One of the duties that falls to a cleric such as our old friend, Mr. William Perkins, is pastoral counselling. It’s not quite like psychotherapy. It’s not an ongoing deep exploration of a person’s inner world and into what makes them tick and act the way they do. Although it might involve some psychotherapeutic methodology, it is more about listening to someone who is having a difficult time; listening, walking with them, and helping them to find a sense of their worth, their value in the sight of God, and unburden themselves of the troubles or mistakes that hold them back. Pastoral counselling holds out the hope of healing and wholeness.
One of the individuals who sought out Mr. Perkins in his pastoral capacity at Christ Church, Hampton’s Corners was a parishioner named Grace Goodham. When she had asked him on Sunday after church if she might come and see him during the week, he really had no idea what she wished to meet about. Grace was the chair of the flower guild, that group of dedicated ladies who, week by week, the season of Lent excepted, adorn the altar and the chancel with beautiful arrangements and festive appointments according to the time of year. At Easter there are lilies, at Christmas poinsettias, on Palm Sunday there are palms and pussy willows, at Harvest time there are sheaves and gourds, and at other times all manner of colourful fragrant arrangements. I can scarcely think of any other little parish church in our whole diocese that is as beautifully and tastefully appointed with flowers than the parish of Hampton’s Corners. And like the arrangements she set out every Sunday, Grace was a beautiful person, inside and out. She brought joy and life into every room she entered. Everyone loved spending time with her. It felt so good to be around her, and when you were having a bad day, she was the one who would brighten it. She seems so self-confident, so kind, so forgiving of others, and so faithful. What was it that compelled her to speak with our favourite country parson in those Lenten days in which our story takes place?
”Mr. Perkins,” she said, as she settled into the comfortable chair in his little office, “I don’t know where to begin, but… I felt like I needed to talk to you because…” She paused.
”Because?” he asked gently.
”Because I feel like such a fraud.”
Mr. Perkins was taken aback. “What do you mean?” he asked quizzically. “You must be one of the most genuine people I know.”
”That’s just it, Mr. Perkins, that’s what people think of me, but all my life I’ve had this feeling that if they only just knew me, the real me, not only wouldn’t they like me, they would hate me.”
He could not see how this was possible, but he wanted to learn more. “Tell me, just what do you think you are hiding?”
”I… I… don’t really know. I mean, I know — at least I know in my head — that I’m a good person. But I just don’t feel like I’m a good person. I do my best to try to make a difference, to be a kind person, to do everything I can to the best of my ability. As you know, I’m something of a perfectionist. I’m a bit obsessive about it, in fact,” she added.
”Oh really?” he said coyly, knowing how much of a perfectionist she was. They both gave a little laugh.
“Really,” she said, “And I can live with that, but when someone criticizes me, I just fall apart. I try so hard, I really do try to get it right, to be perfect, just like the Bible says, `Be ye perfect as thy Father in Heaven is perfect’, but I mean, how can any of us be perfect like God? It’s a bit much, don’t you think? It’s a tall order. And yet, I so want to be perfect, I strive to be perfect…”
Mr. Perkins broke in, “and you are very near perfect, my friend, but none of us are perfect. You are a perfectionist, so what? You have high standards, but you don’t enforce them nastily on other people like some perfectionists do; they are standards to which you hold yourself.”
”But I don’t think I can do it anymore… and I just collapse with self-loathing and disappointment when I think I have let someone down. When I let someone down, I feel like they see the real me, the me I keep hidden away, the failure.”
They sat for a moment in silence, and then he said, “Grace, have I ever criticized you?”
“No, but last week Judy Jumblejump…” Now Judy Jumblejump was the church warden, who found fault with everyone. “Well, she snapped at me because she told me I had better not put out so many lilies this Easter, not everyone can cope with the scent… She told me that I am… excessive.”
”Judy finds fault with everyone,” he said, “It’s her way. Don’t judge yourself on what Judy says. As I asked, have I ever criticized you? Has anyone else in this parish, aside from Judy ever criticized you?”
”No… but I’m so worried you might, that you might see me, the real me, especially if I make a mistake and then…”
”And then?” he asked.
”And then you would hate me. I’m scared you and everyone else would hate me if you really saw me — the real me.”
Now what made Grace harbour such secret self-loathing, so expertly hidden under a joyous, loving, kind-hearted exterior? It’s not easy to say, and again, this is not psychotherapy, but I expect most of us experience this sort of imposter syndrome at some time or another in our lives, in which we mistake the authentic self we project out into the world as an imposter that hides and protects our true, hidden self. Sometimes we just cannot believe we are actually good people, that others like us, and that we offer something good to the world. Mr. Perkins knew this is what was going on with Grace and so he asked her a question: “Grace, I think I get what you are talking about. When I was singing the liturgy on Sunday, what happened?”
”What do you mean?”
”Did I sing it perfectly?”
”Well,” she began tentatively, not wanting to hurt his feelings, “I think last Sunday you might have got a little tongue-tied at one moment.”
”Grace, you are too kind. I got more than tongue-tied! I lost my place, repeated the words of institution over the bread twice and didn’t consecrate the wine. I got things all out of order. My pitch went south. Grace, the liturgy was an absolute mess.”
”Oh, Mr. Perkins, it wasn’t that bad, I think most people didn’t even notice. You’re too hard on yourself.”
”Maybe I am. I was so embarrassed, though — ashamed, actually. Do you know how long I have been a priest? Did you know I learned to sing the liturgy at Trinity College? I know the whole thing by heart, I have sung it a thousand times. I have done it perfectly many times, but last Sunday it was a disaster. I should have been able to sing it perfectly but didn’t. To be honest, I felt like a complete failure.”
”Don’t be ridiculous. The last thing you are is a failure, Mr. Perkins.”
”You’re right. I’m not a failure, and it is ridiculous, and you know why? Because immediately after the service you approached your parish priest who had just sung a train-wreck of a liturgy and asked to speak to him, and here you are, being so vulnerable, sharing your fears about yourself, your anxiety, and your doubt. You placed your trust in me, even though I am far from perfect.”
She smiled and looked down.
”Grace,” he continued, “I can’t make you be kinder to yourself, love yourself or forgive yourself. Self-compassion is not an easy thing, but you are a kind and compassionate person. Would you be so critical of others who make mistakes? Would you be so critical of me?”
”Of course not.”
”Grace, come with me. I want you to listen to something.” He led her into the church where Mary, the church organist, was practicing. Grace thought at first that maybe he was taking her into the church to say some prayers with her, but instead, as they sat quietly in the back pew, he put his finger to his lips to motion her not to let on they were there. Mary was hidden behind the console and could not see or hear them. She was working on a complicated Bach piece to be played as the postlude on the upcoming Easter Sunday — just a few weeks away. The piece was nowhere near being ready. Mary would play, and stop, and grunt, and sometimes even swear, and then she would start again, or pick up and play a measure or a section until she got it. Some passages were easier than others. Some flowed, and some seemed to defeat her. In her playing, at times you could hear her longing, and at times you could sense her rage and anger at Bach and at not being able to get it, or get him, and when she finally conquered a difficult passage, you could sense her ecstasy, and how much she was in love with old J.S. Bach.
”I often do this,” he whispered to Grace with a smile, “I love to hear her practice.”
Mary continued, sometimes attacking the music, sometimes pulling back, sometimes taking a break, and yes, sometimes soaring to the heavens. Sometimes it was hell on earth, and sometimes it was sublime. Sometimes she was caught up in the clouds, and sometimes she came crashing to the ground.
”Beauty,” he whispered, “is birthed in the maelstrom and chaos of imperfection.”
And so they sat listening for quite awhile. They could hear the relationship Mary had with Bach — the struggle, the connection, the distance, and reconnection. Mr. Perkins knew Mary would bring the piece to near perfection by the time it was to be played on Easter, but the truth was, Mary never played perfectly, even when she was at her best. There were always a few little mistakes, but on Easter Sunday, mistakes and all, it would be beautiful. It would be magnificent. A worthy offering.
This moment was beautiful, too. For him, there was nothing lovelier than sneaking into the church mid-week and listening to her struggle away. He loved being a silent witness to her struggle, for the struggle itself was beautiful, and full of grace.
After some time listening, he turned Grace. He saw a tear escape from her eye, but he also noticed that the corners of her mouth were curled heavenward in the holy communion of human imperfection and heavenly grace.
“Grace” is part of the collection of the Rev. Daniel Graves’s short stories, Mr. Perkins: Stories of a Simple Country Parson.
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