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.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.