There's actually some age-old wisdom on this, and it comes from the saints.
There’s actually plenty of wisdom for the taking. We simply need turn to the people who have already gotten right.
This lesson is at the heart of Colleen Carroll Campbell’s latest book, The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s.
Campbell brings us into the lives of some of the saints – including Alphonsus Liguori, Francis of Assisi, Francis de Sales, Ignatius of Loyola, Jane de Chantal, and Thérèse of Lisieux. She talks here about how the saints can be the most practical friends for living freedom in Christ.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is it important to take time now and again to consider saints and how they relate to your life?
Colleen Carroll Campbell: So often in the spiritual life, in any challenging part of life, we think we have to reinvent the wheel. We don’t. When it comes to loving God and finding lasting joy in this world and the next, we can learn a great deal from the holy men and women who went before us. Their times and circumstances were different than ours, but their fundamental questions and struggles were the same.
Lopez: It’s more than merely occasionally reading stories of the lives of the saints for you. They are a real part of your life. When did you first realize/experience this reality you seem to capture in your books of the possibility of saints accompanying us in life? Of them being more than pious, it can seem, fairy tales?
Campbell: As I wrote in my second book, My Sisters the Saints, I loved the saints as a girl then ignored them in my teens and rediscovered them my senior year of college. That’s when my father gave me a copy of Marcelle Auclair’s biography of Teresa of Avila. The book was written in the 1950s, about a saint born in the 1500s, yet Teresa’s story spoke to me. I was experiencing the same tug-of-war in myself that Teresa described: a longing to draw near to God mixed with fear that a deeper faith would curtail my freedom. Reading about Teresa’s detours on the road to holiness, I felt I had found not just a model from the past but a spiritual sister to help me today.
Lopez: You tell one story of your children singing a saintly motto while hiking. Do you get the sense you are passing this sense of the cloud of witnesses being a normal part of life to your children?
Campbell: I’m certainly trying to pass it on! The saints are a very real part of our family life. My children read about the saints, visit their shrines and celebrate their feast days (with four kids named for several saints each, there’s always an excuse to party). Some families are big on pro athletes or Disney characters or superheroes. We’re into saints. You become what you admire, and I want my children to admire—and become—saints.
Lopez: Do you have a saint you include in the book who is really your favorite?
Campbell: St. Thérèse of Lisieux has been a favorite of mine ever since I connected with her in the midst of my father’s 12-year journey through Alzheimer’s disease, after learning how her faith helped her navigate her own father’s journey through dementia.
In researching The Heart of Perfection, I discovered a new side of Thérèse, though (with help from the excellent books of Brother Joseph Schmidt, among others). I discovered that Thérèse’s struggles with people-pleasing, hypersensitivity, and scrupulosity were part of a lifelong struggle with spiritual perfectionism, and her famous spirituality of the Little Way was the fruit not of perfectionist striving but of surrender. Thérèse wasn’t able to befriend the crankiest nun in the convent or smile after coughing up blood while battling tuberculosis or hold onto her faith through the dark night of her final 18 months of life through willpower alone. She didn’t white-knuckle her way to holiness. She relied on grace, on the promise that God loved her in and through her weakness, including those stubborn weaknesses that she couldn’t shed no matter how hard she tried. Her famous proclamation, “all is grace,” takes on new meaning when you understand it as the anthem of a recovering perfectionist.
Lopez: What do you love the most about St. Jane de Chantal? What is it about her friendship with St. Francis de Sales that is so important as a model?
Campbell: There’s so much to love about Jane. She was a hard-core striver, impetuous and passionate, and her circumstances are relatable to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed. At age 29, Jane lost the love of her life in a hunting accident and found herself widowed with four children, including a newborn. Money woes forced her to move in with nightmarish in-laws, and a local priest inadvertently contributed to her misery by pushing her toward intense fasts and all-night prayer regimens that left her teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Then Jane met St. Francis de Sales, who had suffered his own bout of spiritual perfectionism in college, and he began to lead her on a new path. He told her to focus less on holy heroics and self-punishment than on “the little virtues” of humility, simplicity, patience and gentleness—including gentleness to herself.
It was a tough switch for Jane, who found it easier to ride nine miles each way to daily Mass than to answer cheerfully when interrupted or show gentleness to her obnoxious in-laws. Gradually, though, she internalized the reality of God’s unconditional love for her and grew into a patron saint of gentleness, one who shared with others the truth that had set her free: that “the best practice of the virtue of patience in the spiritual life is bearing with oneself in failure and feebleness of will.”
Jane is proof that recovery from perfectionism is possible in any circumstances, with any personality. And her friendship with Francis—and the fruit that friendship bore in the religious community they co-founded and countless lives they touched—reminds us that when we break free of the perfectionist trap, we point others to freedom, too.
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