Sin’s Slimy Trail
This morning’s lesson from Saint Augustine invited us to look at sins committed against the brethren. The Doctor of Grace would have us examine the way we treat those with whom we are at enmity. True penitence addresses not only the isolated, incidental sin; it also takes on those habits of sin that like the tangled roots of a great tree lie below the surface. Rare are the sins that, popping out of nowhere, surprise us, and leave behind no slimy trail. A careful discernment of the heart reveals that sin, if it goes unchecked, quickly tends to become habitual. One slides imperceptibly from the isolated, incidental sin, into habits of sin.
The Sin of Judging
This is as true of the sin of judging as of any other sin. With each repeated sinful act we grow less sensitive to the horror of the sin, hate it a little less and, finally, grow accustomed to living with it. Habitual sin, like habitual virtue, is the result of repeated acts, often of very little acts. One judges just a little the first time, a little more the next and, finally, by linking judgment to judgment, one forges a heavy chain of condemnation that is nearly impossible to break.
First Step: I Notice
Look for a moment at the classic sin of judging. The first step is taking note of the behaviour of another. I observe that my brother does this or does not do that. Rarely are one’s observations lucid and dispassionate. If the person being observed has already been a cause for annoyance, if there is a pre–existing antipathy or an old resentment, one’s observation is clouded and one’s perceptions distorted. How can one cut off the sin of judging in the first step? By minding one’s own business. By saying to oneself, “That is no concern of yours”. By imposing silence on one’s thoughts and by mortifying one’s curiosity.
“Whenever Abba Agathon’s thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, “Agathon, it is not your business to do that”. Thus his spirit was always recollected.” Centuries later, Saint John of the Cross says the same thing: “Pay no attention to the affairs of others, whether they be good or bad, for besides the danger of sin, this is a cause of distraction and lack of spirit”. Not too long ago it was common for religious to write pious initials on their papers. Benedictines: U.I.O.G.D. (That in all things God may be glorified.) Jesuits: A.M.D.G. (To the greater glory of God). The wisdom of the saints suggests another motto: M.Y.O.B. (Mind your own business).
Second Step: I Interpret
The second step in the sin of judging is to explain to oneself the motives behind the behaviour one has observed. If my brother or sister does this or does not do that, it is because. . . . It matters little that I cannot see into the heart of the one being judged, matters little that his personal history of struggles and hurts is unknown to me, matters little that, unlike God who searches the mind and heart, I can see only what is external and even that I am incapable of interpreting rightly. It matters little that the facts surrounding the observed behaviour are unknown to me; my imagination can easily supply any missing pieces. One begins by observing a detail of behaviour and, before long, one has fabricated a reason for it and interpreted it. One attributes a particular meaning, an unfavorable one, to the thing that has been observed.
How can one struggle against the sin of judging in the second step? By saying to oneself, “Your seeing and your hearing is not to be trusted. God alone sees rightly. God alone probes the mind and heart”. Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, “Tell me how to become a monk”. He said, “If you want to find rest here below and hereafter, in all circumstances say, Who am I? And not judge anyone”.
Again, Saint John of the Cross distills the wisdom of the Desert Fathers for us. The Mystical Doctor says, “You should live in the monastery as though no one else were in it. And thus, you should never, by word or by thought, meddle in things that happen in the community, nor with individuals in it, desiring not to notice their good or bad qualities or their conduct. And in order to preserve your tranquility of soul, even if the whole world crumbles you should not desire to advert to these things or interfere, remembering Lot’s wife who was changed into hard stone because she turned her head to look at those who in the midst of much clamour and noise were perishing (Gen 19:26)”.
Third Step: I Judge
The third step in the sin of judging is where one ascends the lofty throne of pride and sits in it to pass judgment. Given that I have observed him doing this thing; given that I know why he said that, I am justified in drawing my own conclusions and in passing judgment. It is at this point in the sin of judging that one aligns oneself with Satan whose very name means the adversary, the slanderer, the accuser.
One moves through these three steps quickly, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye. I observe; I interpret what I have observed; I pass judgment. The habitual sin of judging may be linked to a particular person. I judge this particular brother once, twice, three times and so, little by little, come to judge him or her always. I develop a judgmental attitude. I fall into hardened habitual sin. The more habitual such a sin is, the more difficult it is to unmask it, confess it, and repent of it. Habitual sin tends to camouflage itself. After a time, it blends so well with all the others things to which we have grown accustomed, that we no longer notice it. The sin that goes unnoticed cannot be hated. The sin that is not hated cannot be confessed with true contrition and fully renounced by a repentant heart.
Abba Mark Triumphs Over the Sin of Judging
The sin of judging is, of all sins, the one that most often poisons the cloister. This has been true since the days of the Fathers of the Desert. Allow me to end with a marvelous story from the desert:
It was said of Abba Mark the Egyptian that he lived for thirty years without going out of his cell. The priest used to take Holy Communion to him. But the devil, seeing the remarkable endurance of this man, decided to tempt him, by making him blame the priest. He brought it about that a demoniac went to the old man, under the pretext of asking for prayers. Before anything was said, the possessed man cried out to the old man, “Your priest smells of sin, do not let him come near you any more”. But Mark, filled with the Spirit of God, said to him, “My son, everyone rids himself of impurity, but you bring it. It is written: Judge not for that you be not judged (Mt 7:1). However, even if he is a sinner, the Lord will save him, for it is written: Pray for one another that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16). When the priest came, according to his custom, the old man received him with joy. Seeing the absence of malice in the old man, the good God showed him a marvel. When the priest prepared himself to stand before the Holy Table, this is what the old man related, “I saw the angel of the Lord descend from heaven and place his hand on the priest’s head and he became like a pillar of fire. I was filled with wonder at this sight, and I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Man, why are you astonished at this? In truth, if an earthly king does not allow his nobles to stand in his presence in soiled garments, but only arrayed in glory, how much more will the divine power purify the servants of the Holy Mysteries who stand before the heavenly glory?'” And the noble athlete of Christ, Mark the Egyptian, became great and was judged worthy of this grace because he had not judged the priest.
“Judge not”, says the Lord, “and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). These are the three steps that lead to worthy participation in the Holy Sacrifice. Let us then, be converted, and ascend to the altar of the immaculate Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.