The Catholic Thing
Galahad’s Imperfection – and Ours Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 13 August 2012

We read in Matthew 5:48 (and only there) our Lord’s words about “perfection”: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But is this a call to aspire to (let alone to attain) the actual perfection of God? Surely not.The parallel passage in Luke is, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” and St. Jerome, who knew a thing or two about Scripture, insisted that “perfectio vera in coelestibus”: true perfection is only to be found in heaven.

I’d add: beware of anybody seeking perfection here on earth.

Here’s the problem with perfectionism writ small: I once went to pick up my older son when he was in kindergarten in Manhattan. (He’s now 25 and just promoted to captain in the U.S. Army.) I was informed by a student teacher at P.S. 87 that there’d been a fight in his class and Bobby was involved.

“Who started it?” I asked, my younger son on my shoulders, drumming a tune on my skull.

The young woman frowned.

“I don’t see how that matters,” she said.

I smiled, wishing I had more charity.

“But of course it matters,” I said.

“Why?” she barked. “So we can lay blame?”

“That’s part of it, innocence being different from guilt, just as there’s a difference between attack and defense. Or do you want the kids to be little Gandhis?”

Of course she did.

“Don’t you?” she asked.

“No. I want my sons to be a little Galahads.”

Now Galahad has the reputation of being a practically perfect person, thus calamity follows him everywhere. Certainly his and his fellows’ passion to find the Holy Grail, which Galahad finally did find, was hell for poor King Arthur.

“Alas!” Thomas Bulfinch has the king lament after Sir Gawain has the whole Round Table fired up to find the Grail, “you have nigh slain me with the vow and promise that ye have made, for ye have bereft me of the fairest fellowship that ever was seen together in any realm of the world . . .”

Arthur slumps into his throne, as a hermit appears in the hall, a young man in tow. It’s Galahad, son of Lancelot, grandson of Pelles (the Fisher King) and – as is Arthur himself – a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. The lad settles into the Siege Perilous, proof to the other knights that this is a pure-hearted man worthy of the sacred cup, for to sit in this siége – French for “seat” – was death to one not worthy of the holy relic. One adventure follows the next: fair maidens and devil horses; bloody battles and, yes, sinful couplings for all – except Galahad, who is all holy business. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. Certes, as they would have said: Depend on it.

            The Golden Tree and the Achievement of the Grail (Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1900)

But this is a fairytale, right? Bulfinch! There was no Grail, no such knights, no such quest! In their time, this race of brutish men cared more for gluttony and rapine than for honor or faith.

Of Galahad, Tennyson wrote that his “tough lance thrusteth sure;” that his prowess was “as the strength of ten.” Why? His heart was “pure.” And that may be the true fancy at the center of the romance: not that the combustible energies of chivalrous men may seek to do good, but that they succeed only through purity.

The truth is: to be a good man – to be God’s man – doesn’t require perfection.

Indeed, a chivalrous man acknowledges his fallen nature. He cannot believe in his own or others’ perfectibility. It’s from the canard of essential human goodness that much of the cad’s insincerity finds its justification. A man can hardly aspire to godliness if he’s convinced that his every thought and action flow from a wellspring of natural righteousness.

Once perfectionism led to totalitarianism; these days it leads to egalitarianism; each perfectionist, Babel-like, following his or her own perfect path.

But however much a chivalrous man may wish for and work for principles of legal, political, or social equity, he must be free of egalitarian illusions. We have come to the point, blessedly, where the tradition of chivalrous decorum has broken free of its sometimes belligerent connection to birth or economic status and has become more democratic – in that a man’s “station” neither guarantees nor prohibits him from being chivalrous – while at the same time the “gentlemanly class” remains steadfastly elitist, because it embraces high standards; high but not beyond grasping.

Is it depressing to say that a few, from the many, should be good but not too good? I think not and wonder how often good men have failed to be better because they’ve despaired about their imperfection.

As often, I suppose, as bad men who’ve sought perfection have achieved evil.

Galahad would have known this. Chivalry isn’t the calling of saints. It’s the characteristic of “manly” men whom the contemporary chattering classes – especially “gender feminists” – abhor, which is silly, since their very liberty depends upon such men.

In his magisterial book, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, Kenneth Minogue summarizes the ideological elite’s point of view:

The great discovery of ideology has been that modern European civilization, beneath its cleverly contrived appearances, is the most systematically oppressive despotism the world has ever known. All history, indeed, is a record of oppression, but it is only in modern time that oppression has begun to hide itself behind a façade of freedom.
Thus the ideologist believes that traditions such as chivalry exemplify the mystifications of oppression.

In fact, perfectionism is the handmaiden of ideology, and I say the hell with it.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Gian, August 13, 2012
Unfair to Gandhi who was no moral relativist and handled a job of leading millions against foreign rule while all the time staving off violent revolutionists.

In fact, Gandhi was exactly a good man who was not too good. That he or his misrepresentations have got caught up in American cultural war can not be laid at him. The Hindu tradition teaches of man's tendency to evil and locates it in Kali Yug (The Iron Age).
written by Other Joe, August 13, 2012
Perfectionist tendencies bring oppression in politics and religion. The ideal of perfectionism becomes legalism in practice - all letter and no spirit. We actually see it happening before our eyes as politicians attempt to overcome human nature with legislation – so complex that it cannot even be read prior to passage. Jesus said the law flows from love. Perfectionism flows from an anti-human vision that is a variant of the sin of pride. It is a chase of the white whale and always results in a great sinking.
written by Titus, August 13, 2012
Gandhi was a foolish pacifist who was willing to allow thousands, or even millions, of innocent people to be slaughtered for the sake of his political ambitions and his twisted pagan ideology. Just because he wasn't a relativist---something nobody claims---doesn't mean he was a good man.
written by Chris in Maryland, August 13, 2012
Pacifism, especially in today's schools, is a tactic of progressive ideology (1) it is the easy road of ignoring demands defend justice; and (2) it sustains the power bullies, and the parents of bullies.

Our kids had a school with a "peacemaker room." Here's how it worked: The father of the school bully sat on the school board, and supported all of the initiatives of the progressive principal. The school bully had open season on all other kids at the school, and the principal forced the teachers to use the peacemaker room to lean on the innocent kids who were victims of the bully, and make them think they were part of the problem.

Result: Teachers left school, parents pulled kids, school closed, the charlatan principal moved to another town, and started another school to do the same thing all over again.

Moral: Pacifism = abandonment of Justice = Death of Society.
written by Sue, August 13, 2012
Was Gandhi miked and does it matter? It seems like the civil rights protests worked because they had media attention, whereas prolife protests happen in echo chambers. I once saw a video of a car literally *driving over* a couple of supine abortion protestors. This happened in the early 90s but it might as well have been a tree falling in the forest for all the coverage it got.
written by tz, August 13, 2012
"be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect". The goal is unattainable on earth, at best we can become saints.

If 1% of Catholics were like Ghandi in demonstrating the virtues the world would turn around. Every abortion clinic would be closed with nonviolent civil disobedience.

Ghandi was real, Galahad, at least in the legend was fictional.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., August 13, 2012
Brilliant column! Grailful of truth. to be sure. BTW, my on younger son Bobby will be 25 next month and also just came out on the captain's list. He graduated from Gonzaga U. in 2009 and saw more in one year in Afghanistan than I saw in 22 years in the Army. I do blieve that the old Heaven on Earth lie still leads to Toatlitarianism by way of egalitarianism. How else do they propose to make all equal except by force? The very materilsit superstition at the bottom of the ideology through which Satan works requires the elimination of faith. Belief in the trasnscendent is as natural to humasn as are scales to fish and can therefore only be removed by violence.
written by Hieronymus, August 13, 2012
Yes, we must try to become once again "milites Christi", not just "sisters and brothers" joined in a "communal meal". Catholicism has to grow muscles again; we must look to the warrior saints, to the Crusaders and military orders, to the Vendeans and the Cristeros. There are many ways to salvation and meekly lying down and dying is only one of them...
written by Bill M., August 13, 2012
If Jesus calls us to be perfect, and the fallen man must recognize that serves the perfect goodness of God, then I would have liked to see more about how one can admit that one is not perfect and also that one seeks perfection. Or, to put it another way, how one seeks to serve perfection rather than to be perfect (at least in the Gnostic way). It seems that Christians need to explain this very difficult teaching that apparently every modern secular ideology denies.
written by Doug, August 13, 2012
An interesting essay on chivalry, but I'm not clear why it's here on a nominally Christian blog.
Some of your readers took it as a plea for elitism, which it may be. What I noticed was the plea for military action against ... well, against whom? God's enemies? My enemies? My religion's enemies?
For any religion claiming the Bible for at least part of its authority I think a few scriptures can be guides on principles, if not laws:
John 13:34,35, Douay: "A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." On saying this, he went forth and died for others, he did not take up arms against his [many] enemies.
Paul must have learned from hearing about this, 2 Thes 1, ibid.: "So that we ourselves also glory in you in the churches of God, for your patience and faith, and in all your persecutions and tribulations: which you ENDURE in example of the just judgment of God, that you may be counted WORTH OF THE KINGDOM of God, for which also you suffer. Seeing it is a just thing with GOD TO REPAY tribulation to them that trouble you ..." Emphasis added.
And it's a mistake IMO to use the Crusades and similar actions as justification for militarism. History tells us about abominations committed on each side, in the name of its God, often in direct violation of the laws handed down from that God. In the First Crusade the "Christian" knights went to a celebratory Mass in their bloodstained garments, after a mass slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
What would be the result, do you think, of using Ghandian attitudes, if not his actions, to promote Christianity? Would the advent of the Kingdom be speeded up? retarded? defeated?
written by Layman Tom, August 13, 2012

Excellent, and timely, article. The thing I most like about it can be summed up in your retort to the goofy teacher. “But of course it matters!” Time was, we as a society inherently understood that principle. Chivalry is much ballyhooed as an arcane set of instructions for the gentleman among us, but when I was a boy, I was taught it’s basic tenets as merely right and wrong.

These were the rules a real man lived by. And was just as important to regular guys as it was supposed to be to tuxedoed, tea sipping “Gentlemen”. And so, my father taught them to me as I’ve tried to teach my sons.

*Tell the truth.
*Don’t steal.
*Don’t cheat.
*Be nice to girls.
*Let girls go first. And if you come to a door, open it for them.
*Respect grown-ups.
*If somebody is doing something wrong try and stop them.
*If you can’t stop them, don’t take any part.
*If what they’re doing is really bad or going to hurt someone, go get a policeman.
*Always be kind to old people.
*Always be kind to people weaker than you.
*Always be polite to people you don’t know.
*Don’t ever start a fight, but if somebody hits you, defend yourself.
*Always protect those weaker than you.
*Stand up to bullies, even if they’re bigger and stronger than you. If you don’t, they will never stop bullying you.
*If your friends do things that are bad or stupid, get new friends. If you’re with them when they do that stuff, you’ll get in just as much trouble, even if you weren’t doing anything wrong.
*Everybody gets afraid sometimes. Don’t let it stop you from doing the right thing.

Honestly, that seems like a pretty simple list. It certainly isn’t all-inclusive and won’t lead to perfection, but one of the chief benefits of being a Christian is being aware that we are flawed and that perfection is impossible. So we don’t tend to worry about it that much as long as we’re doing the best we can.


written by Martial Artist, August 13, 2012
Mr. Miner,

You write "Once perfectionism led to totalitarianism; these days it leads to egalitarianism…."

I would humbly suggest that the temporal relationship you note tends to be a relationship that is cyclical. It ultimately leads back again to totalitarianism, albeit at times via other waypoints. We can see its roots emerging again in the progressives of the past century.

It is for that reason, among several others led by what the Church teaches, that I espouse and support what many would term a libertarian (N.B., the lower-case 'l') form of government.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Aeneas, August 13, 2012
Excellent Brad!
Actually, Galahad was one of my favorite knights of the round table, another plus for the article!

"In their time, this race of brutish men cared more for gluttony and rapine than for honor or faith."
This was a jest or something, right? In the real Middle Ages there were plenty of Knights who lived up to the code(there was, of course, many who did not, and many inbetween as well).

And I second Hieronymus' comments!
Now where is my old Teutonic helm at...? ;)
written by David Baunach, August 13, 2012
There is one theme running through this work that I found disagreeable. It is stated clearly in the beginning: "But is this a call to aspire to (let alone to attain) the actual perfection of God? Surely not."

The Word of God is calling us to the perfection of God, the perfection of the saints that can be attained only through being in union with God. To say that it is unattainable would be to say that God set us to a self-frustrating task. The essay as a whole is great, especially at pointing out that one must aknowledge their fallen-ness, though true chivalry is only fully realized in understanding ones brokeness, and then wholeheartedly seeking God, Who is always seeking you.


David Baunach
written by DS, August 13, 2012
We are consistently reminded on these pages of the scope of the abortion slaughter and the innocent nature of unborn life. Yet the Church universally renounces force in all forms in fighting abortion. It strikes me as pure Gandhi, not Galahad.

For those who propose a more muscular, chivalrous Christianity, how would they defend the unborn?
written by NavinK, August 14, 2012
To seek independence, Mahatma Gandhi had to first wake-up millions of our countrymen stuck in an ancient mode of thinking. The only cultural affinity for a majority of Indians divided by language, castes and thousands of sub-castes was Hinduism. As a politician, he built upon the ancient practices of Hinduism. Any other approach would have only led to bloodshed. Besides, modernists rejected Huamana Vitae without any reference to Eastern Religions. The New Age took root only of we Christians diluted the faith.
written by Chris in Maryland, August 16, 2012

The Church does not renounce the force of law, a form of force, in fighting abortion.

I would guess that once the USA went to the degree China does, of forced abortions, then The Church would support the force of arms.

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