Among the stewards [of St Panteleimon Monastery on Mt. Athos] was a certain monk, Father P., who was outstandingly capable, yet somehow always unlucky – his initiatives usually met with no sympathy among the fathers, and his undertakings often ended in failure. One day, after such an enterprise had resulted in disaster, he was subjected to sharp criticism at the stewards’ table. Father Silouan was present with the others but took no part in the ‘prosecution.’ Then one of the stewards, Father M., turned to him and said:
‘You are silent, Father Silouan. That means you side with Father P. and don’t care about the damage he has caused the community.’
Father Silouan said nothing, quickly finished eating and then went up to Father M., who by that time had also left the table, and said to him,
‘Father M., how many years have you been in the Monastery?’
‘Have you ever heard me criticize anyone?’
‘Then why do you want me to begin on Father P.?’
[from St Silouan The Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press]
A TURNING POINT
When I read the above narrative I had to stop and put the book down. Could anyone claim to have known me for even thirty-five minutes and state they had never heard me criticize others? Words of judgment, criticism, and condescension were part of my vernacular. Granted, they were frequently used to be humorous or tout my intelligence (pride); I was convicted at that moment that many of my thoughts and words revolved around criticism.
That evening, I decided I would make an attempt through God’s help and strength to no longer criticize others. Stopping the speech needed to come first; later I would focus more intently on critical thoughts. I read the above narrative to my wife and told her of my plan so that she could help me in this regard.
OUR CULTURE DOESN’T HELP
Unlike in Orthodox Christianity, the ability to judge and criticize others is often considered a virtue and a sign of intelligence in today’s American society. I would go as far as to say that to not criticize others — especially those in any type of position of authority — is seen as a sign of stupidity or naivety among many “critical thinkers.”
There’s a popular bumper sticker that says “Critical thinking, the other national deficit.” I would argue that there are many greater national deficits such as love, humility, wisdom, and kindness. If one wants to be truly counter-cultural, I believe not criticizing others is a good place to start.
WHERE IT COMES FROM
There are some who would argue that there is nothing wrong with criticizing things that are not true, pointing out lies and heresies, and reprimanding those who have fallen into error. I would agree with this to some extent, as long as the criticism is from an overflow of love and not based on the desire to be right (pride) or impress others (vanity). However, I know that I am weak and that it would be better for me to perhaps spend a season in which I attempt to not criticize anyone.
The root of criticism is pride, which is the mother of all sins. Unlike many sins that manifest themselves physically and are a bit easier to identify – such as lust and gluttony – pride is an invisible enemy that usually flies below the radar of our spiritual perceptions. When we think we are doing ok and not really struggling with pride very much, it is often the surest sign that it has blinded and enslaved our souls. When we recognize our sinfulness, depravity, and the ease in which we can fall into a multitude of passions at any given moment; when we look upon all others as being better than ourselves, then perhaps pride has loosened its grip on us.
The battle with pride is one most of us will continue until we breathe our last. Just as there are fruits of the Spirit, there are fruits of pride as well. One of these is a mind and a tongue that finds faults in others. When I began to pay attention to this within myself, I was shocked at the degree to which I was falling into evil.
WISE AS SERPENTS
One may argue, “Did Jesus not teach us to be ‘as wise as serpents and gentle as doves’?” To that I would say yes. We should be wise in regards to the devices and plots of Satan, of which one device is prideful criticism. Those who are pure of heart may see the sinfulness in others, but they do not condemn, belittle, or criticize the person who has fallen into error. Instead, their heart breaks for that person and they are moved to prayerful compassion.* They also recognize, “but for the grace of God, there go I.”
I believe the pure of heart are “wise as serpents” especially in regards to keenly observing their own sinfulness. In this way, when they see the sins of others, they are “gentle as doves” because they recognize the same tendencies within. They wisely avoid the traps of Satan by constantly repenting for their own sins and gently loving and restoring their brethren.
Let us pray with heartfelt contrition, “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not judge my brother….”
For the remainder of this Lenten season, I invite you to join me in attempting to carefully guard my words and speech so that I criticize my faults only and stay silent regarding others.
*ENDNOTE: There are, of course, many examples among the saints of those who have relentlessly battled teachers of heresies. St Gregory Palamas and his opponent Barlaam is one example. But this can be a trap too. I am not a saint. I have not, like most of the saints, gone into a desert or monastery for decades to cleanse my own heart before I attempt to fight the heresies that have arisen. That is not to say we as laypeople cannot ever oppose heresy, but that we should not imagine that we are like the saints when we do so. We should oppose heresy recognizing our own brokenness and need for healing.