, as Campbell self-identifies, A-plus students who are hyper-responsible — and, as a “recovering perfectionist,” she shows herself and readers how the saints strived to be perfectly holy.

“Unlike the pursuit of perfectionism, a life aimed at attaining Christian perfection probably won’t impress the world or even our friends at church. The saints who walked this path before us faced ridicule, misunderstanding and suffering. Their lives often ended in apparent failure,” Campbell writes, adding: “[It] is in the stories of the saints, not merely their words, that we see most vividly the lessons they have to teach us.”

But it was words that first struck me as I read — from my patron, as an editor and writer:

“Whoever can preserve gentleness amid sorrows and weakness, and peace amid the hassles and multiplicity of daily affairs, that person is almost perfect,” St. Francis de Sales tells St. Jane de Chantal as well as readers today.

Those saintly words of wisdom speak very much to today’s world, where much is a maze of frenzied busyness and endless to-dos.

And that’s what Campbell is pondering: how to strive for holiness amid a culture that seems to demand perfection minute by minute.

“In my decision-making, living free from fear means seeking the counsel of Spirit-filled, prayerful people whose lives prove their willingness to radically trust God, and tuning out those who always make me feel silly or stupid or bad or wrong. It means no longer defaulting to the safe or smart choice, or the hardest or strictest option,” Campbell declares as part of her road to recovery.

Saints’ biographies show how they broke away from secular standards to look heavenward.

Of St. Ignatius, the author notes: “That was his original insight about discernment, after all: that God speaks through our desires and the thoughts and plans that bring us joy.”

“For Benedict and his followers, a successful life is one that leads to union with God,” she shares, also discussing the “Benedictine emphasis on accepted limits.”

The St. Francis chapter ponders key questions that the readers should ask themselves: “Do I really have to do this? Why? Is there a better way? And most important: What does God want?”

Indeed — the crux of this book is that the Christian journey is about discovering what God desires for us, and this perspective should free individuals to set aside perfectionistic traits.

“I want to follow God cheerfully and confidently as Francis did,” Campbell writes. So do I.

This line also struck a chord with this reviewer: “God’s will for me is clear. I think I’m just irritated that I have to catch flak for my choices.”

As St. Francis said: “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.”

His attitude showed that “Francis had no use for comparisons.”

His perspective was clear: “For Francis, the only direction to look was forward, at Jesus.”

This put-an-end-to-perfectionism journey is about charting a clear course, Campbell emphasizes:

“So much of perfectionism is about looking in the wrong direction: at the world and its expectations, at others and their choices, at myself and my fears and flaws. It’s about looking backward at my mistakes and regrets, or sideways at other paths I might have taken. It’s about looking everywhere except where my eyes actually belong: fixed on Jesus.”

Lessons from the Sacred Heart that Campbell includes are also particularly poignant.

“Thérèse of Lisieux, perhaps the most famous popular recovering perfectionist saint of all time, took love for the heart of Jesus to a new level.”

For as Thérèse said: “O Jesus, my love … my vocation, at last I have found it. My vocation is love!”

She knew her limitations but trusted that God would lift her up and give her the grace she needed to live her Little Way. She rested in the heart of Jesus.

“Not even the formidable standard that Jesus lays out in Matthew’s Gospel — to ‘love your enemies’ — and ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect — could shake Thérèse’s confidence. She knew she couldn’t meet that standard on her own. She also knew she didn’t have to. She needed only to unite her heart with Christ’s and let His love shine through her weakness,” Campbell writes.

As Thérèse said: “When I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me.”

She conquered her attitude toward her weaknesses and wounds to walk her “Little Way.”

There is so much to relate to in this book — from the outlined perfectionism traits via personal examples to the lessons from the saints who are highlighted.

Encouragement is key. Just as these saints overcame perfectionist tendencies, so can we, says Campbell.

One caveat: In a few references to real people’s personal circumstances and foibles, the book may come across as unsympathetic to some of its intended audience. But even in books about perfection, imperfections like this are only a minor point, and the saintly wisdom makes this well worth the read.

 

BONUS PICK:

“The saints were masterful at taking the ordinary, everyday events of life and turning them into holy moments.”

So writes Matthew Kelly in his new book, Rediscover the Saints: Twenty-Five Questions That Will Change Your Life (available at Amazon), that offers lessons and reflections from saints like Augustine, Thomas More and Thérèse. This is a quick, inspiring read that encourages readers to strive to live holy lives.

 

Amy Smith is the Register’s associate editor.