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On the Importance of C+ Work in Human Formation

May 10, 2023

Students in Robert Malinoski’s high school mathematics classes earned their grades. As a young child in the 1970s, I remember my dad describing an exchange with his dissatisfied pupil:

“Mr. Malinoski, I can’t believe you gave me an F in Geometry!”

“You earned your F in this class,” my father clarified.

Dad declared, “I’ve never given any student any grade in any of my classes.” Rather, the grades recorded were an actual, accurate reflection of the students’ mastery of mathematics. Dad was fair in his grading. A “C” meant “satisfactory work.” A “C+” meant a smidge better than satisfactory work.

Celebrating a C+

In today’s reflection, I’m focusing on how your C+ in human formation work is something to celebrate.

But first, a quick review. For the past six weeks, we have been exploring the importance of solid human formation, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person (see here for the archive of these weekly reflections). Here’s the definition of human formation we are using:

Human formation is the lifelong process of natural development, aided by grace, by which a person integrates all aspects of his interior emotional, cognitive, relational, and bodily life, all his natural faculties in an ordered way, conformed with right reason and natural law so that he is freed from natural impediments to trust God as His beloved child and to embrace God’s love. Then, in return, because he knows and possesses himself, he can love God, neighbor, and himself with all his natural being in an ordered, intimate, personal, and mature way.

Let us take a look at the reasons for celebrating a C+:

Earning a C+ means you took the course in human formation – you didn’t skip class

Most Catholics, in my experience, rarely if ever deliberately consider their human formation. Even among those who do, many never systematically work on becoming better formed in the natural realm as a human person. Some make efforts of one kind or another, but those efforts are often piecemeal and haphazard, inconsistent and misdirected, superficial and temporary.

And this lack of focus and sustained effort in human formation is understandable for many reasons:

  1. Human formation, while frequently mentioned in Church documents, has generally remained either undefined or only briefly defined (see my weekly reflection here).
  2. Teachers and mentors of deliberate, thoughtful human formation are often lacking in family life and in the broader culture; thus, many Catholics are not aware of the process or the fruits of solid human formation, having never seen this work modeled.
  3. Many devout Catholics de-emphasize or even ignore the natural realm in their pursuit of spiritual goods or personal holiness, which can lead to spiritualizing and spiritual bypassing.
  4. When faced with difficulties in the natural realm (e.g., emotional, psychological, relational, or other human formation deficits), many devout Catholics manifest a distinct preference to attribute these problems as being spiritual in nature. For example, it seems more desirable to interpret one’s natural-level experience as a “dark night of the soul” or as “being under attack by the enemy” rather than to more accurately understand a clinical depression, unresolved grief, anger turned inward, social alienation, or any one of many other natural conditions which cause unrest inside a person.
  5. Perfectionism gets in the way.

You showed up

Earning a C+ in your human formation means you took the course. You took on the challenge of your own human formation. You allowed yourself to be living clay, to be formed and reformed by God, directly and through His agents. And you did a satisfactory job, you earned a satisfactory grade, you didn’t just dabble in the course by auditing it. You engaged, you entered the arena and did battle.

Humility in progress

Let’s shift gears for a moment.

It seems axiomatic to me that the more critical something is, the less precisely we fallen human beings can do it.

Let’s take love as an example.

Imagine hearing your fellow parishioner at coffee hour exclaim: “I possess the ability to love with great effectiveness and efficiency, with precision and perfection. It is a gift.” Would Mother Teresa herself make such a claim? No! An assertion like this is unnatural, even creepy. We instinctively recognize the absurdity of such an overarching claim to perfection.

We need to have the childlikeness and the humility to be able to make many, many mistakes of commission in our human formation in order to avoid the great mistake – the mistake of omission in our human formation. The mistake of burying our talent out of fear or shame and withdrawing from the arena of human formation. The mistake of settling for what we have and who we are in the natural realm.

In our fallen human condition, the most important aspects of our lives – love, relationships, parenting, and integrity, for example – are imperfect, untidy, approximate, messy. In none of these areas will we be A+ students. With our imperfect – but consistent – efforts at human formation, we can be at peace with a C+ in these areas. With humility we can be content and trust that God’s perfection will fill in all of the gaps in our parenting, relationships, growth in virtue, etc.

Perfectionism is a weed

Several years ago, I hired two high school students to weed the strawberry beds on our little farm. These very diligent high school students were eager to please, toiling in the hot sun until at the end of their shift, not a single weed remained in the area where they labored.

Excellent job, right? Sounds like perfection, right?

Wrong.

These young, perfectionistic, well-intentioned workers had indeed pulled each and every weed, even the tiniest weed sprout in the 12 linear feet of garden in which they worked. But the other 78 feet of strawberry beds remained unweeded and in jeopardy of being choked off by their omission.

Granted, my instructions for the new farm hands were less than explicit and their training was insufficient. Nevertheless, this example reflects the reality that many of us Catholics have parts that strive for a kind of perfectionism that hampers our ability to see the big picture and grasp the right course of action. We fail to realize how often “The best is the enemy of the good,” as Voltaire famously said. We prefer the mistake of omission (not engaging) to the inevitable mistakes of commission in honest attempts at change and growth in human formation.

I go into much detail about the subtle and varied forms of perfectionism in Interior Integration for Catholics episode 85 titled Perfectionism: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

Bearing much fruit

We are to have high aspirations – our Lord himself said “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew. 5:48). But as J. Steven Covington writes for Catholic Answers Magazine in this article:

To describe the type of perfection Jesus is trying to convey in both [Matthew] 5:48 and 19:21, Matthew uses the Greek word teleios, an adjective which defines something as being complete, something which is “whole,” “fully grown,” “final.” Teleios may itself be a translation of the Semitic word tamim, which also conveys something which has become “whole” and “complete.”

That completeness or wholeness is what we seek in our human formation – it is more of a question of interior integration, relational connection, ordered dispositions, and maturity than of behavioral faultlessness. And we can only get there by engaging in life, being willing to make the mistakes of commission as Fr. Jacques Philippe emphasizes in Searching for and Maintaining Peace:

The behavior that is most perfect is not that which corresponds to the image that we sometimes form ourselves of perfection, such as comportment that is impeccable, infallible, and spotless. Rather it is one where there is the most disinterested love of God and the least prideful pursuit of oneself. One who accepts to be weak, small, and who fails often, who accepts to be nothing in his own eyes or in the eyes of others, but who, without being excessively preoccupied with the situation, because he is animated by a great confidence in God and knows that his love is infinitely more important and counts ever so much more than his own imperfections and faults, this person loves more than one who pushes the preoccupation of his own perfection to the point of anxiety. [p. 79].

This is why Mary Magdalene, who loved Jesus so much and had so much confidence in Him was so much closer to perfection than the gnat-straining Pharisees who sought absolute adherence to the Mosaic Law, believing it to be the highest expression of the will of God.

Courageously doing C+ work

You and I are finite beings with limited capacities on both the natural and spiritual levels. Given our limitations, we need to be thoughtful and discerning about how we approach our human formation work.

Discalced Carmelite Abbot Marc Foley’s introduction for Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Study Edition explains:

The command “Be ye perfect…” does not enjoin us to strive for a flawless performance in the various tasks of life, but to do them as God wills us. We feel driven to do an A+ job on projects in which we have overinvested our egos. But doing God’s will often demands the courage to do a C+ job because God bids us to spend our time and energy on other tasks. There is an unhealthy striving for perfection which psychologists call perfectionism. Perfectionism is the state of being driven to achieve a standard of perfection in an area of life that is fueled by either the fear of failure or the need for approval. This unhealthy striving is not the type of perfection to which God calls us. [pp. 40-41, emphasis added].

This passage is one of the most cherished, enlightening, and comforting passages for me (and my parts).

God understands our limitations. He delights in our littleness, our messiness and our attempts, however feeble.

In teaching a little toddler to feed himself we applaud his attempts even as some food is seemingly wasted and the ensuing mess requires bathing and mopping. We cheer him on and gently coach him as he learns the new skill. His messy, awkward mistakes of commission in learning to self-feed are no barrier to our encouragement and patient nurturing.

How much more will God help us in our human formation, in our attempts to love if we make the effort. Let us allow God and Mary, our primary parents, to form us like little children. God doesn’t expect us to be profitable (see Luke 17:10) – what He wants from us is a willingness to risk everything in loving Him wholeheartedly, with all of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Consider Jesus’ particular affection for St. Peter: Peter was imperfect, impulsive, and inconsistent, yet he was willing to put himself out there, to take risks and learn by trial and error. Although far from perfect, Peter was the one chosen to be the first pope, the first Vicar of Christ in our Church. His lack of perfection was no obstacle to fulfilling his unique mission.

Imitating St. Peter

In Abbot Foley’s quote above, you can hear the echo of the Pareto Principle, sometimes known as the 80/20 rule, which (in a nutshell) says that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes, or otherwise stated, you get 80% of the benefits from the first 20% of your effort. To get the last 20% of the benefit will require four more times the effort.

I work about four hours to write each of these weekly reflections from start to finish. My Collaborator part has perfectionistic tendencies, and so does my Good Boy part, especially when they are not in right relationship with my innermost self. Those parts would prefer to spend many more hours perfecting them. However, giving in to that desire would limit the ongoing generation of good content.

Applying the Pareto Principle lens to the process of writing these weekly reflections (getting 80% of the benefit from the first 20% of my effort) reflects a possibility of writing five reflections at the C+ level vs. one at the A+ level. Which would you prefer?

Moreover, the flaws, the imperfections, the idiosyncrasies, etc. can make my writing more human, more accessible, more approachable, and give the Holy Spirit more space to work. Those flaws and imperfections also help with humility – as St. Faustina wrote in her diary: The knowledge of my own misery allows me, at the same time, to know the immensity of Your mercy. [para. 56]. I am reminded of how God is the primary agent of any good I can produce.

I learn the same lessons in homesteading. Pam, the kids, and I have a five-acre integrated homestead with chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep, cows, bees, an orchard, vineyard, berry patches, gardens, and pastures. We can’t manage all of that perfectly – if I wanted to homestead perfectly, we would have to reduce our scope down to growing one tomato plant in a five-gallon bucket on the deck. But there is so much grace that is at work in the imperfections. Romans 8:28 includes our imperfections in human formation: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Weeding out perfectionism

I am concerned that some of the idealistic ways that human formation can be presented in Catholic circles might foster a kind of perfectionism. The Program for Priestly Formation Sixth Edition uses highly aspirational language that can make the milestones and markers seem unattainable to seminarians; I don’t know of many Catholics who match the descriptions of the human formation achievements provided therein. And Fr. Robert Anello in his article “In the Beginning, there were Bells” (see this downloadable PDF) writes:

At the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Albert Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, showed himself to be several decades ahead of his time when he advocated what would later be referred to as human formation. He did this by simply paraphrasing Pius XII: “You need in a sense to be a perfect man before you can be a perfect priest.”

That kind of language feels to me like it could foster a self-focused pursuit of perfection at the expense of a deep, personal, intimate – and messy — relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother.

Let us recall how Jesus commissioned Peter to lead the Church. Jesus said in Matthew 16:18-29:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Imagine if St. Peter, upon receiving this commission, had replied, “Ummm, thank you Jesus, that is an amazing offer. But as I’ve said before, I’m a sinful, imperfect specimen of a man. First, give me some time to perfect myself and rise to more of Your stature so that I will be worthy of the position. I’m only a C+ at the moment — can’t this next assignment wait until I earn my A+?”

Let’s keep our ears and eyes open for the Lord’s invitation to serve Him, to authentically love Him, ourselves and our neighbors in our messiness, in our woundedness, in our attempts, however lacking they may be given our limitations. Let’s continue trudging along at our human formation and remind ourselves often that God delights in our C+.

The Resilient Catholics Community is here to help with your human formation homework

It’s extremely difficult to tread the path of human formation alone. The RCC provides a very structured year-long human formation program with many resources and the support of other like-minded and like-hearted Catholics in small companies, all journeying together toward better human formation.  The camaraderie and connection in the companies and with your companions are essential on this pilgrimage.

Discerning applying to the RCC

If you are on the fence about applying to the RCC, remember that application is part of the discernment process – just because you apply doesn’t obligate you to join us. You can check out our 19-minute experiential exercise to help you discern about applying to the RCC.

As part of your application, you will also receive our PartsFinder Pro (PFP) – this is a set of measures that takes about two hours to complete, and at least two members of our staff generate a five- or six-page PFP report that details our understanding of your hypothesized parts and the possible ways they interact within you. You can download a PDF for a sample fictional report for a man and a woman. This is not psychological assessment, but rather a more informal way of generating ideas about your parts how the align and polarize within you in various ways. That whole process helps to determine if the RCC is a good fit for you.

If you are considering applying to the RCC but aren’t sure if it is right for you, or if you have questions, you can also me a call on my cell – 317.567.9594 – any Tuesday and Thursday this May from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time. It would be great to hear from you.

Be With the Word for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Join Dr. Gerry and me for our 47-minute Be With the Word episode titled The Real Reason to Be Obedient for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. We discuss how parental enforcement of obedience affects our perception of being obedient to God as well as how we tend to avoid seeking the root causes of our psychological attitudes and issues. Dr. Gerry and I share the Mass readings out loud here.

Thank you, Dad

Just a word of gratitude to you, Dad, for being a good teacher, a real Catholic man, and a fine father. I love you, Dad.

Warm regards in the Risen Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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