In a session of the Spiritual Directors International series, “Making Our Way as Spiritual Directors,” Lucy Abbott Tucker shared how as a young girl she had “heard a very stirring homily about perfection”:
And [so], I decided it was my task, not my goal, my task in life to be perfect. And I can assure you that I worked extremely hard at being perfect. I am sure that I worked harder than any of you did. Positive about that.
And then, when I was in my early thirties, I heard a very extremely talented scholar named Don Senior talk about the scripture passage, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And he said–and I will never forget it, standing in front of the class–shaking his head, “Such a bad translation. It should say, be patient as a loving parent is patient.” My insides relaxed for the first time in years.
Being a One on the Enneagram [who can go to less resource perfectionism at the drop of a hat] as well as being the son of a German engineer, I do believe I could give Lucy a run for her money!
No surprise, then, that hearing these words would stir deep within. So much so that they sent me on a search – googling to find those words and to confirm that truth. I even found myself calling Lucy for some kind of attribution or credit for the quote. But, all she could do was commend me to Don Senior… and his broad corpus of writings. All to no avail.
In fact, searching had a way of complicating things. There are, in fact, two verses in which “be _____ as you father in heaven is ___________” is invoked:
- There’s Luke 6:36, “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
- And then, there’s Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Was this the basis of Don’s exegesis – seeing or claiming perhaps that the Lukan passage might have had some kind of precedence over and meaning for interpreting the Matthean? Perhaps. Who knows?
Problem was (and is) that I am not going to roll two distinct but similar Biblical texts into one – embracing the “safer” option for my heart and soul. For some reason(s), Tradition preserved two forms of the saying. Integrity seemed to call for me to do the same. We must be both “perfect” and “merciful” as God in Heaven is.
Still, Don’s (and Lucy’s) translation would not let me go.
Or, maybe, I could not let it go.
Helpful amidst my searchings and readings was the reminder that “perfect” in the Greek is “telios.” I remembered that it is was one of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross when he said, “It is finished [telios].” Yes, it can be translated “perfect.” But, it can equally be translated “finished” or “mature” or “complete.”
When Jesus said “it is telios” from the cross, he was not saying that “it was perfect” as much as he was saying that “it” [i.e., his life and its mission] was fulfilled and complete.
Could this, then, be the basis of our associating “perfection” with “patience”? “Be ye complete and full [in your purpose and your being] as your God in Heaven is [complete and full].” Given the fact that it is a journey with no instant arrival — that it takes time but is nonetheless our destination: does this not demand and invoke the need for patience? Patience from and in each of us – and, indeed, patience from the Divine.
It may not be the best resolution to the quest and question Lucy sent me on. (I’d still like to find its source in Don Senior.)
In the meantime, though, it breathes some peace and joy.
And, somewhere in the ongoing chewing, I find myself recalling the words of St Francis de Sales–believing it might have some value in this discussion: “Be who you are and be that well. So that you may bring honor to the Master Craftsman whose handiwork you are.”
Maybe we could meld the Scriptures and de Sales —
without too much violation of either of them…
“Be ye patient in your becoming
completely and fully who you are–
even as your Master Craftsmen
is patient and forbearing in the work
of bringing you to completion and fullness.”