Nobody’s perfect. It’s such a bit of folk wisdom that it just rolls off our tongue.
But do we believe it? Do we accept the imperfections in ourselves — or others — or do we get caught up in judgment, when faced with something we don’t like or of which we disapprove?
Jesus said, “Do not judge,” but I confess: sometimes I do. And often, the person I’m the hardest on is myself.
One of the privileges of the work that I do is that I’ve gotten to know a number of monks, nuns, priests and other clergy-persons over the years. The people we think of as “religious professionals.” And I think I can pretty confidently say, none of them are perfect either.
Today I was thinking about a friend of mine who is a monk, and when his 65th birthday rolled around he was not shy about telling people that he was feeling some ambivalence about “the big one.” I guess even monks can feel like they’re over the hill (although, to be honest, so many monks live such long lives that a 65-year-old one is still on the young side)!
Anyway, several of the employees of the monastery decided to throw this brother an impromptu birthday celebration. Nothing fancy, but they got some cake and ice cream and so when the big day arrived, they gathered in one of the offices during the lunch hour and, well, partied it up.
What I remember about this was that there was another employee who really got offended by this. She didn’t think it was appropriate that a monk, who had dedicated his life to prayer and simple living, should be doing something as frivolous as having a party — even just a cake-and-ice cream party (Oh, and I should mention: this monk’s birthday fell during Lent, which I guess made it even worse in the eye of the offended person).
She was so worked up about it that she went and complained to the abbot. The abbot, of course, saw it all rather philosophically. “Yes, technically it’s against the rules,” he admitted. “But no one’s perfect, and I don’t think anything good would come out of me making an issue out of this one-time thing.”
The employee was not satisfied, so caught up was she in her judgment. Many years have gone by, and now in telling this story, it seems to me that we’re looking at how at least two people were imperfect!
I don’t mean to cast stones at the monk — or at the judgmental employee. I suppose this story is pretty ordinary, and variations of it play out again and again, in offices, homes, and schools over the place. And yes, in churches and cloisters as well.
Somebody once told me they thought the parable of the prodigal son should be renamed “the parable of the father with two sons.” I think that makes a lot of sense, not only because the word prodigal is pretty much obsolete (does anyone ever use this word in any other context?), but because the father’s relationship with both of the sons is important to the story.
The younger son certainly wasn’t perfect, demanding his inheritance even before his father died and then squandering the money. But the older brother, caught up in anger and judgment, was just as stuck in his own imperfection. And the story makes it pretty clear that the father loved them both.
This all reminds me of another conversation I had with a different monk, who was talking about how people misunderstand the monastic life. I wrote about what he said in Befriending Silence:
“People think we become monks because we’re holy,” the monk pointed out, “but that’s not it at all. We become monks because we’re not. We need the structure of the cloister to try to become holy. Most of us are weak, and that’s why we need the monastery, to help us along our way.”
Saying “monks are not holy” is just another way of saying, “Nobody’s perfect, not even us monks.” Maybe monks and nuns embrace religious life because they are imperfect and for them, the structure of consecrated living helps them to become better. And for those of us who are not called to monastic life, we have other ways of growing in grace: by living in a family, working at a career, and participating in our local community. We get to interact with lots of other imperfect people, and sometimes they hurt us, or irritate us, or drive us up the wall. And sometimes we do the same with them.
I think “nobody’s perfect” is good news. First of all, it helps me to forgive myself when I do something knuckle-headed. And when I remember it, it helps me to be more compassionate and forgiving with other people when they are imperfect. Most of all, it reminds me that God’s love for me (and all of us) is unconditional. It’s not based on how good we are, or how well we deserve it. Because we don’t deserve it. But that’s not to say we’re bad people — we’re just imperfect. It does say something, however, about how good God is: good enough to love us, warts and all. And it is in that goodness, that Divine Love, that we live and move and have our being.