Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Reflections on Beauty and Perfectionism

concheMy children are a constant source of wisdom. Their perspective on life never ceases to amaze to me. They find beauty in the smallest and oddest things and events. Take for example seashells.

When we go on our yearly family vacation to the Outer Banks, we have daily excursions, rain or shine – save hurricanes and tropical storms, down the beach to search for seashells. My dream has always been to find the perfect conch while working on the beach…

broken conchYesterday, while the guys were surf fishing, my wife was standing on the shore watching the waves roll in. Suddenly, we saw her lunge towards the area where a wave was breaking on the shore. Soaked (Not her usual style, especial since she was not dressed in beach attire) and stumbling back up the shore, she stood up holding a conch. Now, the backside of this conch was blown out and yet, my children thought it was the most beautiful shell they had seen. They loved the colors and striations as well as the way the shell wrapped in on itself. The comment that summed it up, “Mom, it’s perfect!” Their insights made me see the shell in a completely different light and reminded me of how we as Catholics define beauty and perfection.

We live in a perfectionistic society. And it has warped our way we perceive beauty. People idolize the golden ratio in faces. Work is assessed in accordance with how efficiently and perfectly it was accomplished. Athletes must always be first or they are a failure. The perfect body type is…well, whatever Hollywood is pushing this week.

In the end, perfection this side of glory is an allusion. It is a manifestation of the sin of vanity. The truth is that we are incapable of being perfect. Only our Father in heaven is eternal (the theological term for unchanging perfection) and able to perfectly accomplish any task. We as Christians, on the other hand, are called to excellence.

What is the difference between a perfectionist and someone striving for excellence?

“Perfectionists strive for impossible goals. Pursuers of excellence enjoy meeting high standards that are within reach.”[1]

Dr. Barbara Markway in her article, Pursuing Excellence, Not Perfectionism, provides a few comparisons to assist us in understanding the difference between perfectionism and excellence:

  • Perfectionists strive for impossible goals. Pursuers of excellence enjoy meeting high standards that are within reach.
  • Perfectionists value themselves by what they do. Pursuers of excellence value themselves by who they are.
  • Perfectionists, when they run into difficulty, get easily overwhelmed and give up. On the other hand, pursuers of excellence experience temporary disappointment, but they keep going.
  • Perfectionists can be devastated by failure; pursuers of excellence learn from it.
  • Perfectionists remember mistakes and dwell on them. Pursuers of excellence correct mistakes and learn from them.
  • Perfectionists want to be number one. Pursuers of excellence can live with not being the best, especially when they know they’ve tried their hardest.
  • Perfectionists hate criticism; pursuers of excellence see criticism as a way to learn.
  • Perfectionists have to win to keep high self-esteem. Pursuers of excellence can finish second and still feel good about themselves.

To be honest, I am a recovering perfectionist. It has taken a couple of decades to weed this out of my personality and life, although, it creeps in every once in a while. What changed? I married and had children. I did not want them to have to suffer under impossible standards and develop a system of beliefs that encourages self-hatred, control and chronic stress.

Christianity many times fosters this perfectionism by misunderstanding that Scripture,

Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48)

Perfection is a work of the Father that man cooperates with (CCC2842 and CCC2013) by doing the Father’s will and allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us. When it comes to sin, it is willful removal of voluntary sin from our lives.

Perfectionism affects our perception of beauty. For many, this disorder has devastating consequences upon seeing the God-given beauty bestowed on us in Christ Jesus our Lord. It causes us to become the canon of what perfection is and disregards perceived flaws when, in reality, it is the flaw that uniquely imbues the thing with a certain character and/or value.

Most define beauty using a maxim that many attribute to St. Thomas: pulchram est id quod visum placet or ‘beauty is that which pleases upon being seen (or perceived)? However, this not what St. Thomas said. He actually wrote, pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent or ‘things that give pleasure when they are perceived are called beautiful’ but this was not a definition but his way to introduce the problem with the definition not solve it.[2]

To Pope St. John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, he defines beauty as goodness made visible. This also implies that truth is manifest as well. Thus, one could say that beauty is the manifestation of truth and goodness. I have discovered over the years through my children that there is a profound beauty in brokenness.

When brokenness is acknowledged (truth) and is used for the up building of and individual or group, there is a certain goodness that issues forth. From our brokenness, a deep compassion through the solidarity of suffering may arise. In the healing process, our Lord seems to redeem and glorify the wounds in order that the healed may share that grace with those with similar wounds.

It is not that beauty is subjective it is that beauty is connected with virtue and redemption. No one who met Blessed Mother Teresa would say that she was anything less than beautiful – even at 70+ years of age. It was neither her physical attributes (she definitely was not runway model material) nor was it her manner of dress (a sari just doesn’t make a fashion statement). It was her virtue. The truth and goodness of who she was shone through like a blinding light.

Cultural stereotypes are going to always be present in society. However, maybe we should become more like children and see the beauty in whatever or whomever we encounter. Brokenness may by perfectly beauty just like the conch.


[1] Barbara Markway, “Pursuing Excellence, Not Perfectionism,” Psychology Today, January 14, 2013, accessed August 6, 2014, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shyness-is-nice/201301/pursuing-excellence-not-perfection.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas provides three qualities of beauty: integrity, due proportion and clarity. In his work, he emphasizes that the ‘form’ of an object is where beauty lies because the form is coextensive with being. It is the structure of the ‘thing’ and when it is experiences with these three qualities, it is said to be beautiful. For people, this includes the actualization of who they are as a person and the gifts and mission that the Lord has fashioned them for ministry. It is not simply the body – which can be a stepping stone, but becoming fully human and allowing the mystery of the person to be revealed in its appropriate time.

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