Persevering through Imperfection, Part I

Summer is officially upon us, bringing with it a natural shift in routine. This upheaval always seems to ripple out into my prayer life, and I had grand plans to get ahead of it this year. I sat my family down in mid-May to draft a Summer Rule of Life—an individual and collective plan to prioritize prayer, attend to work, and balance both with healthy leisure time. Despite my wonderful idea, the draft was as far as we got. In my heroic efforts to be more proactive with our time, time itself snuck up on us, we were suddenly reacting to a litany of calendar events.

As I related my exasperation to the Lord in prayer, He shifted my gaze from my perception of the problem—imperfect adherence to my plan—to its root cause: self-sufficiency and perfectionism. In short, I was letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Times of Transition

True growth in the spiritual life hinges not on perfection and performance, but on perseverance and patience—especially in times of transition.

These transitions may be seismic shifts: entering a new vocation like marriage or religious life, welcoming a child, relocating, or losing a loved one. Others may be smaller but still significant in their temporal and spiritual impact: career moves, travel, sickness, family visits, and holidays.

Though we aren’t always objectively busier in new seasons, we can feel more overwhelmed because we are taxed in different ways. This overwhelm on the natural level can easily seep into the spiritual level. The temptation in such moments is to compare and despair, idolizing our spiritual “successes” in easier seasons and becoming discouraged by our “failures” in more difficult seasons.

The enemy’s goal is to keep us focused on the failures, fuel our hopelessness, and tempt us to abandon prayer in part or whole. To fight this temptation, we must seek the opposite: patience with ourselves in the face of imperfection and dogged perseverance in prayer.

Patient Perseverance

As St. Francis de Sales preached in a Lenten Sermon, “No one will be so holy in this life as not to be always subject to committing some imperfection or other. We must… not be troubled with unrealistic expectation of never committing any imperfection at all.” (Source below).

Seeking patience in our imperfections does not mean justifying them, nor does it mean giving them more power than they’re due. It means simply and confidently submitting these weaknesses to God’s mercy and trusting that in time, His divine love will purify us in the ways we need most.

A quick perusal of divine creation reveals how God is at work in the waiting and uses every season for our good. In nature, good things take time. Growth is gradual. The peach tree in my backyard takes more than a single season to bear fruit; in the process, it must endure various storms and pests. So it is in the spiritual life. When we become overly distraught by the storms and pests of life, we can neglect to water the spiritual roots that allow us to bear fruit. When we lean into God’s mercy through each season and storm, we are nurtured by His grace and sustained in gradual growth.

St. Francis de Sales reinforces this truth, saying, “We should have a strong and constant resolution never to be so cowardly as to commit any imperfection voluntarily. But we ought also to be unshaken in this other resolution: not to be astonished or troubled at seeing that we are subject to fall into these imperfections, even often. We must rather confide ourselves to the goodness of God who, for all that, does not love us less.”

As we seek greater patience with ourselves, we are reminded that God also offers abundant supernatural help through His Sacrament of Healing. Each time we bring our wounds and shortcomings to the confessional, we receive the particular grace we need to combat these very weaknesses. St. Francis de Sales puts it this way: “In short, let us for our part do what we can and remain in peace about the rest.”

This brings us to perseverance. How can we practically persist in prayer while enduring imperfection, especially in seasons of change?

Little Changes, Firm Commitments

First, we must “hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9). This means holding fast to prayer despite distractions, fatigue, or discouragement. You might be tempted to overhaul your Rule of Life or prayer commitments in times of transition, but the old adage applies: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Those seismic life events are sometimes an exception, in which case you may need to intentionally discern and adjust your commitments (we’ll explore this in Part II). Most times of transition, however, invite us to double down. In his fifth rule of discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola cautions us that we should never change a spiritual practice in a time of desolation. This includes such times of upheaval that might tempt us to spiritual discouragement; it is these times when we need the grace of prayer more—not less.

Instead of a major overhaul, sometimes just a few small tweaks can help you persevere in prayer. When I was dealing with mounting chronic illness, I found it difficult to go to pray daily in our Lord’s presence at my parish as I preferred. Instead, I began to pray from home a bit later in the day. This allowed me to maintain my original prayer commitment, just at a slightly different time and place. As a result, my prayer life flourished.

You could consider a new time for daily Mass, pray outside or during your commute, try journaling or sketching during mental prayer, or switch up your spiritual reading for a fresh take. There’s often more flexibility than you might realize within the commitments you’ve already established.

Above all, we must recognize our own poverty when it comes to persevering through imperfection. Don’t let perfectionist expectations become the enemy of the good. If you fall short in the morning, begin again in the afternoon. If you don’t succeed one day, simply start again the next. Leave your shortcomings in the confessional, then forge ahead with the strength of God’s grace.

Apart from God, we can do nothing, so our continual recourse must be to beg for the graces of patience and perseverance, especially when difficult seasons assail us (John 15:15). As we do, God promises us that He will absolutely work all things together for our good—including every last imperfection—no matter the season (Romans 8:28).

*Source: Wisdom from the Lives and Letters of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal by Louise Perrotta. The Word Among Us Press. Fredrick, MD. Page 92.

Image: Depositphotos

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