The Pain of Perfectionism

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee

The pain of legalism is the pain of perfection. No matter the religion, the task , the opportunity, it is a deep rooted need to be parallel with rules, with something tangible and real, with something that aligns your desire to tear off your old skin and make it new again. Legalism is grasping and real and desirable because it is something to align yourself with when the pain becomes to unbearable. It is a real place to go, a set of absolutes to follow when you are drowning in a world of uncertainty. And while many find legalism abhorrent and counter-cultural or even more so so very “Catholic,” legalism really has less to do with religiosity and more to do with the pain of perfection. It is the trauma of a neglected child begging to be loved by their parents, an abused child struggling to make sense of their broken body, and the abandoned child, hungry for the love of something. So when you tell me my legalism is so very Catholic, I will tell you that what is so very Catholic is what ultimately freed me.

For those of us scrambling from the pain of wanting to be loved, we lean into legalism in all of our endeavors. I learned early on that sexual abuse manifests itself in perfectionism for some, and when perfectionism cannot be attained the suffering ensues. So we search for something real, something we can hold on to to attain this great level of perfection. It is ultimately in rules that we find our comfort, sticking to rigidity within ourselves, cleaving to unattainable goals and words that always fall short and are imperfect. It is the reason I haven’t written in so long. The words were not perfect, the topic was not perfect, and so it just couldn’t come out, lest it offend someone or something or attain some level of criticism that I just didn’t want to bear. So instead I prayed, But not just prayed I ceased to exist in rote prayer.

At first this routine started innocent enough for me. A beautiful devotion to a specific set of prayers, leaving it all to God and surrendering myself as if I did not exist. I found the prayers comforting as I often do when I find prayers that I can cling to. But after awhile, I found myself flat and falling, longing to have a conversation with God but not dare move from my Rule that I created for my self. I find myself entering this pattern often but never recognized it until last Sunday. I was preparing a talk for a group of women for an upcoming retreat when the “light switch” went off for me. That hadn’t happened in a long time. And while usually the darkness is a scary place for me, this time it was not. I knew where I was . It was not unfamiliar.

So I groped around for awhile before reading my talk and like the song in Chorus Line, “I felt nothing.” That same numbness had returned. But it was not vicious this time, it was there when I read my talk and recounted my childhood, my abuse and the betrayal of my dearest friend. I walked out of the room after reading the talk as if nothing happened, because nothing did. The lights were still out.

After an enlightening talk with my sister, I called my godmother to help me through the weeds. I could see a hint of light out in a far distance but I could not get there. We talked for quite some time about healing, letting go and resentment. I love her and wanted to feel, but I couldn’t. No matter, because she has been there and understands. I have learned to listen to her and follow her direction even when I don’t understand. I do that because I recognize the far reaching power of God to send a human being to be there in our suffering. Karen is the embodiment of Jesus to me.

So I started to do what she told me. That will remain between me and her. But the lights just wouldn’t go on, and I stewed, I kept on with my morning routine until I could not bare it. After many months I stopped reading the prayers and asked God what He wanted me to do. I felt the burden start lifting.

As soon as I put down the prayers, the unthinkable happened. My daughter was injured in a horseback riding accident. But because I was feeling nothing, I was able to keep it together for her. It was you are ok, solemn reassurance,. quiet ride to the hospital, prayer over her with great authority and a diagnosis of a compressed vertebrae with no tears from me. She saw my steadfastness and took it on as her own cloak of blessed assuredness. No more tears, no anxiety. “Because, ” I told her with firm resoluteness, “You will be ok. You will ride again.” And that’s all she needed to hear.

With my firmness came a bit of light. I was unmoved and not frightened. I was a rock.

And she went to school the next day and I went to work. And I didn’t pray those prayers again, instead I just went with my spirit. My morning holy hour was the daily church readings, some time in adoration and reading a newfound book recommended to me by a newfound friend, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. And I felt free.

In Thanksgiving for God sparing my daughter from serious injury, my heart flooded with the want to thank Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. So I fled to Adoration and sat with Him, while I texted with my husband about my own pain.

Giving thanks to God started to allow me to feel something. It wasn’t on the calendar for that day, but my break in my legalistic routine gave rise to the Lord of my life. I began once again to feel the great joy of freedom that only Christ can bring.

And a funny thing happened. I got several emails out of nowhere from people who had either watched my story or read my recent piece on the Coming Home Network- A Jewish Girl’s Journey to Christ. And the flood of emotion I felt from receiving emails from complete strangers whose life I had somehow touched felt overwhelming. My words somehow got through to them. And somehow despite my brokenness and imperfect words, they heard God.

And I went back to the scripture that I studied just yesterday,

“Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The Old is good,” Luke 5:38

The biblical note found an opening in me this morning.

Satisfaction with old forms will prevent one from sampling the new

Astounding…

It is so true that old habits die hard, and deep wounds are the hardest to heal. And when I let go, the light began to flow back in and it wasn’t so dark anymore. And when I asked a good friend why God had chosen me, a broken vessel to be an advisor to men who were both kings and prisoners, he said something very profound. “You are accepting and loving.” That was so simplistic for me. Isn’t everyone?

“No,” he said.

Hmmmm…

So I wrestled with that, lights not fully on yet. What was keeping me in the dark? Why did God choose me to speak to men when I myself was so broken? If they only knew, they would surely turn away. Or maybe that was the exact reason they were not.

I went to bed and woke up determined to find the cause of why the lights went out. As I answered the various emails I had received about my story, my heart flooded with the greatest rush of joy as I recounted my conversion, how I overcame trauma and what and who had helped me along the way.

And I realized in that moment that I had gone back to my old ways. That perfectionism is comfortable and known and that legalism is comfortable and known and that’s why I was stifled, that’s why the lights went out. Because in telling my story sometimes I am triggered to go back and be that person again, and because again and again God makes me tell it. Is that not the conundrum of the cross? Is that not the fiery furnace?

So I released a breath and the lights flipped back on again. God designed me to be free- this is His Holy Spirit. To follow Him wherever He goes, again and again leading me back into the pain so he can go deeper, so he can root out the wounds that plague me, so he can make me better, so that I can be His vessel of light to another fellow journeyman.

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. Acts 9:18

Listen to Open Up Let the Light In

Shallow

*Please listen to the song as you read

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Luke 1:30 (b)

“Your name spoken is a spreading perfume.” Song of Songs 1:3

The movie “A Star is Born” paints the picture of a deep and painful love, rooted in complications of artistry, song, alcoholism and fame. And although the movie itself is “surface,” that appears to be the point; that we ourselves are surface; that we become numb and immovable based on our responses to the world. And while we may not use alcohol or substances to fill that void and become “surface” we use other things; the portrayal of ourselves on social media, the deep seed of deceit among friends, the veil that exists on our tears. We all, to a certain extent, are the alcoholic and addict portrayed in Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie- we are afraid to live our own truth.

As a sexual abuse survivor, I often find myself in this position- questioning my authenticity, my outsides. Without something to numb the pain, can I be my authentic self? Is Jesus enough?

In the last two months I have found myself before the crucified body of our Lord too many times to count. I try to identify with all the good that came from the crucifixion, but I find myself melting into God’s voice as he calls me intimately into his suffering, and I cannot stop myself from falling madly in love with him. 

You see my love story with God is a painful one, so I can identify with the very “surface” story of this movie which forces me to remember my own unwillingness at times to go deeper with God; to remember the way in which he called me. In horrific pain-no middle, a dark hole, lost.

I am reminded of my love for him in the rest of the verses in Song of Songs

Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth, 

for your love is better than wine,

better than the fragrance of your perfumes,

Your name is a flowing perfume-therefore young women love you

And at first glance these very shallow and intimate verses appear to be just that- surface and I’ve heard it all before. To a survivor, it may appear to be a line to get me to be physically closer to you, something to reel me in.

But to a survivor who has a love affair with God, it is the realness of the soul. And as much as I write before my Lord’s dangling body when I am on my knees in the chapel, is as much as he exposes me and my pain for what it is- a desire to be real, to be loved for who I am and not for who the world wants me to be.

Why Lord, is it so hard for them to love me? Why Lord is it so hard to even love myself?

Even before the crucifix, I have flashbacks- of him that took my sturdiness away from me and HIM who saved me all on my knees while the candles burn. What a haunting conundrum.

I don’t want to be shallow, I want to be deeply personal, I want to be me. And I cry out to God in my pain and ask Him to make me someone else. Someone else with another purpose. Someone who is not married to the crucifix.

But in those moments as I cry out in desperation to  be another created being, another version, one where the human slate of my soul is wiped clean from the dirty hands that touched me, more than once, I stay perfectly still.

But my story is not an anomaly, is not one, is not only me. Because from that pain comes the flowering of truth, the fighting to be myself, the pursuit of truth and justice in all things; the deeply abiding conviction to stay on the path.

It is  a supernatural overtaking to be able to thank God for your pain and disgust. To not want to find a way out, but a way in. To ask God in the midst of your pain for more, if it means the salvation of one other soul from this corrupt and morally bankrupt world.

And I cry out to my divine lover, kiss me Lord with the pain of the crucifixion so I can feel something real, something other than my shallow pain. Because your pain is meaningful and changed mine into something meaningful. And it is better than wine.

And I am left on my knees in front of Him. No longer wandering far away into the corners and recesses where I can hide, but directly to the cross where He is.