Failing to Perfection

Good morning men! Our retreat theme is the virtuous man, or the man of virtue. And these words are deeply connected, as the root of the word virtue is the Latin word for “man” where we get words like “virility” in English. So a virtue is the excellence that an excellent man should manifest or demonstrate. So that is what we are aiming for. But we are all men here, so we know that sometimes we miss the mark. And I would like us to spend some time this morning talking about missing the mark.

Perfection is a word used in the Scriptures and by the Church that means “completed and in the form it was meant to be.” It’s not the same thing as flawless or unblemished. Perfection implies progress and refinement. And this morning we want to talk about progress toward being completed and in the form – being the man – we were made to be.

Together, we are going to talk about failing – missing the mark – and perfection – growing into our ideal self. And I hope to convince you that failing properly will actually help us become perfect. We are going to talk about Failing to Perfection.

Most of us are all too familiar with the concept of failing. Some of us have failed in school, others have failed in work or business, others have failed in relationships. Our culture promotes competition and people are sorted into winners and losers. America loves a winner.

But does God? There’s no scriptural support for the idea that God loves a winner. Sure, every few years some preacher finds a snippet in the Bible and spins it into an entire theology, but Catholics read the Bible as a whole message that makes sense altogether. When we read the Bible correctly, we see that God uses failure to help us grow. Now, let’s be clear; God does not prefer failure, nor does he promote failure, but he uses failure to achieve our closer union with Him.

Let’s start with something I think all of us know by heart and probably recite almost every day. The “Our Father” is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. It is mostly a series of petitions to God the Father. Jesus taught his disciples that a lot of prayer is asking the Father for things, and he showed us what kind of things to ask for.

According to the example of the Lord’s Prayer, we are not to worry about asking for more money or more comfort or more of really anything. We are to ask that His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Now, I can recite the Lord’s Prayer in 10 seconds. Maybe you are even faster. But does that first significant petition really sink in? Sure, I said the words “that His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

But do I think about them? What happens in Heaven? We get images and foreshadowings from the Book of Revelation and other passages from both the Old and the New Testaments. There will be a host in heaven, and there will be chanting and singing, as we are told the cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy. And there will incense going up as the prayers of the saints. And the Lamb of God will sit on his throne, surrounded by the myriad angels and saints praising his name in unison.

From all of that we can say with great conviction: Heaven is worship of God, with everyone focused on the Beatific Vision. It is a community, but a community of focus on the Lamb. In Heaven, they do what the Father’s voice commanded at the Transfiguration of the Lord: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [Mt. 17:5] In Heaven, every ear is attuned to the Son. That is the will of the Father.

On Earth, most ears are not attuned to the Son. Yet that is the will of the Father, and that is our prayer in the Our Father. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

So, right away, the Lord’s Prayer reminds me that I am failing. In my own life, God’s will is not being done as it is in Heaven. God is not my constant focus. But when I recite the Lord’s Prayer, I say I want him to be. Yet, he is not. Failure.

Failure, but a step towards perfection if I respond rightly. Have I thought much about Heaven? Can I direct my mind’s eye there? If not, what can I do to improve my mind’s eyesight? Scripture is the best answer there. Last year, I did Fr. Mike Schmitz’ “Bible in a Year” podcast, but I did not start until late February so I was double-timing it a couple of months to catch up and get on the regular pace. I encourage those of you who have not done so to commit to that type of a podcast. Scripture is meant to be read out loud. When somebody reads the Bible to you, you get a sense of the most important things because they read variations on those things many, many times. And you can think about why those major events are recalled so often.

When I read the Bible by myself in the past, I frankly got a little sick and tired of the Red Sea passage. It seemed that every few pages the Bible writers felt it necessary to recap the exodus and the desert wandering one more time. But listening to somebody else read all those passages opened my mind’s eye to the underlying message. God will take care of us even when we fail to follow him properly.

Why did God ordain that the Red Sea passage and the 40 years in the desert take so many books and then reappear in so many other books? Because he loves us. Us men. We’re men, which means we are a bit thick in the head sometimes. We need things in simple sentences, and we need them repeated so we can get it.

Women are great at nuance. They know what a raised eyebrow means. We are men. We are not tuned in to nuance. We are lucky to notice that a woman has eyebrows. Women know what was being said even when words were not being used. We look at them like they are just making things up, and they look at us like we are simpletons who are just barely smart enough to be able to tie our shoelaces.

But God loves us men, and the Bible proves it by drilling the Red Sea passage and the desert wandering stories into our heads. Read those stories, and see how many times the men failed to trust God and God never abandoned them. They had a chance to go straight into the promised land, but they were scared and came back telling lies. Failure. But God loved them enough to give them time to grow closer to him out there in the desert. They whined about water, and God provided water from the rock. They whined about food, and God provided manna. They whined about meat, and God rained down the pheasants for them to eat.

Failure, response. Failure, response. God never gave up on them. So here is something to consider when you have quiet time today:

if God never gives up on me, why should I ever give up on me? And if God never gives up on me as he leads me to the promised land, why should I ever give up on Him?

If we start refusing to give up on God, we will have made some progress on that first petition from the Lord’s Prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. God’s will was done in the desert. The Hebrews did reach the promised land. God’s will for each of us is to reach the promised land of Heaven. Each time we fail, we are invited to re-center and to try again to align our will with his will. Each time we do that, we are growing closer to the man he made us to be. We are failing to perfection.

Our relationship with God has to be our most important relationship, but the ones with our brothers and sisters are right behind that. God uses failings in our human relationships to perfect us just as he does in our relationship with him.

For those of us called to Holy Matrimony, let’s just start with the first word. How holy is our matrimony? We all had an ideal husband and father in our minds when we stood before God with our bride at the marriage ceremony, and we pledged to be that person to her for the whole of our lives. And we meant it. But all of us have failed to be the husband we promised to be and the husband we really want to be.

We fail because sin creeps into our human lives. We are not men operating in a vacuum. The Devil is active. He is ruler of this world, according to the words of Jesus in the gospels. The world is the Devil’s playpen, and we are his playthings. But he is never direct. He is creeping around, talking in whispers, just asking questions after all. Thanks to our fallen nature, we are set up to listen to his whispers and treat his questions as genuine. They never are.

Sin separates us from the grace of God. We were given sanctifying grace at our baptism, and we receive it in the sacraments, but we can let go of it just as we can let go of any gift we are given. Hanging on to the gift is the effort we must put forth. And when we sin in a serious way, we let go of the gift of grace. We fail.

But God through his Church has given us a way to get back up on the road to perfection. It is the sacrament of reconciliation, and it will be available for all of us today in this retreat. It’s available at the parish every Wednesday and twice on Saturday. And by appointment if that’s what you need. When I come to lead Adoration and Benediction on Wednesday evenings, I see a lot of familiar faces in the confession line. And I’m pretty sure I’m not looking at murderers and grand theft auto sinners there, because I see a bunch of them pretty regularly. So, what is going on? Perfection. Long confession lines are a parish sign of failing to perfection.

Remember, perfection is a process, not a point. When we do confession correctly, we perfect our wills by a thorough examination of conscience. We look at what we did and how it lined up with God’s will. We get better at seeing what his will looks like through this process. Our spiritual eyesight is being perfected. And we start to begin to be upset that we went against his will. Our contrition – our being sorry for our sins – is being perfected. We are sorry most of all because our sins offend our God; that’s perfect contrition.

We become a bit more alert about the Devil’s presence in our lives and his activity. We begin to know that he’s attacking us while the attack is underway rather than after he’s already won the battle. Our spiritual antenna is being perfected. We might express some disgust in the confessional that we fell for the Devil’s trap again, but we are making progress. That’s the path of perfection. By our failing, and by our doing something positive about it, we are growing closer to God. And we joyfully accept whatever penance the priest gives us because we know it is for our salvation and our perfection. I think there is a lot of failing to perfection going on in the confessionals at our parish, and I’m glad to see those long lines. It means we are working on our souls by working on our sins.

I encourage you to journal if you are not already doing so. It is great to write out what you’re dealing with for at least two reasons. First, you get to put it down and in a small way get it out of you. When you write down your struggle, you really name it and you claim it. And that is quite powerful. The second reason is that you can go back after a few years and see that you actually made some progress. All those times I failed to be the man God wants me to be, those times I failed to be the husband my wife deserves, those times I wasn’t the worker my boss thought he hired; maybe I’m just a little bit better in one of those ways. Journaling helps me be honest about my progress. Am I a saint? No way. But I might be on the road to sainthood. And that is failing to perfection.

All of us who are not committing mortal sins on a routine basis can still benefit from regular trips to the confessional. The Devil is like a baseball batter who is happy to hit singles rather than wait for the perfect pitch to hit a home run. That means most of us will struggle with habitual venial sin. These little sins that I commit do have a cumulative effect. By regular confession, I can make some progress in the fight against little sins that begin to form patterns in my life. I get grace when I go to confession, and grace is the fuel to fight the Devil.

Confession is not the place for spiritual education and counseling, but all of us can benefit from that, too. When I get sick and tired of being so prone to a certain habit of sin that I read spiritual writers on that subject, I am on the road of perfection. I might – by the grace of God – make some spiritual progress on whatever virtue struggle gets me the most. The Devil uses ignorance, too. How are we to work on the general sin of gossip if we never learn the various ways we engage in it? To say, “Father I committed the sin of gossip four times” is great, but it might help us even more if we can say, “Father I committed the sin of detraction twice and the sin of backbiting twice.” Our spiritual antenna is getting sharper and more tuned. We are failing to perfection because we made the effort to learn the various ways gossip can be spread.

And here is the reality of males and failure and perfection. We generally think we can fix the problem with one massive effort. That’s kind of a man thing, right? The spiritual battle is not a massive effort. We cannot nuke the Devil. The spiritual battle is endless border skirmishes. It’s small-arms fire with an indigenous enemy who uses guerilla tactics. It’s kind of un-manly, so we can easily talk ourselves out of it.

Well, we should not talk ourselves out of it. Today, if this is the first time you’ve ever thought about confession and spiritual warfare, you should consider making your confession. And it might not be the best confession you could make, but you should make it anyway. Being willing to do what is good for us even though we will probably make a mess of it is a really good step on the road of failing to perfection.

So much of it is attitude, isn’t it? The same male characteristic that has us walking around like we have everything figured out when inside we are quivering with uncertainty is right next to the male characteristic that is happy to make a fool of itself seeing how far a group of guys can throw a Yugo or jump into a freezing Lake Allatoona. So, be a fool for God. When you fail, and you will, thank God for the failure so you can get a little bit better. Be happy to fail to perfection.

A question for you to consider during our quiet period is this:

What is a bad habit I have in my most important human relationship that I want to break, and will I commit to asking God to help me overcome that habit and replace it with a good habit? And while I’m overcoming that habit, will I dare to admit I’m failing, knowing I’m on the road to perfection?

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