Striving for perfection

Like millions of others I have been glued to the Olympics, including sports I never usually follow. I've been cheering, groaning, shouting motivational advice and gasping in admiration in more or less equal measure. With a lot of the sports, aside from brilliant technique and the right attitude, the winners are basically those who are faster, stronger or more accurate than the rest. There are certain rules to follow, and techniques which boost performance, but a cyclist does not get awarded extra points for sitting in his seat a certain way; neither does a sprinter get penalised for not clenching her fists just-so.

Which throws into sharp relief those sports - like gymnastics and diving - in which a stunning combination of technique and artistry is subject to rigorous judging, and governed by myriad rules and regulations. We armchair experts can usually spot the most flagrant breaches - the botched landings, wobbles, clearly unsynchronised dives, feet over the line and so on - but what of the minor breaches? In a few seconds the viewing public watches a dazzling display of somersaults, twists and contortions; we gasp and proclaim it excellent, only to then have it meticulously picked apart in the slow motion replay, where we discover that the piked position wasn't piked enough, or a handstand needed to be held for a fraction of a second longer, or that there was a bit too much splash in a dive. (Splash intrigues me. When and by whom, in the history of competitive diving, was it decreed that the perfect dive should generate minimal splash?)

photo used with owner's permission
So we sit and we gasp and we learn to pick apart, whilst before us birdlike teenage girls and muscular young men strain for perfection - or at least, the perfection that will satisfy the eagle-eyed judges. We never see the judges, but they must surely be like birds of prey, poised, ready to swoop and pounce with deadly precision on the slightest flaw, the merest weakness... ready to punish even the tiniest infringement in the pursuit of perfection.

Thank God that the God I have pledged my life to is nothing like these judges! As the Cloud of Unknowing puts it: It is not what you are or have been that God looks upon with merciful eyes, but what you long to be.

All of which also makes me think about the spiritual life, because one of the things we have to learn - often the hard way - is the difference between striving for perfection and straining for perfection. Like many young religious I went through a period of straining for perfection, in the mistaken belief that this was how I had to be, and that the sure route to holiness was hard work and effort on my part. I eventually learnt that I was never ever going to become the perfect novice, but I could aim to become the perfect me - fully alive and fully the woman God has created me to be. Thus I learnt the difference between striving and straining.

photo used with owner's permission
As Paul wrote to the Philippians: I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from the Law, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ and is from God and based on faith. He too learnt, over time, to stop straining and start striving, and to let himself be carried on the abundant slipstream of God's all-powerful grace.

May we all do likewise...