By Presvytera Melanie DiStefano 

A 20-year study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that chronically drug-addicted persons already had in place the personality characteristics which made them vulnerable to drug addiction by age eight. Their parents had pressured them to improve and succeed, without enjoying their children. They failed to notice what was worthwhile and valuable about them at each stage of their growth along the way. They had become a project more than a relationship. Consequently, the children did not have a sense of their own belovedness.[1]

~Dn. Stephen Muse, “Being Bread”

Dn. Stephen explains further in his reflection “Good Enough” that another group of children experiencing similar pressures and similar deficits in “belovedness” used achievement as their drug of choice, turning to this socially acceptable outlet to fuel their never-able-to-be-quenched thirst for being “good enough.” A third more “psychologically healthy” group of children did not suffer from feelings of inadequacy or a drive to perfection and were able to appreciate life “in the moment.”

I was particularly convicted by Deacon Stephen’s words, “(The children) became a project more than a relationship” In the daily grind of life, as we seek to provide what our children need for their minds and bodies to thrive, a much more important piece of the puzzle often gets left out: our actions may not be imbued with love and acceptance of them as they are – in essence we withhold their “soul food.”

I remember confessing at a retreat that I was seeing the duties of mothering my son more as “a job” than a relationship. When I approach parenthood as a job, I rob him of the security of being beloved, and I rob myself of the beauty-filled moments we could share. How many days could have been a meeting of heaven between us, if only “I had eyes to see and ears to hear” what God was offering to me through my son?

As a young adult, I became aware of the soul-damaging lie of the world’s view of perfectionism. The perfection Christ calls us to counters our fallen misunderstanding. Perfection in God is communion. This gift comes first and foremost by His grace and power, and its culmination is a loving, free acceptance of the life He has given us, ironically, with all its “imperfections.”

“It’s hard for God to see sin and darkness. How can One see darkness when One is Light?” my Father Confessor likes to remind me when I fall into old patterns of beating myself up or being critical of people in my life. The Most High God embraces us with all our sins – hard as that may be for us to believe or accept.

This acceptance of His un-conditional love is the antidote to “unbelovedness,” a term coined by Dn. Stephen Muse, as “the root of a spiritual cancer against which we all need inoculation.” So I often wonder, why do I think I can only accept God’s love if I fast perfectly, or if I pray my prayer rule diligently, or if I do not commit really bad sins, or if I go to confession more often, or if I check off all the other dutiful Orthodox Christian requirements I’ve come to practice in my life? The truth is, I can check off my list of spiritual “to dos” and still never be one bit worthy of the kind of love Christ pours out to me in His Body and Blood. If I live faithfully with the goal of communion with God, then the practices of faithful living become vehicles of grace. If I do them because I want to become perfect, well then, I only serve my own ego.

When I feel particularly unworthy, I reject His love and all the ways and the people through whom He tries to offer it to me. Lately I I’ve been examining this wall I build to shield myself from accepting love, and I am finding that:

  1. It’s an attempt to control Who God is (as if that’s possible) by putting His love in a small box with preconceived ideas about what that box should look like.
  2. It comes from a deep belief that I am not worthy of His or anyone else’s love unless I first meet certain “criteria” of goodness.

In essence, I think I must earn love and grace. Both reasons are filled with egotism, but both are also a result of being influenced by broken, well-intentioned people who also thought themselves unworthy of love unless they were “perfect.”

When we shift our understanding of perfection to its true meaning of complete communion, all our relationships will be revisited in a novel light. My first reaction as a presvytera when I see my “grown children,” that is, my fellow parishioners, falling short of the idol of perfection is not always to be merciful or gentle with them. I sometimes have imaginary conversations with certain “difficult” parishioners in which I lay down some of the best guilt trips I’ve ever heard, if I do say so myself. Then, perhaps my guardian angel or maybe my conscience reminds me where guilt trips landed my own soul, and I start praying for eyes to see the good in people again. Sometimes I go too far to an extreme, not wishing to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and I fail to speak the truth when it needs to be spoken. This response is not fully in a spirit of love either. Love calls for truth-telling, but humble truth-telling, “lest we ourselves be tempted” (Gal 6:1).

I am not the most seasoned presvytera, but I have a few years under my belt in this unique and challenging role. I have hurt people with my high expectations of them and lived to regret it. I would much rather “err on the side of mercy” as a wise priest once said, than injure souls by “salting” my words and attitudes so much that people feel weighed down with “burdens too heavy to bear.” (Luke 11:46)

I share this reflection with you, my fellow servants in Christ’s vineyard, as a hope to break the cycle of unhealthy perfectionism. I think many of us suffer from its effects. Let’s examine our understanding of perfection and offer it to the Lord to be sanctified. Then, trusting that He far exceeds our expectations and predefined images, we can become open to receiving His love from whomever, and however, and whenever, He so chooses to offer it. And, when we accept it in spite of our imperfections, we will learn not to “prevent others from entering” (Luke 11:52) into His complete, all-embracing, perfect Love, by expecting them to be perfect first.

[1] Muse, Stephen. “Good Enough.” Being Bread, Orthodox Research Institute, 2013, pp. 35-36.