I’m a linguist by training and inclination, so I’m warning you: if nerding out about etymology and word roots is not your thing, you might want to skip this post.
In the very first meeting of my teenager’s theology class this year, the teacher delved into the etymology of the word perfect.
If there is a more loaded word for parents of disabled children, I’d like to know it. (Okay, maybe healthy is up there. Perfect and healthy.) When a baby is born, admirers collectively coo over her tiny perfect parts: her ears, her fingers, her eyes just like her daddy’s.
When a baby is born with tiny imperfect parts, many people turn to one of two alternate responses. They either move to erase the imperfection by cooing over the parts that are still perfect, or they offer pity and concern instead. Both responses carry the same underlying assumption: flawlessness is the goal. Anything else, however lovely, is a consolation prize.
Most of us hear the word “perfect” and think of the modern English connotation. Flawless. Without defects. Ideal. Conforming to standard. All the things that the social and medical establishments like to helpfully point out are not true about our own children.
But this theology teacher said something that, when my daughter relayed it, brought me up short. The roots of perfect, the essential core components of the word, mean something else entirely. The Latin per means “through.” Facere means “to make or do.” Put together, perfectus is the past participle of the verb “to carry out,” meaning to make or do something all the way through to its natural completion.
I am done. I have completed it. I have carried this out to the utmost of my ability.
As with most things these days, I immediately ran this new definition through my internal disability lens. What a tremendous shift in perspective this etymology offers! What an opportunity to reclaim the ideal of perfection for our marked-as-less-than-perfect children.
When we talk about the perfection of the Eucharistic sacrifice, we are of course talking about the perfection of Jesus Christ the person, without blemish or fault. But we are also talking about the perfection of the offering itself: Christ’s willingness to undergo the Crucifixion, to offer his entire body and soul, to see it through to completion. And the Crucifixion was anything but perfect, in the modern, flawless-and-tidy sense of the word. It was bloody. It was messy. It was awful. But it was done -- done thoroughly, completely, to the utmost of Christ’s ability.
We are all called to perfection, and we are all imperfect, even those of us with typically developing bodies and minds. The perfection we are called to is not flawlessness. It is to complete the work of being perfectly ourselves, to become completely the person God has created us to be.
Even our disabled children are called to persevere, to see their own work through to the utmost of their unique abilities. As parents, our role is to assist them in this task, to clear their particular path, set up the best possible conditions, and get out of the way for them to carry it through to completion.
The natural completion of our children’s earthly work will not look like most other people’s. All of them will be called to more work, and different work, than their peers without disabilities. Some of them will be given the unenviable work of suffering tremendously, as Christ did.
Our disabled children’s completed work, like the Passion, may look bloody, messy, and awful on the ground. But it carries the mark of perfection, hard won and roughly earned. The carrying-through and the offering are the goal. Not the conformity to an ideal standard, not a lack of mistakes.
Every body, every mind, is capable of aiming at this kind of perfection.
Christy Wilkens, wife and mother of six, is an armchair philosopher who lives in Austin, TX. She writes about disability, faith, doubt, suffering, community, and good reads. Her first book, Awakening at Lourdes: How an Unanswered Prayer Healed Our Family and Restored Our Faith, a memoir about a Lourdes pilgrimage with her husband and son, will be released by Ave Maria Press in October 2021. Find her at christywilkens.com.