Imperfection and Me
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
By John Scarborough
My brother and I shared a 12x20 bedroom from 1959 to 1967. We even had our own bathroom. I leaned toward “neat and tidy,” even rearranging books and magazines on the family coffee table, adjusting slightly askew pictures throughout the house. Admiring one of these revisions, Mom once pronounced it “perfect.’’ I felt a bit embarrassed, for while I could not accept it – I had learned in Sunday School and from years of sermons that only God was perfect – I prized it, and wanted more.
Meanwhile Karl was Features Editor for the high-school newspaper, and then editor of the student newspaper at the local community college, announcing baseball games for the local American Legion, submitting sports scores to the local paper, and all this after completing a sports novel (Baxter of the Bobcats, co-authored by our Aunt Jo) when he was fifteen, which would have been impossible without a sense of internal order, and an intolerance of flattery and kowtowing. Although I complained of the assortment of books, clothes, magazines, and in-progress newspaper articles strewn about his end of the room, I admired his accomplishments.
Karl had stopped attending Sunday morning church services early on. When my parents switched from the local Methodist church to an Episcopal church in San Bruno, some 15 miles from home, I met with a group my age every Sunday morning in the living room of the rectory, just up the street from the church, on the other side of a grove of tall, fragrant eucalyptus trees. Two professors, married, led us in our discussions of books they would assign. Our first book was Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
What did WE think, they asked, was represented by the image at the beginning of the book (see below): a hat, a boa constrictor that had eaten an elephant, or something else?
Several minutes of discussion showed us that there wasn’t a correct answer.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” we read, as pointed out by the Little Prince’s persuasive friend, the fox. The prime example was the rose that had accompanied the Little Prince in his journey to Earth from his asteroid of origin, and who – or which – he had for all impractical purposes married. (Was he in love with the idea of a rose, or with this particular rose?) How, I objected, could the author, a respected writer and WWII aviator, take seriously the fancy that the drawing was of a large snake that had swallowed an even larger elephant?
I accepted for the sake of discussion that there wasn’t a correct answer. But there had to be a correct answer, even if the correct answer was that there was no “correct” answer. What if I doubted that anyone could answer correctly. My belief in God could be next on the docket.
The Little Prince, who had just landed in the Sahara desert, now asked the aviator, who had recently crashed his plane there, to draw him a sheep.
The aviator drew a box with holes in its sides and handed it to the Little Prince. He explained, “This is only a box. The sheep you asked for is inside.”
I was [said the aviator, who narrates the tale] very surprised to see a light break over the face of my young judge:
"That is exactly the way I wanted it! Do you think that this sheep will have to have a great deal of grass?"
"Because where I live everything is very small..."
"There will surely be enough grass for him," I said. "It is a very small sheep that I have given you."
He bent his head over the drawing.
"Not so small that--Look! He has gone to sleep..."
And that is how I made the acquaintance of the little prince.
What better way to illustrate “What is essential is invisible to the eye”?
I felt encouraged by the story to have confidence in my thoughts, particularly my imagination. But if God were no more real than the Little Prince’s appropriately sized sheep, why worry? It was unthinkable that Christ should lie, or not know what he was talking about, when he asked us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Why would he ask us to be perfect if it weren’t possible? What constituted perfection?
In 1968, three months after I had turned 18, I decided it was time to seek people who knew answers to these questions. A friend in my philosophy class at Seattle University, a Jesuit college, told me about Mt. Angel Abbey, a Benedictine monastery some 40 miles southeast of Portland. He had attended a high school most of whose teachers were drawn from the Abbey. He hated it! After making his bed every morning and before going to Mass, he had to place the crucifix that hung above his bed on his pillow and repeat the Rosary several times. For him this had become an unbearable torture. To me, it sounded like heaven! One June morning I set off on foot from Seattle for the Abbey, some 200 miles distant.
I hitchhiked most of the way. I arrived on Sunday morning, and was received warmly by the Guestmaster. He assigned me a room in the guesthouse, assisted me in laundering my clothes, and pointed me to the fieldhouse, where I could take a shower. Having spent the previous night sleeping in a sooty boxcar parked beside the Willamette River, I looked like a coalminer emerging, at the end of his shift, from the pit.
The next afternoon, sitting at a prep counter in the monastery kitchen, over coffee and marionberry pie, he took my questions and generously shared with me his system of beliefs. God, he said, lived on a planet in a remote part of the universe. That was heaven. If we’re good, and follow all the teachings of the Church, we’ll be given a mansion (“my father’s house has many mansions”) where we can live throughout all eternity in the Divine Presence.
I felt that my search for a person of wisdom had been set back a few paces. I began to feel, without resentment or regret, that it might be easier to understand the nature of my imperfection. If I knew the factors blocking my path, I could work on removing them one by one. But that night I met another guest in the guesthouse, who introduced me to the basic teachings of Vedanta, the philosophical foundation of Hinduism, whose principles apply equally to all cultures and religions. Its principal teaching is “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vacantia”: That which exists is One; sages call It by various names.
No wonder it had been so difficult to figure out what perfection is. Through this lens, everyone has a different perspective, even those who are said to have reached it. Jim – my fellow guest – offered to share what he had learned in his decades of association with senior swamis (i.e. monks) of the Ramakrishna Order of India. We re-connected when we had both returned to Seattle.