“Be Perfect” (or, Of Steeples and Gargoyles)

“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Not “do the best you can.”  Not “try hard.”  Be perfect.  In one sense, Christians must necessarily be hypocrites: they preach a way of life they cannot live.  They preach perfection and live imperfectly.

Said another way, Christianity is a religion of failing to the clear the bar, of coming up short.  The question is, what does one do with the bar after coming up short time and time again?  Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B. muses over this problem in his recently published memoirs, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church.  Recalling his theology studies as a young monk, he writes,

The courses in moral theology left me with the conviction that the Church’s traditional approach was to set the bar high, perhaps too high in theory, but to mitigate it by counseling compassion in practice.  While Europeans seemed very comfortable with this approach, it made us Americans uneasy.  They did not take the Church’s teaching with the same rigor as we Americans did, but accepted that there were many exceptions to every rule.  Later I found myself uncomfortable with the discrepancy between practice and norm when the bar was set so high and then not observed.  Was this approach helpful in our literalist contemporary religious culture?  I wondered then and still do.

Weakland has his finger on the pulse of the problem—and without doubt it is a problem.  So what to do?  One answer—and one for which Weakland himself, it seems, would have some sympathy—claims that the bar must be lowered.  Some of the Church’s teachings are simply too demanding, too difficult.  The Church’s position is outdated and out of touch with the experience of contemporary Christians.  Therefore, it is argued, these difficult teachings should be changed.

Malcolm Muggeridge has offered a different lens through which to view this problem.  In a 1978 interview with William F. Buckley, Muggeridge—with characteristic wit and charm—explained,

Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy—attempting something utterly impossible—to climb up to heaven through a steeple.  The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things both built into the building to the glory of God. . . .  [The gargoyle] is laughing at the inadequacy of man, the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap—disparity—between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life.

To lower the bar—to bring the heavens down to the top of the steeple—would crush the very drama of Christian life.  Christ teaches “Be perfect”—and the Church, faithful to him, sets a moral high bar—because built into the human heart is the desire for greatness, the desire to break out of our human finitude, and—dare I even say—the desire for perfection.

Had Christ not united heaven and earth in his Person, the gargoyle would have the last laugh.  In that case, the moral bars should be lowered.  The demand for perfection would be nothing but folly.  But on account of Christ, it is precisely the space between the top of the steeple and the heavens, the incongruity between our performance and our aspirations—or, to state it bluntly, all of our failed attempts to clear the bar—that allows the depths of God’s mercy to be manifest.

The saints, like the gargoyles, see this and so can laugh.  In fact, in the end, it is the saints alone who can laugh for they see that while none of humanity’s Promethean attempts have succeeded in uniting heaven and earth, something else has: the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Knowing this, the saint does not find the demand for perfection to be a source of frustration but rather of freedom.  The saint does not spend his time asking that the Church lower the bar.  Rather, he is busy building steeples, all the while smiling at the distance between the highest spire and heaven.

© Vincent L. Strand, 2009.

8 Responses to “Be Perfect” (or, Of Steeples and Gargoyles)

  1. Father Joseph SJ says:

    This should be sent into one of the Catholic Papers in t he country . .well done and well written. The bar is high, but, I would rather the bar be high and continue to attempt and jump it .giving the best that I could in life. .that is the rewarding factor. If you never try to clear the bar and continue to live in mediocrity, very little can be said. Great piece. Send it on.

  2. Maria says:

    Do we really need to use the former Rev Weakland as our guide? The Holy Mother Church has offered saints to guide the way.

  3. “Do we really need to use the former Rev Weakland as our guide?”


    Is that what Vincent is doing? Maybe read the article again.

  4. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    Whereas in and of itself, on topic, excellent,
    it may communicate a possible slant to the topic
    with oscillating epistemology underpinning its
    logical concentric expansion…

    Since it is God himself in the historical person
    of Jesus that sets a high bar, it is not the
    Church that does so. Just because we too, like
    the Jews in Moses time, complain and find some
    things hard to digest, does not mean they
    need to be watered down. After all, Jesus did
    die. And didn’t walk away from His Father’s will
    saying that’s just too hard to do, give me
    something easier! It just may be that we Americans
    have it right, and the Europeans wrong as the
    test of history will always prove whomever and
    whatever the case may be (!)

    Secondly, it is intstructive that all unearthed
    civilizations by anthropology, evidence some form
    of religion! And it is C.S. Lewis in “Till We Have
    Faces” that asserts history was preparing itself
    towards what finally emerged religiously, in the
    revelations of Chritianity, with especially Greek
    mythology positioning humankind for this
    eventuality, intellectually! So no longer
    does the Church need to take a back seat to any
    attacks on its spiritual assertions!

    Our task is to love God with a love which is from
    above, not from below! And which grows until all
    our being is directed by that Love! We are then
    perfectly obedient, loving Him and our neighbours
    as we ought. Kierkegaard refers to this process
    of sanctification when he says no one “is” a
    Christian: we are all “becoming” Christians!
    Simone Weil refers to this process as “purity”
    destroying evil: as evil is the union of sin and
    suffering, the removal of any evil by what is pure
    leads to an increasing dissociation of sin and
    suffering; He is present in people so that through
    His purity, they may respond to evil with good!

    Then in comes Freud on this topic: he once said
    that the aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people
    of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be
    normally unahappy !

    Anyway, best summarized for me on this topic,
    is what the Father of Existentialism and forerunner to Derrida, Soren Kierkegaard writes in one of his prayers, which the ending to a book states best summarizes his theology: ‘Father I thank you that
    You do not require of me the understanding of
    Christianity because if you did, I would be the greatest of all sinners, for the more I study it
    the more I do not understand; instead all you
    require of me is faith!’

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful article!

  6. Jay Hooks says:

    Thanks for a great article, Vincent.

    I thought of your reflections during yesterday’s first reading (for the Feast of St. Joseph Pignatelli):

    “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (1 Cor 4:11)”

  7. Maureen says:

    Some New Testament scholars translate the word “prefect” as “compassionate”. That does not set the bar lower, but makes more sense.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Maureen,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m looking at Matthew 5:48. The word in question is teleios. One might argue for a translation meaning “complete”, “full”, or “mature”, but “compassionate” to me seems to be rather imprecise.

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