There are three serious misperceptions—really heresies by official church statements—which have deeply distorted the reading of the Scriptures and much spirituality for the last few hundred years: Pelagianism, Jansenism, and perfectionism. They overlap and reveal the same problem, which I would call “spiritual capitalism.” “I can do it, and I must do it, and I will do it” might be its common philosophy.
This is the early-stage ego speaking. It puts all the emphasis on me and my effort and my spiritual accomplishments, and has little active trust in one’s total reliance upon grace and mercy. The driving energy is unfortunately fear and more effort instead of quiet confidence and gratitude—which moves spirituality into an entirely different ballpark. It is now about climbing instead of surrendering. The first feels good, the second feels like falling or failing, or even like dying. Who likes that? Certainly not the false self or the ego. The ego always wants to feel that it has “achieved” salvation somehow. Grace and forgiveness are always a humiliation for the ego.
Pelagianism, surely attributed wrongly to the Irish monk Pelagius (early fifth century), seemed to suggest that we could achieve salvation by our own willpower and effort. It underplayed the importance and universal availability of grace and God’s choice and guidance. Although condemned as heresy early on by the Church and later by the Council of Trent, much of the church has still continued to operate in a Pelagian way itself. We assumed that because we condemned it, we were not doing it. It is an ecclesiastical form of “reaction formation” (meaning overcoming your own anxiety about something characteristic of yourself by exaggeration of the opposite as if it were true—e.g., a deeply angry person saying, “I have little patience with angry people,” which allows them to think that they are not one of “those”!)
Most mainline Christians pay sincere lip service to grace and mercy, but in the practical order it is almost entirely about performance and moral achievement. It is just the moral issues that change, or the precise techniques of salvation where the imperial and individual “I” must push the right spiritual buttons. Paul and Luther were right on, although most Lutherans and Evangelicals fell right back into a much more disguised form of “works righteousness,” as they called it. They were indeed “saved by grace,” but it sure had to be their form of grace, and inside their categories of meaning. Catholics, early Anabaptists, and gays were clearly not in on the deal of salvation by grace.
Jansenism was named after a Dutch theologian and bishop, Cornelius Jansen (d. 1638), who emphasized moral austerity and a fear of God’s justice more than any trust in God’s mercy. God was wrathful, vindictive, and punitive, and all the appropriate Scriptures were found to make these very points. It is hard to find a Western Christian—Catholic or Protestant—who has not been formed by this Christian form of Pharisaism, which is really pagan Stoicism. It strongly influenced most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholicism in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Germany, and still lingers on in much pre– Vatican II Catholicism all over the world. Although it was officially condemned as a heresy by Rome in 1715, it is still quite common, especially, it seems to me, among people who have had punitive and angry parenting patterns. This is the way they comfortably shape their universe and their God. They actually prefer such a God—things are very clear, and you know where you stand with such a deity—even though this perspective leaves almost all people condemned and is a very pessimistic and fearful worldview.
The common manifestation of these ever-recurring patterns might simply be called perfectionism. The word itself is taken from a single passage in Matthew 5:48, where Jesus tells us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Of course, perfection as such is a divine or a mathematical concept and has never been a human one. Jesus offers it as guidance for how we can love our enemies, which he has just spoken of (5:43-47), and is surely saying that we cannot obey this humanly impossible commandment by willpower but only by surrendering to the Divine Perfection that can and will flow through us.
In other words, we of ourselves cannot be perfect, but God is—yet we used this one passage to give people the exact opposite impression that they could indeed be perfect in themselves! This did untold damage in convents and monasteries all over the world, leading many to leave or, more commonly, split their personality, when they could not, in fact, be “perfect.” The New Jerusalem Bible wisely translates this verse as “You must set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” “Not setting bounds” is another way of trusting in grace and guidance. It is not saying, “If you would just try harder, you could do it.”
Pope John Paul II, in his proclamation of St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a Doctor of the Church, said that “She has made the Gospel shine appealingly in our time. . . . she helped to heal souls of the rigors and fears of Jansenism, which tended to stress God’s justice rather than God’s mercy. In God’s mercy she contemplated and adored all the divine perfections, because, as in her own words, ‘even his justice seems to me to be clothed in love.’”
Thérèse rightly named this spirituality her “Little Way.” It was nothing more than a simple and clear recovery of the pure Gospel message! It was she (and Francis of Assisi!) who gave me the courage as a young man to read the Scriptures through this primary lens of littleness instead of some possible bigness. This changed everything. The true Gospel is a path of descent, and not ascent. It is totally amazing we could miss this message given the rejection, betrayal, passion, and crucifixion of Jesus as our primary and central template for redemption. We piously thanked Jesus for doing this instead of following Jesus on the same inevitable and holy path
The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . .