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Arousing the Spirit

Arousing the Spirit

Provocative Writings
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From Chapter One, "The Problem with Perfect"


Embracing the Imperfect


When we think of the legacy of the mystics, we hear much of an ascent through stages of mystical perfection to ultimate unity, fulfillment, or realization. In the east, the quest for unified being has been called enlightenment. Such traditions of “the perfect” can be useful today, but they must be re-contextualized.


Perhaps the kind of perfectionism that spoils both art and life is that which rejects the transitory and limited. Great artists know that, as Wallace Stevens states, “the imperfect is our paradise.” Leonard Cohen gets it right when he sings, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” In fact, however much we affirm what Stevens calls the “blessed rage for order,” the universe as we know it is not a neat and tidy place.


Greatness involves giving over our little orderings in the grand Chaos to an order beyond our present comprehension. We are opened to a needful disturbance. In other words, God’s kitchen is a fecund mess that ends in a festive banquet. The vastness of star-strewn space suggests a cosmic order, but not a rigid, fathomable one. This is why poets, artists, city planners, architects, and ecologists feel a part of something larger than their original intent. In the creative process, plots and plans may go askew as newness invades. Perhaps heaven is not a topiary garden but a rain forest with falling trees, rotting nurse logs, and the mysterious activity of microbes.


Perfectionism resists this fertile chaos out of fear:  it wants to evade the essential breaking open. The ego likes to keep to the past, to safe strategies that have worked before, while Spirit says, “Behold, I destroy your blunders and pasty efforts and blow them to smithereens to make all things new.”


To enter such a process of kenosis or letting go requires courage, because one never knows what will have to be sacrificed. Sometimes what a writer thinks are the finest bits have to go. Sometimes they seem like clearings of the throat that must be resigned to the waste bin. Perhaps those Tibetan monks who make sand mandalas are closer to the truth of art than those who are too much focused on product. After weeks of painstaking labour, they consign the work of their hands to water.


Letting Go into the General Dance


Following the call to perfection requires some striving. It also requires letting go. With this in mind, there are common usages of the word perfect that seem perfectly fitting. A dog lolling on a lawn, for instance, is perfect because she is completely at one with the moment and is not being anything other than herself. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field are perfect, as Jesus observed, because they “toil not neither do they spin.”  They naturally let life ripple through and complete them. When the French say a meal is parfait, they mean it is completely satisfying and right. And when the mystics speak of “the ladder of perfection,” or “the scale of perfection,” they have in mind an ascending evolutionary spiral through various phases of consciousness, not the attainment of a static perfection.


Perhaps another way of putting it is that if you want to enter the cosmic dance where all is in the process of increasing the amount of love in the universe, anywhere you are along the way can be right and in harmony. Rejecting perfectionism, as opposed to perfection, doesn’t mean that there are no deeper levels of maturity in the spiritual life.


It is helpful to look at Jesus as one who, like us, was birthed to oneness through a process of transformation. To make Jesus of Nazareth into the flawless only Son of God diminishes him. In fact, the belief that Jesus was the perfect lamb who died for our sins is wrongheaded because it denies the love and compassion of God and our direct access to the fountains of mercy.


…In the end, what is needed is a raising of consciousness in which body, mind, emotions, and spirit are in balance with the great Spirit that moves the sun and the stars. Out of this global consciousness may issue social justice and equality – the kingdom of heaven on earth. This process does not require perfectionism in the modern sense, but a mindful spiritual practice in conjunction with a simple opening of the heart to greater oneness with the hidden wholeness that already lies deep within each of us.

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