The Perfect Imperfect

Sunflower mandala.
The Perfect Imperfect 1: Reading of this post.

Perfectionism is an issue. From my training as a scientist I know that accuracy and detail is important: it makes the scientific conclusions drawn from valid data as rigorous as possible, without overstating explanations as fact. Science is careful when it is done formally. Public perception and popular science expressing opinion are not necessarily so rigorous, and there are counter arguments presented to those opinions parading as science because the author also happens to be a scientist. My concern here is not with science, because I see no contradiction between science and religious faith. In my opinion, that argument is contrived.

I remember a distant conversation with a man, but I do not remember the occasion or circumstances, nor the man. He may have been a Muslim man, and I think that he was, and he was talking about the weavers of Persian rugs. He told me that although the patterns in the rugs are clear and logical, the weavers always weave into the rug a mistake: imperceptible, but they never make them perfect:

…because only God is perfect.

And while I do not remember the occasion or who this man was, I do remember the warmth in his voice, and the light in his eyes, when he said this. It is why the truth of it has remained with me, even when everything else around it has faded in my memory.

If you have looked at my Mandala page, and other posts where I have included a mandala image, you will know that I create these pieces of art out of prayer, and that it is a compulsion that began from an imaginative contemplation I had once on a retreat, where I was trying to express, albeit inadequately, my prayer experience: words were not enough, and neither is the art. I am still trying to express this one prayer, and it draws me deeper each time and sustains me. In the course of my journey with the mandalas, I discovered the book “How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry and was struck by the contrast in the images of the Heavenly City mandala when drawn by hand and generated by computer:

The Hand and The Computer, A Note on the Illustrations: How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry, John Michell
The Perfect Imperfect 2: Reading of this post.

The architect and geometer Jon Allen is quoted as saying:

We lose something when we use computers to draw geometry. However beguiling their mechanical precision, they lack “heart”: in some subtle way we become observers, rather than participants.

Jon Allen, Drawing Geometry, as quoted by John Mitchell, Sacred Geometry.

The second mandala in the above image, I have to acknowledge, leaves me feeling a bit cold: not because it is in black and white, but because it is too clinical. It does not move me, whereas the hand drawn one above it captures my interest much more. I know it is not an issue of colour, because I am a member of a mandala group on another social media site and I scroll past the computer generated ones, no matter how colourful they are. I am always more likely to pause to ponder those that have been hand drawn.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matt 5: 48

So what it is that draws me to those mandalas that are imperfect, and repels me about the ones that are perfect? For me, the essential element is process, or movement. In the retreat when I first created my mandala and I spent another day, as suggested by my director, writing down my journey to the final drawing, I finished with the realisation:

…it is the process itself that is important, because it is the process we engage in that skews us towards God, that draws us closer to Him, that transforms us so that we become more like Him.

God in all Things mandala, drawn at Loyola IGR, 2009.
The Perfect Imperfect 3: Reading of this post.

One of the meditations during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises is on hell. Ignatius encourages us to imagine the place of fire and brimstone, as tradition describes. I imagined however, a place where nothing every changed, where there was no stimulation to the senses at all: no sound, smell, taste, no texture to feel, neither hot nor cold, and everything was white, no shadows, colour, nothing; for all eternity, nothing. And being fully conscious of that. I screamed, there was no sound, I cried, there were no tears. I could not hear my own heartbeat nor my own breathing. To feel, even for a moment, that there was no escape from such a place was indeed hellish.

The Perfect Imperfect 4: Reading of this post.

When I see the triquetra, I do not see a static shape, I see a constant flow. It is also what I see when I look at Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, a constant flowing love between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and with a gap, where I am invited to join the flow. It is as described by Richard Rohr in “The Divine Dance”. God is constant movement. In the Contemplation to Attain Love in the Exercises Ignatius asks us to consider:

…how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors.

The Spiritual exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

As I understand it, the perfection of God is in the eternal movement of God.

St Beunos. Mandala on wood.
The Perfect Imperfect 5: Reading of this post.

The above mandala is of the labyrinth at St. Beunos, painted on wood. Normally, I would have tidied up where the colour has spilled over onto the gold by way of finishing off the mandala, and here, even though it seems sloppy and a bit embarrassing, it was clear in my prayer, that it had to be left this way. The colour spectrum represents the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit:

…does not stay between the lines.

It represents the wildness of God, that He will not confine Himself to our expectations of Him. And this is my point. When we see a pattern, our brain knows what that pattern is supposed to do. When something is off about it, we are drawn to that imperfection, it bugs us and leads us into contemplation, from the imperfect as we see it, to the perfect, as we would like it to be: it is the process, the journey, the desire for improvement.

A computer drawn mandala has no room for improvement. Any change to it leads away from perfection. If God is perfect, moving away from perfection is a movement away from God, into spiritual desolation.

However an overdrive for perfection, into the area of the law of diminishing returns, can also be spiritual desolation. I recognise it within myself, the tendency towards pride, and it leads to obsession with work and neglect of other aspects of life, such as relationships and prayer. In his book “The Me I Want to Be”, Jon Ortberg talks about “Signature Sins” . He says:

The pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts…

…it starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives.

The Me I Want to Be, Jon Ortberg

Recognising our own pattern of sin is an important movement that occurs during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

At the other end of the scale, the push for perfection can cause paralysis, rather that obsession. For example, I was helping a child with ionic bonding recently. She was refusing to draw dot/cross diagrams into her beautifully and perfectly presented exercise book because she deemed them to be messy. The unattainabilty of perfection was getting in the way of the learning process. And so the feeling of it never being good enough can get in the way of doing anything at all. It is the process that draws us to God, not the final result.

The final result, because of its imperfection, will, if we allow it, continue to draw us into this process with God.

The Perfect Imperfect 6: Reading of this post.

The mandala above was the third one I coloured on the Loyola retreat after creating this design. It was a prayer for my younger child who had been bullied at school that year by a group of three boys. The purple represents suffering, the yellow, hope; the red, faith; and the blue, love. In following the pattern, one of the shapes which should have been yellow, is in fact blue. When I realised my “mistake”, I heard Him say within me, that for a child to recover from such a thing as bullying, it takes a little more love. I knew how I needed to respond to my child when I got home from my retreat.

In our imperfection, there is God’s perfection. We live in His freedom and are open to His grace when we live in our imperfection and allow it to be the case.

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