The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s, Colleen Carroll Campbell’s new book, correctly diagnoses a spiritual problem afflicting millions and millions of Catholics, especially in the United States where rugged individualism is prized. In the book, she describes a crippling pathology of control, that she calls “spiritual perfectionism,” that manifests itself in common attitudes such as hurriedness, impatience, and pride. Spiritual perfectionists are perhaps best described as those who constantly strive to maintain full control over their lives. Campbell’s solution to this problem is to turn to the Saints, because their examples reveal deep insights into our human weakness and our need for Jesus. 

[The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s is available for purchase online at Simon & Schuster, at this link.]  

On the surface, “control” might seem innocuous. We might even consider it a virtue. Every mature person works to “control” their lives, to be responsible for themselves and those who depend on them. In the spiritual life, however, the insistence on total control quickly devolves into modern-day Pelagianism, the belief that one is exclusively responsible for one’s own spiritual growth.

Why is it a problem that one should take exclusive responsibility for one’s spiritual growth? You might say, “No other broken human being has the authority or the standing to tell me what I need to grow as a person.” There is one major exception, of course: Jesus Christ. 

The profound truth about Christianity–even if it is often ignored or glossed over–is that God rules each of our lives personally, with a deep, sacrificial love. The Christian faith is not a deposit of disembodied ideas and empty traditions that we are free to pick up or put down as we please. Christ is alive and he knows us and loves us! This is the essence of Christianity. The same incarnate Christ who died on the cross for each of us is the same Christ who reveals himself to us, especially through Scripture and Tradition. He leads us into the fullness of life with God through his Church. God’s rule is the substance of human virtue, of sainthood, and of our eternal happiness. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” says Paul (Galatians 2:20).

Campbell’s insight is as profound as it is simple: “Control,” far from being the medicine for a world sick with spiritual weakness, is actually a symptom of a major spiritual disease. Control only offers us the facade of progress, of maturity and of self-responsibility, but hidden under all our activities of “control” is the festering sickness of sin. As much as we’d like it to, control cannot heal this sickness. In fact, control makes the sickness worse. It instills in us this idea that we don’t need God, his love, or his guidance.

One major feature of Campbell’s book is her treatment of the saints whose lives, in her reading, offer a solution to spiritual perfectionism. Campbell makes these saints accessible. She removes the otherworldliness that we often read onto the saints and turns them into regular folks, like you or me, who sinned and struggled but by the grace of God found their way. Campbell’s portrayal of the saints is remarkably encouraging and inspiring.   

But this is where we find some difficulties when trying to guide a “spiritual perfectionist” to the heart of the faith. The grace-filled life and a life built on “control” do not give way to the other very easily. For spiritual perfectionists, it is nearly impossible to immediately embrace the truth that, as the Catechism states, “Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration. Man’s merit is due to God.”  

A challenge with this perspective is that very often, what we remember best about canonized saints are their great accomplishments. Saints made difficult choices. Saints did things that the Church has considered worthy of God, and the Church offers up their examples of heroic virtue to inspire us. And what we might miss when we focus on their inspiring and dramatic biographies is the deep abiding relationship that they had with Jesus Christ while they lived on Earth. Spiritual perfectionists must learn that this relationship must take priority over good works, because it is only from the love shared between God and man that virtue flows. 

Imagine a spectrum of holiness, beginning with those who think that they can do good without God’s help, and ending with the saints’ resolution that they owe everything to God. Many of us lie somewhere in the middle. Even if we know what the Church teaches, even if we know the truth, we frequently live our lives in a “controlling” way. If we truly embraced what the Church teaches about grace and God’s love, would we not pray unceasingly, as Paul exhorts us to, in gratitude for God’s great gift? Would we not abandon all our meaningless desires and wishes and strive to live according to God’s plan for us always? Sadly, we are frail creatures, who even if we know what we ought to do and want to do it, we do the opposite thing instead (Romans 7:19). The solution must be, and can only be, prayer, in which God progressively reveals and nurtures his loving plan of salvation in each of us. 

Francis writes, “We should remember that holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration. The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God.”

If the goal is to help spiritual perfectionists, therefore, the most effective parts of this book are when Campbell moves past discussing the history and accomplishments of the saints, and builds on their stories to explain the central importance of a personal relationship with God. It is easy to think that we must accomplish what the saints did in order to be happy, but Campbell does not simply give us the examples of saints for us to emulate their most famous deeds. For example, she encourages her readers to swim in the ocean of God’s mercy. In another passage, citing Ignatius, she suggests that we should pray and discern the will of God in the daily moments of life. 

As Pope Francis says, “There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” 

In this book, it’s possible that Campbell is assuming that her readers are ready to embrace the radically free gift of mercy that God has offered them. But if her readers are ignorant of what Christ did on the cross, or are incapable of appreciating the depth of God’s boundless mercy for them personally, then much of what Campbell has to say will sound like it came from just another self-help book, in which Christianity is used merely as a framing device. 

To what extent readers will be truly transformed by The Heart of Perfection, therefore, will be dependent on how much Campbell can effectively move them, in the first place, to a fuller appreciation for God’s love and mercy and into a deeper relationship with Christ. For her part, Campbell achieves a balance between making her book accessible to perfectionists (with frequent examples of good and bad behaviors and attitudes) and giving them some theological meat to chew on, often in the form of insights from personal experience and the lives of the saints. 

The Heart of Perfection is a lifeline to spiritual perfectionists who need to grow in conviction that a can-do approach to life is insufficient for lasting happiness and peace.  In a very personal and direct way, Campbell cuts through to the heart of the matter. She expertly reveals the symptoms of spiritual perfectionism, a disease that cripples the soul, and invites us to a deeper relationship with the Divine Physician whose love alone has the power to heal.

The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s by Colleen Carroll Campbell was released in May 2019 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Click here to order directly from the publisher.

Order from Amazon in hardcover or for Kindle format by clicking here.

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar L Daily says:

    Thank you for this article. I think it is important to remember that Colleen Carroll Campbell cut her teeth as part of EWTN political programming, is aligned with Relevant radio and other media that malign Pope Francis, and is one of many professional Catholics who impact the Church with opinion for profit. The Church is under attack and we should be careful about which voices we promote.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      One of the more despicable tactics used by Church Militant, 1P5 and the like is to assign “guilt by association.” If they don’t like someone, they will go through their history to find a time when they worked with someone or at an organization that has been more obviously involved with reprehensible behavior. You can extend these associations as far as you want as long as there is just a minimum of plausible connections.

      The short answer is that whatever you think about Campbell, I believe her goal in her book is very much aligned with Francis’. I took the book as it was written, not trying to read any ulterior motive. If someone writes something that is good, then I will say so. It’s not helpful, I think, to read everyone through the lens of suspicion, not the Pope and not each other. It’s precisely this tactic that has led to much division in the church today.

      • Avatar L Daily says:

        It’s not a tactic, it’s a fact and needs to be acknowledged. Ignoring alliances for too long is one of the reasons the Church is in this current struggle.

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        What “alliance” should not be ignored here? Are you suggesting Campbell is a member of the anti-Francis “team” and we should oppose her? I find a hard time seeing how this approach jives with Francis.

        The main “alliance” worth preserving is the Church, and the devil is our enemy. The dividing line between good and evil is not between this and that organization. It’s drawn through each person’s heart. Being unable to accompany each person on that journey from sin to God, and do so in a loving and merciful way, is arguably the main reason for this struggle. Truth and love wins. We will be one. We know this by faith. What good does it do us to find further cause for division?

  2. Avatar L Daily says:

    Since I can’t reply to your response, I’ll reply here. I said nothing about promoting division (in fact you accused me of responding like Church Militant, et. al., which is a divisive comment).

    I don’t claim to know the author’s thoughts about Pope Francis. But given the role EWTN media has and continues to play in attacks on the Pope, I think recommending her book as spiritually formative but not mentioning that the author played a founding role in the development of EWTN political programming is a significant oversight on your part. (Btw, I read and enjoyed CCC’s book My Sisters the Saints years ago, and will probably read this one.)

    When I was younger, I remember being very proud of the fact that Mel Gibson was a devout Catholic and family man. I brought up his name and witness often in conversations with SBNR friends. Only much later did I learn that he was a sedevacantist and holocaust denier. I’m sure I caused some scandal. Not at all equating CCC with Mel Gibson, but Catholic does mean different things to difgerent people and full disclosure is important.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I guess I don’t understand. People make mistakes and, indeed, make a habit of making mistakes. That doesn’t mean they can’t do good things too. I honestly don’t know what is so reprehensible about Campbell’s career history in your eyes. That she once worked for an organization that has since done things that are problematic? Are you saying she’s responsible in some way for what is wrong about ewtn today?

      I’m reviewing a book which I generally enjoyed and which I offered to our readers for their edification. I do hope you get a chance to pick it up.

  3. Avatar Marie says:

    Daniel- I do not know anything about Colleen Carroll Campbell, and I agree wholeheartedly that we should never assign guilt by association. If however, someone were to write a beautiful book, as an example, but were at present very outspoken about something very counter to one’s beliefs, I would never want to lend my direct financial support to them. I do think it’s a delicate balance sometimes. We should not demand perfection, but we should always be aware of the potential consequences of offering such support. I am not at all suggesting that is the case here, but just in response to your comment.

  4. Avatar Faith says:

    EWTN still has a majority of solid programming. It is very unfortunate that some persons are still in their employ, it is unfortunate that a few of their programs are directly sowing seeds of division in the Church.

    However, our present Church is very much a battleground, not a refuge. How very unfortunate we must now show our allegiances.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I can’t help but find 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, along with 1 Corinthians 3, to be instructive here. Debates and internal strife and “battlegrounds” have been a part of the Church’s history since the very beginning. But these divisions are not of God, and cannot be part of what it means to be part of God’s church. Our allegiance is to Christ.

      • Avatar Marie says:

        Precisely. Our allegiance is to Christ. If he is being assaulted, we must defend. An attack on the Vicar of Christ is an attack on him. We do not draw battle lines that can never be crossed. On the contrary, we work towards dialogue with the hope of understanding. We don’t ignore the issues though.

        As an example, I see EWTN as a problem. While the majority of the programming may be solid, I could not in good conscience continue to support the station knowing that it allows the show The World Over, with Raymond Arroyo to continue with his anti Francis platform. Since my satellite subscription was a separate charge of $3 or $4 a month to have EWTN, I very reluctantly removed it, after sending the station an email as to why I was ending my subscription. If we ignore these things, because there is good within, we will never resolve problems.

        As a child in the seventies, I remember my family boycotting one of the manufacturers over some issue with wages, etc in Peru concerning the farming of grapes. I don’t remember the manufacturer, but we didn’t just have to give up grapes. Every product from that manufacturer was banned in our home until the issue was resolved. I assume many families participated in the boycott because I recall there was a resolution. Divisions are not of God, but the strength to stand up for what is right is of God. We should find goodness in everyone. It however is easy to find goodness, and then stay silent when something wrong is said or done, because the person is ‘overall’ good. That’s not the point. We are obligated to stand up for what is right, even when it singles us out. Again, I’m just responding to your comment, and not about the author in your article 🙂

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        I think it makes sense. In other places, Paul warns his fellow Christians to turn away from those who are leading people away from Christ. I don’t know what the answer is exactly in every situation. But I’m totally on board with the examples you’ve provided.

        What just really left me dumbstruck was the insinuation that an author, whose every apparent motivation was to help people find Christ and to support her family, should be brought down, in a way, for some alleged relationship to our current strife in the Church. I’m not going to participate in that sort of ad hominem.

  5. Avatar Christopher Lake says:

    On this subject of not “promoting” the current work of any author who has ever, in the past, or even currently, been involved, in any way, with a Catholic television network which now, currently, airs certain programs which oppose the Pope– I do get the principle and the concern, but this can be a very slippery and dangerous slope which may well lead, among pro-Francis Catholics, to something akin to a purging mindset. I oppose that kind of mindset with every fiber of my being.

    The Catholic author and convert, Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein, regularly defends Pope Francis on social media from his unfortunately-many Catholic detractors. Dr. Goldstein also still appears on EWTN’s “The Journey Home.” Should she be admonished for appearing on EWTN, even as she continues to publicly defend the Pope? I am willing to admit that I may be wrong here, but to me, this seems like a very dangerous direction to go in, logically following out this idea that no pro-Francis Catholics can or should have anything to do, in any way at all, with EWTN. Again, this seems like a purging mentality, and that honestly scares me.

    The Catholic author and convert, Dr. Peter Kreeft has said that he considers Pope Francis to be a Saint (though, obviously, not yet canonized). Dr. Kreeft has said that, to him, this seems obvious about our current Pope. Kreeft also continues to publish books with Ignatius Press, which has, in recent years, taken on a much more chilly tone with Pope Francis and which even published a book directly opposing Francis’s (and the larger Church’s, including the last two Popes) advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty. Should I cease to buy Dr. Kreeft’s books (current or past ones) which are published by Ignatius Press, even as his work has been helpful to me for decades, and even as he publicly says very complimentary things about Pope Francis?

    I personally will not go down the road of disavowing my support for, and disassociating myself from the work of, pro-Pope-Francis Catholics who sometimes appear on, and publish for, Catholic media organizations who have *some* (not all) material which opposes the Pope. I will not apologize for my support of Dawn Eden Goldstein, Peter Kreeft, and Colleen Carroll Campbell, and for my support of their books.

    A mindset which urges me to cease supporting them and buying their books scares me, partially because it reminds me of the ultra-sectarian, radical, purge-like thinking into which I was increasingly falling, myself, many, many years ago, when I was a radical leftist (even Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) secularist. I don’t want to return to *any kind of hyper-purist mentality* which is so concerned with not even possibly, inadvertently, “promoting” anything with which I disagree, that I will not even *support the truly good work* of pro-Francis Catholic authors who sometimes publish and appear in sometimes-anti-Francis media.

    • Avatar Marie says:

      I hope you are not inferring that I am arguing in favour of banning or discrediting someone for going on EWTN, whether in defence of Pope Francis, or to discuss another topic? I certainly have said no such thing, nor do I think that. I do think however, that I and others, in good conscience can determine that a show on EWTN is so contrary to the unity of the Church, by promoting constant Anti Francis sentiment that supporting such a station is counter productive to it’s purported purpose, and as such, I can determine it is best to withdraw my support.

      How does that thinking extend to disavowing people for going on the network? It doesn’t. Nor do I demand everyone think as I do, or else I withdraw my support. I am appalled, for example, at how Lifesite News went after Fr. Rosica for plagiarism. Their endgame was to destroy. There is nothing, nothing good about that. It seems everyone they disagree with must be brought down. I find it vile.

      I am certainly not promoting anything like that, as that is completely counter to how I think. That said, we do have responsibilities for our actions. We can’t hide or ignore things, however difficult to confront. If hypothetically, a fundraiser was organized that was going to help the children at the border, but also help fund abortions, I would have to decline my support, as much as I want to help the children at the border. If, however, the person fundraising was a huge promoter of abortion, but was fundraising for the children at the border, I would have no problem supporting her fundraising. I merely disagree with her ideology on some issues. I hope I’ve clarified.

      • Avatar Christopher Lake says:

        Marie,

        My comment was not written in regard to anything that you have written here. I’m truly sorry if it seemed otherwise.

      • Avatar Marie says:

        My apologies Christopher. I thought your comment was in the thread with Daniel’s comment about the Corinthians , so I thought you were commenting on my response. I was wrong about both! 🙂