How the Saints (and One Heretic) Taught Colleen Carroll Campbell That God’s Idea of Perfection is Different Than the World’s

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“Any time our faith becomes more about criticizing others – or even criticizing ourselves – rather than leaning on and loving Jesus, we’re in trouble.”

That’s an insight Colleen Carroll Campbell gleaned about herself – and society in general – when she began reflecting on her own perfectionist nature. The Christopher Award-winning author, TV host, and former presidential speechwriter had always prided herself on doing her jobs flawlessly. But when she became a mother, the level of pressure she put on herself was emotionally and spiritually draining. She was demanding a level of perfection from herself that was impossible to live up to.

Colleen looked to her Catholic faith for answers, specifically to the saints who she had admired for their perfectionism. She discovered that these holy men and women were actually recovering perfectionists, who had followed a new path after gaining divine spiritual insights. In addition, Colleen learned that an obsession with flawlessness is rooted in the idea that we can earn God’s love instead of simply receiving it as the gift and grace that it is.

Her research led to a shift in her own ideas and behaviors – and now she has shared what she learned in the new book “The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s.”

The biggest argument many people make for perfectionism is Jesus’ mandate, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” But human beings and God define perfection in different ways.

During a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below), Colleen explained, “I did struggle a lot with that. I thought the universal call to holiness meant that…you’ve just got to strive and work harder and harder, and anything short of flawlessness is something to beat yourself up about. In ‘The Heart of Perfection,’ I talk about where I think this came from, this idea that you’ve got to be a good girl if you want God to love you. He does love you as long as you’re wearing your brave face and your good-girl dress. But when you’re not, watch out!”

As Colleen explored the topic more, she began to find new truths about God in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in that story loves his younger son so much that he rushes out to embrace him as he approaches his home.

Colleen said, “I think a lot of times, [we] who consider ourselves serious Christians or serious Catholics identify a little more with the older son in that story. If you put yourself in the role of the younger son, you begin to see that all of us are that younger son – and that mercy of God that we always think is for the next guy but not for me because I’m supposed to know better – that mercy is for me, too. When you begin to embrace that, you look at the whole world differently. It allows you to give others a little slack, too. You’re no longer imposing this intense standard on yourself [because] you realize that’s not what God is asking of you. He’s not asking for flawlessness. He’s asking more and more for surrender.”

One of the recovering perfectionists that Colleen highlights in her book is St. Jane de Chantal, a mother of four young children whose husband was killed in an accident. As a result, she had to deal with numerous challenges, including a father-in-law who was having an affair with his housekeeper and who constantly screamed at Jane.

Colleen said, “What I liked about Jane is she was intense….At one point, she branded the name of Jesus on her chest to scare away suitors after her husband’s death…She was driving herself crazy. She was skimping on sleep, she wasn’t eating enough, she was trying to pray around the clock. Meanwhile, everything was falling apart around her.”

Then Jane met Francis de Sales who, in modern terms, taught her to chill out.

Francis dispelled Jane’s notion that God wanted her to do everything perfectly and drive herself harder and harder. Colleen noted that he taught her, “The sacrifices God wants us to make for Him are the ones that choose us, not the ones we choose. Be gentle with the child who interrupts you. Decide not to gossip about those in-laws who drive you crazy. Abstain from one favorite food, but not from so much that you’re starving….Be patient with everyone, but above all with yourself.”

Colleen continued, “When Jane internalized this advice, she not only became more patient with herself, but it trickled down. She became more patient with the in-laws, the kids, the employees, with this culture that was so focused on how she looked but didn’t care how much she loved God. Gradually, she grew into this paragon of gentleness…This is a transformation we can’t do through willpower alone. This has to be the grace of God. It’s amazing what that grace can do in the life of any perfectionist if we open our hearts to God’s dream of perfect for us rather than our own.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Jane de Chantal was Angelique Arnauld, a notorious heretic who became known as the Mistress of Jansenism, a theological movement that emphasized original sin and human depravity.

Angelique was born at a time of intense corruption in the French church. Her family had her named the abbess of a convent at age seven and, explained Colleen, “she learned her catechism from a notoriously corrupt abbess at another institution. It was a mess. If you think anything today is shocking, this stuff was right up there.”

“In the midst of that,” continued Colleen, “a friar came along one day and preached the real gospel to Angelique [about] this king who was born poor and died, all for love of her. Her heart was touched. She was inflamed with a true love of God. She reformed her life and convent…But she started to go more and more in a direction of self-righteousness, rigidity – more and more earning her way to heaven, I guess you could say.”

Once again, St. Francis de Sales entered the picture, serving as a spiritual director to Angelique. As with Jane de Chantal, he warned her about the errors of her approach. Colleen noted him telling Angelique, “Watch how you’re talking to your critics. Watch how you’re talking about them. Watch how much you’re obsessing over everyone’s faults, including your own, and then how much you’re leaning on Jesus and His grace. Work on the little virtues. Not just the ones that are showy, but the little ones like simplicity and humility.”

Angelique loved Francis, but she didn’t take his advice. And after his sudden death, she chose the founding father of Jansenism as her new spiritual director. “Her convent becomes a stronghold of Jansenist heresy that gripped the church like a vice for almost two centuries,” said Colleen. “She spread these errors far and wide. Pretty soon it got so that people all over the continent are afraid to approach the altar for holy communion, even though they’ve gone to confession, because they’re not as perfect as angels. Or they’re afraid to go to confession because Jansenist priests are screaming at them that you’re not really sorry even though you say you’re sorry.”

Colleen’s purpose in sharing Angelique’s story is to provide a cautionary tale amidst the other stories in her book about the holy saints who rejected worldly perfectionism: “My point with [Angelique’s] chapter is: number one, just because we love Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t go off the rails and lose that love and become lost in ideology. Number two: any time our faith becomes more about criticizing others – or even criticizing ourselves – than leaning on and loving Jesus, we’re in trouble. Number three: if we don’t recover from perfectionism, we will spread it like a contagion through our family tree, to our friends, throughout the church. We may not have as much influence as Angelique, but we can each do a lot of good or a lot of damage.”

The Heart of Perfection” is full of valuable insights and advice for anyone struggling with the kind of perfectionism Colleen faced down in herself. She admits that she is a work in progress, but she has improved nonetheless.

Colleen concludes, “One interesting thing I came across in my research: one family has a habit of going around the table at night and just talking about one mistake they made that day, and what they learned from it. I think that’s helpful as parents, because our temptation is to always preach to our kids, ‘This is how I worked hard and succeeded.’ It is helpful for them to know sometimes, ‘This is where I struggled and fell short, and God loves me anyway.’

“I think the best witness that I can give my children to counteract their own perfectionist tendencies is for them to see me accepting God’s grace for myself. That means going to them and saying sorry, even if I have to say sorry to a five year old because I snapped too hard, or I was wrong about that. It means receiving forgiveness for myself when I make a mistake. Getting back up and trying again. Perseverance, not perfection. I tell my daughter that. Sometimes I live it, and sometimes I don’t. But I think my witness is much more powerful when I live it than when I just talk it.”

(To listen to my full interview with Colleen Carroll Campbell, click on the podcast link):

Colleen Carroll Campbell interview – Christopher Closeup