An Unspeakable Perfect Miracle

March 18, 2023

If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be.
-- Yogi Berra

"To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakable perfect miracle,” said Walt Whitman, a poet given to meme-worthy ecstatic utterances.  One can’t help wondering whether he walked the same earth as the rest of us.  And yet Whitman was witness to some of the worst carnage in the American Civil War and was anything but starry-eyed.  At age 43, he had traveled to the front after the bloodbath at Fredericksburg in 1862, searching for a younger brother whom he feared was mortally wounded.  He found his brother George had been only slightly injured in battle, but the sights that greeted him left an indelible impression.  Visiting a nearby field hospital, he recounted, “Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc. -- about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”  Whitman was so moved by his experience that he relocated to Washington, DC, took a job as a clerk in a government office and spent all his free time for the remainder of the war visiting the wounded and dying in area military hospitals.

Whitman’s having witnessed the worst of humanity begs the question of what he could possibly have meant when he said that every hour of day and night was an unspeakably perfect miracle.  Even those who are spiritually minded are apt to concede that this world is a vale of tears and that perfection can only be found in the Great Beyond.  For Buddhists, the process of finding perfection can take many lifetimes.  Clearly, Whitman’s understanding of perfection must have differed radically from what we normally mean by the term.

The word “perfection” comes from the Greek root telos, meaning “end” or “goal.”  In other words, it implies a process with perfection as the end state.  As a fine arts photographer who works with a digital camera, I regard the taking of a picture as merely the first step in the process that usually involves considerable manipulation of the raw image using Photoshop and other software.  I may adjust the exposure, crop the picture, sharpen the focus, lighten or darken certain elements within the picture and carefully remove any imperfections that I may find.  The process is painstaking and can take considerable time — certainly far longer than the fraction of a second required to snap the picture in the first place. The result is never perfect, but it is as close to perfect as I can make it, given my level of skill and experience. 

Like my photography workflow, spiritual perfection is a painstaking process that involves the removal of imperfections and many other adjustments.  In Christianity, it is known as sanctification, which literally means "to set apart for special use or purpose” — in this case, transforming a raw Christian into the very image of a saint.  Orthodox Christianity takes it a step further in a process called theosis, or deification, inspired by St. Athanasius’ statement that “God became man so that man can become God.”  There are sharp differences among Christian denominations as to whether perfect union with God is even possible on this side of the grave.  Martin Luther eventually came to realize the utter futility of his striving for perfection — or indeed of any moral self-improvement — if salvation were the aim.  Earlier, the Buddha had pretty much reached the same conclusion and abandoned asceticism as a path to enlightenment.  He famously resolved to do nothing but sit under a bodhi tree until he found what was looking for.

If perfection is our aim, then we must first deal with the fact that mankind was created in God’s image, at least according to our biblical creation story.  If that is our starting point, where do we find room for improvement?  The creation story itself provides the answer.  There was one bad apple that threw everything into disarray: the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate when God told them not to.*  So whose fault was that?  The miscreants were clueless.  The serpent put them up it, but who made the serpent the “subtlest of God’s creatures,” if not God himself?  You could make the case that God himself introduced imperfection into his creation.

According to an old Persian proverb, a Persian rug is “perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise.”  Traditional rug makers deliberately weave minor flaws into their hand-made carpets because God alone is perfect, and it would be impious to strive for perfection.  But perhaps they need not have bothered.  Suppose God had deliberately woven imperfections into his own creation so that the whole enterprise is perfectly imperfect and precisely imprecise? 

Surely it is within God’s power — if, indeed, God exists — to make his creation without flaws.  So why would he bother to produce creatures in his own image and then leave them to the tender mercies of the wily serpent that he himself introduced into the Garden of Eden?  The whole thing looks like a deliberate set-up.  The question is why.  

The problem with perfection is that it is the final state of a process, not the beginning or any intermediate stage.  If life were perfect, it wouldn’t be life; it would be a vast tableau vivant, a simulacrum of life in which nothing ever changed. Had Adam and Eve eaten the fruit from the Tree of Life, they might have lived forever in a childlike state of perfection. But the serpent promised them they would become like God if they ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil instead.  As it happened, the serpent spoke the truth.  The Lord acknowledged as much when he said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”  

How is it that knowing good and evil makes you like God?  If God is perfect, where is the evil, unless he made it part of his perfectly imperfect creation?  The preamble to the U.S. Constitution declares that the document is intended to form a more perfect union, establish justice and insure domestic tranquility.  And yet in countenancing the evil of slavery, the Constitution set the nation up for the catastrophic failure of the Civil War.  Thus, Walt Whitman was greeted by the sight of amputated feet, legs, arms and hands heaped up outside a field hospital near Fredericksburg in 1862. 

We might be forgiven for concluding that Whitman’s experience at Fredericksburg was an unspeakable perfect hell.  And so it was, a perfectly imperfect flaw woven into the carpet of God’s creation.  Toward what end?  Alas, we are not given to know the end.  We know only that the carnage suffered in the American Civil War did lead to a more perfect union, although it is still far from perfect.  The painstaking process of removing imperfections continues.    

“You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you,” the 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade instructed.  We turn our eye to the horizon, but it is never given us to know more than the next step.  “We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one before or the one to come,” de Caussade said.  He goes on: “No moment is trivial, since each one contains a divine Kingdom, and heavenly sustenance.”  This perhaps is what Whitman was getting at when he exulted that every hour of the day and night is an unspeakable perfect miracle.          

*The creation story in Genesis does not actually specify that the forbidden fruit was an apple, although that is generally how it is portrayed.

Genesis 3

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment


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