Beyond perfection

A few days ago, I stumbled into the live broadcasting of a traditional Catholic Latin mass on Facebook. Without specifics, let it suffice that this type of structured liturgy specifically stipulates when silence must be observed and when music is to be sung. The broadcasting choir director, however, did systematically stop singing before the music was supposed to end, causing long periods of awkward, liturgically inappropriate silence.

As the show was publicly broadcast, I did publicly comment that choir directors are expected to either choose music whose length covers all time gaps or repeat verses so that no silence is performed where chant should be provided. A day later, the music director, in a few arrogant words, asked me that, next time, I express my criticism in a private message rather than humiliating her in public.

While it was not my Facebook comment but her liturgical deficiencies that humiliated her, her answer still has a thought-provoking aspect. Why did she interpret my objective comment as an offensive criticism in the first place?

She must have thought this way: I prepared my singers appropriately to this service. I actually prepare them conscientiously to every Sunday service. We diligently rehearse, the notes are always correct, the sound is always professional, the repertoire is always appropriate and tasteful. I even do beyond my obligations when I promote my work place through the voluntary broadcasting of our Sunday services. If anyone describes my performance negatively, it must be a malignant, ill-intentioned criticism.

Indeed, she is right: she is most likely doing her job with perfection. But is perfection enough? Is perfection man’s ultimate goal?

I believe that, while aiming at perfection is a laudable virtue, it remains insufficient as much for what we long is beyond perfection. I shall briefly name three of such deeply human desires.

(1) Authenticity

Any robot or machine can and actually will perform any job with perfection that one programs in it. But will that performance be authentic? It will be perfect, yet lifeless and counterfeit. Authenticity is the ability to see beyond mechanical perfection. It is the ability to see the transcendent whole rather than the perfect detail.

While any church liturgy is built of a series of discrete components, the liturgy’s true message is beyond the perfect performance of such individual building blocks. The job of the music director is more than delivering a sequence of perfectly performed musical pieces during service. Music directors must realize that people come to the church to live the flawless, idealized world of transcendence. In the church, they hope to transcend their everyday misery, to taste the wine of the gods, and to delight in the spheres’ chant. Yet if the spheres stop chanting simply because, technically, there are no more measures left on the music paper, they are no spheres but ill-programmed machines, and the atmosphere they create does not resemble the world of gods but that of a creaking dung-barn.

(2) Creativity

Creativity is also more than perfection. Perfection is limited to its own rules, whereas creativity is open to infinite imagination. Perfection is insufficient without creativity. Imagine a doctor who follows textbook procedures during an operation, but her patient does not react according to the textbook, and the unexpected situation puts his life into danger. The doctor, committed to perfection, can stop working, lift up her hands, and excuse herself: “I have done everything with perfection. If my patient does not react as he should, it is not my concern.” But the doctor would be mistaken. To be right, she should creatively respond to the situation as it unfolds – regardless of perfection.

Religious services are not different from this hypothetical surgery: while they do have a textbook sequence of pre-established steps and rules, they are a spontaneously woven live fabric of spiritual experiences. Everybody who is present in the church shares and adds to that fabric, and the delicate process of this collective weaving must be carefully analyzed by the music director in every moment. He must adjust pre-planned steps to the current situation in every instance: for every cough, every minor noise, and every perceived vibration that emerges among the pews, immediate adjustments must be made to guarantee and protect the smooth, transcendent flow of the liturgy. These immediate, spontaneous micro-adjustments are far beyond the standard requirements of perfection. Standing helplessly in the midst of an awkward silence simply because the perfectly performed piece turned out to be too short is incompetence and tasteless amateurism.

(3) Envisioning perfection

Paradoxically, the ability to envision perfection is more important than the actual performance of perfection. The actual doing is insignificant: any machine can carry out any programming perfectly, but no machine can conceive the very idea of perfection. In order for us to program a machine to do a perfect job, we first need to envision perfection. Without envisioning perfection, we could never program our machines to do the job for us. For, indeed, we humans are pathetic when it comes to performing perfection. However, we excel at envisioning it. Our true human grandeur is not in the performance but in the conception of the greatest ideals. Our true human grandeur is not in the beauty of our own performances but in our exceptional ability to envision infinite esthetics.

Music directors use this ability when they envision the world of the divine and realize that their duty points beyond the mechanical accomplishment of a sequence of written rules. Their task is to envision the greatest ideals of transcendence and to guarantee that their vision becomes a tangible reality in space and time.

If you are beyond perfection, if you are authentic and creative, and what you envision is better than mere professional perfection, then you must realize that your job, whatever type of service it is, is more than the simple “I come, I deliver, I leave.” Any service, any vocation requires you to fully be in what you do, otherwise, your contribution will remain a rigid sequence of perfectly delivered, yet mediocre, products.

However, to fully participate in what you do, to fully identify yourself with what you are to carry out, you must understand and love the deepest essence of your duties. If you do something for money, rather than for love and passion, even though your results may reach perfection, they will never grow beyond it. Your motivation will keep you within the limits of perfection as you will not get more compensation if you go beyond. Only if your motivation is not financial but emotional, arising in the depth of your self, will you strive to reach the most you can, and perfection will seem insufficient to you.

Such tendencies come naturally. If you lack them, do not force yourself. Instead, keep looking for what grabs your imagination and reaches the deepest dimensions of your self. You will surely excel.

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