Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)
Seventeen of us gathered at Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio to learn together from the spiritual journeys of Early Friends. We considered each of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey described on this blog, from Longing to Perfection. It was an intense weekend! From short passages of the writing of the first Quakers, we lifted up particular words, images, and biblical references they used to describe their experiences. We reflected on our own experiences of these elements of the spiritual journey and listened to one another. Considering the journey as a whole, we noticed how love grows and then overflows.
Early Quakers started with an awareness of how thoroughly they had failed to live according to God’s ways and how totally insignificant and powerless they were apart from God. Perfection as a separate self was impossible. What they strived for was to live in perfect harmony with God’s will for them. As they grew in unity with God, through the work of the Light of Christ within them, they became vessels through whom divine healing and transforming love could flow toward others.
It has been several weeks since I finished my post about early Friends’ experience of overflowing love. Since then I’ve felt stuck, not knowing how to write about the experience of perfection today. The first anniversary of this blog was Nov 5th, and I thought it would be “perfect” to have completed all my posts about the ten elements by that anniversary. But I couldn’t figure out what to write. Then I thought maybe I’d finish by my birthday. That date has passed, too. Those were my willful plans.
In the meantime, I keep reading the popular “wisdom” that perfection is impossible for human beings. Posted on many websites is a quote by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, acclaimed for his theory of the hierarchy of needs, which culminates with the need for self-realization.
“There are no perfect human beings!” Maslow insisted. “Persons can be found who are good, very good indeed, in fact, great. There do in fact exist creators, seers, sages, saints, shakers, and movers…even if they are uncommon and do not come by the dozen. And yet these very same people can at times be boring, irritating, petulant, selfish, angry, or depressed. To avoid disillusionment with human nature, we must first give up our illusions about it.”
In Western culture, the word perfection suggests flawless appearances, performances that meet some ideal standard, and the elimination of human quirks. Pursuit of this kind of perfection feeds the ego’s desire for control and magnifies one’s sense of self. As I know from personal experience, perfectionism aimed at these goals is quite stressful and perpetuates unhappiness.
In response to my last post about perfection, Rachel in Wales wrote: “For myself, I think the idea of perfection has been a trap. Trying to be perfect is part of what led me into depression and anxiety. Which isn’t to say I think we should ditch striving. Though I’m not actually keen on the ‘perfection in one’s measure’ idea either, in that it suggests (to me) that some people have a lesser calling than others. I think we’re all called to live lives that reflect the love, joy, beauty, creativity, truth, justice, mercy etc. of God. So I guess for me it’s about an idea of perfection *in so far as it is possible in the world in our current situation*.
Rachel finds it useful to recognize “structural sin,” not only “personal sin/wrongdoing/falling short.” She wrote, “I like the idea of ‘co-creation’, and of doing things ‘as best as I can’ – the sense of growing towards perfection, and of helping to create a world that is growing towards perfection *but has never yet got there* rather than striving and always failing to reach a bar set high.” It can be helpful to “use one’s awareness of falling short to develop one’s compassion for others’ shortcomings.”
In Luke 6:36 Jesus says, Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Luke’s gospel uses the word oiktirmon, which translates as merciful or compassionate. In the recent gathering at Friends Center, we reflected on the meaning of the Greek word used in Matthew 5:48, telios. Telios is often translated as perfect, but actually means something that has reached its goal, or is “complete.” In reference to the spiritual journey another translation could be “mature” or “whole.”
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus is actually instructing his disciples in how to love. He is asking them to become like God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good. Shine love on all, he tells them, not only on those who love you, or your family members. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is the way they, and we, are to become perfect, as God is perfect. Perfection as complete union with God’s love is not an element of the journey so much as a state toward which we are moving, a condition toward which God is drawing us, day by day.
While writing about the nine previous elements of the spiritual journeys of the first Quakers, I reflected on my own experiences related to that element to help shape what I wrote. I do not, however, live in a conscious, perfect state of union with God. In talking with Friends about Quaker experience of perfection in our day, some have suggested that one Friend known to some of us might have arrived at that state. (However, I have not asked his family members what they think about that!) This was a Friend known for his wisdom, compassion, and humility. I remember times when I sat near him in meeting for worship and felt strengthened by doing so. I remember meeting him on the perimeter path that circles the Pendle Hill grounds and felt that his gentle smile conferred a blessing. Many have spoken and written about how his teaching or guidance or simple presence for them has been an ongoing source of light and healing in their lives. In the hour after his death, I sensed his presence with me, giving me encouragement and direction for the path ahead. Others reported similar experiences shortly after his death.
After weeks of struggling about what to write in this post, I woke up with a memory. I remembered a meeting with someone whom many considered to be a cause of pain in our community. This person felt no remorse about words and actions that had hurt others. She saw herself as part of a victimized group and believed her confrontational and condemning approach to certain people and situations was entirely justified, even prophetic. I was startled and displeased when I heard her belittle some wise, cautionary words a good friend had lovingly shared with her. I had no idea how to respond to what she was saying to me. I felt critical, but I was committed to being a positive presence in this person’s life. In the silence, I suddenly felt something come through me, from beyond myself: a rush of love and compassion that flowed out of my heart toward her. Wordlessly, I sensed how she had been painfully shaped by the experiences of her life. I saw also that she was gifted with a great capacity for spiritual leadership, which would manifest as she healed. No additional words of caution from me, or pleas for self-reflection, would have been helpful at that moment. I could only sit with her, and feel God’s great Love flowing toward her, beaming toward her an image of her wholeness, an image of who she was and could be, beyond being hurt, beyond hurting others.
Although I do not live in a state of perfect union with God, I do feel called to continue on the path toward perfect love. Thirty years ago I had a powerful dream (or vision) in which I experienced the completion for which I was born. In that experience I was asked to let go of “holding myself up,” and completely trust in God’s ability to sustain me. I felt at first a great deal of fear and resistance. Gradually, however, as I remembered ways that God had sustained me in the past, my heart began to open. As it opened, I began to dissolve into a loving divine Light. Finally, I completely opened up into this golden Light, became one with this Love. Nothing else existed.
I believe it was a dream not only of the goal of my life, but a vision of what is possible for all of us.
Complete, United With God’s Love: When have you felt God’s love flowing through you? Have you known anyone who seemed to shine with divine radiance, whose life modeled faithfulness in matters big and small?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.
A four-day opportunity to explore this material will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014. In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends.
© 2013 Marcelle Martin