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Felix culpa: “a good mistake”

by Kent Ira Groff

Table Talk coverSometimes you can reflect on a failed project or a dumb little thing you did last week—in light of St. Augustine’s concept of felix culpa. Often it’s translated, “happy fault or fortunate fault,” referring to the fault/fall of Adam and Eve, which becomes the occasion for each of us to realize the “grace in the grit” as each of us leaves the garden our own less than perfect lives. I like to translate it “a good mistake.”
Only retroactively do we see good coming out of a failed experiment. But even to frame failure as an “experiment” begins to redeem it. Thomas Edison could say he didn’t fail, but found 1,000 ways how not to make the light bulb. Proactively, what we can do is pray to notice flecks of grace in the gaff or the goof—that it can become a good mistake.
“Drops of experience” are never wasted, according to mathematician philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. When you lose computer data on new members or drive two hours to a hospital to visit a cancer patient who was just discharged or eke away hours learning new technology for a website, tell yourself: All that time I spent praying for new members or for folks with cancer or for our congregation to connect with tech generations.
Here’s a really good mistake. In September 1928 Alexander Fleming returned to the laboratory of St. Mary’s Hospital in London after being on holiday for a couple of weeks. He discovered Petri dishes that his students mistakenly left in an incubator had formed mold in the dank atmosphere. Fleming noticed—and noticing is the miracle of any genuine discovery—that the mold had killed a ring of bacteria. Fleming’s surprise discovery of penicillin is a real life story of how a good mistake created the gift of healing for generations. His vacation led to his vocation.
Micromanaging. The need to control people and situations is one of the demonic expressions of perfectionism. At the root of the demon of micromanaging lies a secret fear of shame: I don’t want another’s half-botched job to reflect poorly on my own self-competence. Another demon behind micromanaging is failing to trust in God by not trusting people.
Humility in a strange way is actually spiritual self-confidence: confidence that you can celebrate the gifts of others, rather than belittle them, while at the same time claiming your own. It’s a God-confidence that there are enough gifts for both your neighbor and you to claim your potential for the good of the cosmos, without exploiting or belittling each other. And that’s a good definition of Greek telios: mature—even though not perfect.
Spiritual Practice: “Let It Be” Listen to the Beatles’ song “Let It Be” (on iTunes or CD). “Mother Mary” refers to Paul McCartney’s dream of his mother, who died when he was fourteen. The title also can be heard as a subtle take on Mary’s response when the angel Gabriel announced she would bear a child—seemingly impossible: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). As you hear “Let it be…” in your mind imagine letting go of an issue that you can’t control, or accepting a challenge that may want to “birth” itself in you.


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One Comment

  1. Kent, your article is STELLAR!!! Thank you so much! Excellent piece of writing with such perfect illustrations. The last one is priceless. That must have been a Holy Spirit insight for you. I love it!

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