These excerpts on taking scandal and judging others by Fr. Faber were posted by a gentleman on another forum but were simply too good not to re-post here.
ON TAKING SCANDAL by FR. FABER
To give scandal is a great fault, but to take scandal is a greater fault. It implies a greater amount of wrongness in ourselves, and it does a greater amount of mischief to others.
Nothing gives scandal sooner than a quickness to take scandal. This is worth our consideration. For I find great numbers of moderately good people who think it fine to take scandal. They regard it as a sort of evidence of their own goodness, and of their delicacy of conscience; while in reality it is only a proof either of their inordinate conceit or of their extreme stupidity. They are unfortunate when this latter is the case; for then no one but inculpable nature is to blame. If, as some have said, a stupid man cannot be a Saint, at least his stupidity can never make him into a sinner. Moreover, the persons in question seem frequently to feel and act as if their profession of piety involved some kind of official appointment to take scandal. It is their business to take scandal. It is their way of bearing testimony to God. It would show a blamable inertness in the spiritual life if they did not take scandal. They think they suffer very much while they are taking scandal; whereas in truth they enjoy it amazingly. It is a pleasurable excitement, which delightfully varies the monotony of devotion. They do not in reality fall over their neighbour's fault, nor does it in itself hinder them in the way of holiness, nor do they love God less because of it, ---- all which ought to be implied in taking scandal. But they trip themselves up on purpose, and take care that it shall be opposite some fault of their neighbour’s, in order that they may call attention to the difference between him and themselves.
There are certainly many legitimate causes for taking scandal, but none more legitimate than the almost boastful facility of taking scandal which characterizes many so-called religious people. The fact is that an immense proportion of us are Pharisees. For one pious man who makes piety attractive, there are nine who make it repulsive. Or, in other words, only one out of ten among reputed spiritual persons is really spiritual. He who during a long life has taken the most scandal has done the most injury to God's glory, and has been himself a real and substantial stumbling-block in the way of many. He has been an endless fountain of odious disedification to the little ones of Christ. If such a one reads this, he will take scandal at me. Everything that he dislikes, every thing which deviates from his own narrow view of things, is to him a scandal. It is the Pharisaic way of expressing a difference.
Men marvellously like to be popes; and the dullest of men, if only he has, as usual, an obstinacy proportioned to his dullness, can in most neighbourhoods carve out a tiny papacy for himself; and if to his dullness he can add pomposity, he may reign gloriously, a little local ecumenical council in unintermitting session through all the four seasons of the year. Who has time enough, or heart enough, or hope enough, to try to persuade such men? They are not sufficiently interesting to us to be worth our persuading. Let us leave them alone with their glory and their happiness. Let us try to persuade ourselves. Do not we ourselves take scandal too often? Let us examine the matter and see.
Now, here is a thing which I have often thought upon. Certainly no one can remember every thing in the voluminous lives of the Saints; for it would take a lifetime to read them all. But I do not remember to have read of any Saint who ever took scandal. If this is even approximately true, the question is decided at once. Big men, swollen with self-importance, who see the faults of others with eyes of lynxes, and criticize them with clever sarcasms, and delight in the pedantry of a judicial frame of mind, can only humorously apply to themselves the name of the little ones of Christ. Yet books tell us there are two kinds of scandal, ---- the scandal of the little ones of Christ, and the scandal of Pharisees. It follows, then, that these men must be Pharisees. But I say that, if this remark about the Saints is even approximately true, it must give us a check, and make us very thoughtful, if we are earnest men, although we are not Saints, and what belongs to Saints is by no means safely applicable to us in all respects. Let us suppose it not to be strictly true. Let us suppose it only a rare thing for Saints to take scandal. We can draw a sufficiently broad conclusion from this to be very practical to ourselves. For we may infer that it is a matter about which persons aiming at being spiritual are not sufficiently careful. Every time we take scandal we run a great risk of sinning, and a manifold risk as well as a great one. We run the risk of impairing God's glory, of dishonouring our Blessed Lord, of giving substantial scandal to others, of breaking the precept of charity ourselves, of highly-culpable indiscretion, and, at the very least, of grieving the Holy Spirit in our own souls. Here is enough to make it worth our while to inquire.
Let us see, first of all, how much evil the habit of taking scandal implies. It implies a quiet pride, which is altogether unconscious how proud it is. Pride is the denial of the spiritual life. Spiritual pride means that we have no spiritual life, but the possession of that evil spirit instead of it. Pride is hard enough to manage even when we are conscious of it; but a pride which has no self-consciousness is a very desperate thing. It often seems as if grace could only get at it through a fall into serious sin, which will awake its consciousness and at the same moment turn it into shame. Now, the habit of taking scandal indicates that worst sort of pride, a pride which believes itself to be humility. Any thing like a habit of taking scandal implies also a fund of uncharitableness deep down in us, which grace and interior mortification have either not reached, or failed to influence. If we pay attention to ourselves, we shall find that, contemporaneously with the scandal we have taken, there has been some wounded feeling or other in an excited state within us. When we are in good humour, we do not take scandal. It is an act which is not for the most part accompanied by kindness. A genuine gentle sorrow for the person offending is neither the first thought nor the predominant thought in our minds when we take the offence. It is the offspring generally of an unkindly mood. Sometimes, indeed, it springs from moroseness, brought on by assuming a seriousness which does not become us because it is not simple. We precipitate ourselves into recollection, and find that we have fallen over head and ears into sullenness. Neither can taking scandal be very frequent with us without its implying also a formed habit of judging others. With a really humble or a naturally genial person the instinct of judging others is overlaid and, as it were, weighted with other and better qualities. It has to exert itself and make an effort before it can get to the surface and assert itself; whereas it lies on the surface, obvious, ready, prompt, and predominating, in a man who is given to taking scandal. Is it often allowable to judge our neighbour? Surely we know it to be the rarest thing possible. Yet we cannot take scandal without, first, forming a judgment; secondly, forming an unfavourable judgment; thirdly, deliberately entertaining it as a motive power inclining us to do or to omit something; and, fourthly, doing all this for the most part in the subject matter of piety, which in nine cases out of ten our obvious ignorance withdraws from our jurisdiction.
It also indicates a general want of an interior spirit. The supernatural grace of an interior spirit, among its other effects, produces the same results as the natural gift of depth of character; and to this it joins the ingenious sweetness of charity. A thoughtless or a shallow man is more likely to take scandal than any other. He can conceive of nothing but what he sees upon the surface. He has but little self-knowledge, and hardly suspects the variety or complication of his own motives. Much less, then, is he likely to divine in a discerning way the hidden causes, the hidden excuses, the hidden temptations, which may lie, and always do lie, behind the actions of others. So it is in spiritual matters with a man who has not an interior spirit. There is not only a rashness, but also a coarseness and vulgarity, about his judgments of others. Sometimes he only sees superficially. This is if he is a stupid man. If he is a clever man, he sees deeper than the truth. His vulgarity is of the subtle kind. He puts things together which had no real connection in the conduct of his neighbour. Base himself, he suspects baseness in others. If he saw a Saint, he would think him either ambitious, opinionated, or hypocritical. He sees plots and conspiracies even in the most impulsive of characters. He cannot judge of character at all. He can only project his own possibilities of sin into others, and imagine that to be their character which he feels, if grace were withdrawn from him, would be his own. He judges as a man judges whose reason is slightly unsettled. He is cunning rather than discerning. To clever men charity is almost impossible if they have not an interior spirit.
We shall also find that, when we fall into the way of taking scandal, there is something wrong about our meditations. There are times when our meditations are inefficacious. With some men it is so nearly all through their lives. The fact is, that the habit of meditation will not by itself make us interior. When a man's spiritual life is reduced to the practice of daily meditation, we see that he soon loses all control over his tongue, his temper, and his wounded feelings. His morning's meditation is inadequate to the sweetening of his whole day. It is too feeble to detain the presence of God in his soul until evening. Like general intentions, it has theological possibilities which are hardly ever practical realities. It is like a shrub planted in the clay; if we do not dig around it and let in the air and moisture, it will not grow. Its growth is stunted and impeded. This is a perilous state of things, when our meditation is but an island in a day which is otherwise flooded with worldliness and comfort. For we must remember that comfort is one of the worst kinds of worldliness, and is most at home in our own rooms, at a distance from the gay, noisy, and dissipated world. We are not far from some serious mishap when mortification and examination of conscience have deserted our meditation and left it to itself. A habit of taking scandal often reveals to us that we are in this state, or are fast tending to it.
It also poisons much else that is good, and desecrates holy things, almost making them positively unholy. It infuses somewhat of censoriousness into our intercessory prayer. It turns our spiritual reading into a silent preachment to others. It charms away the arrows of the preacher from ourselves, and aims them with a pleased skill at others whom we have in our mind's eye. It plays into the hands of whatever is unkindly and unlovely in our natural dispositions; and it makes our very spirituality unspiritual by making it uncharitable. All this complicated evil it implies as already existing in us; and it fosters and increases it all for the future, while it is implying it in the present. It is plain, therefore, that it would be well for us to take scandal at our taking scandal, seeing what a degrading revelation it is to us of our own misery and meanness. We are aiming at a devout life. We have only just extricated ourselves from the swamps of mortal sin. We know something of the ways of grace. We have the models of the Saints. We are more or less familiar with the teaching of spiritual writers. We are not obliged, either because of our ignorance or because of our weakness, to look to the conduct of others as the rule of our own. Hence, in our case, taking scandal is neither more nor less than judging, and we must treat the temptation to it as we would treat any other temptation against charity, ---- namely, check it, punish it, detest it, resolve against it, and accuse ourselves of it in confession. We must beware also of its artifices. For it has many tricks, and they are often successful. Masters, parents, and directors are quite familiar with a device of those under their care and control, and who criticize, suggestively at least, their government or direction: this trick consists in their accusing themselves of having taken scandal at the conduct of their superiors and directors. It is ingenious, but soon wears out. Directors learn early to stifle their own curiosity, and not allow their self-deluded critics to tell them what has scandalized them, as they cannot even listen to it without compromising their dignity and forfeiting their influence. In a word, we shall find it the truest and the safest conclusion to come to, that we must regard the temptation to take scandal as wholly and unmitigatedly evil, a temptation to which no quarter should be allowed, and to whose eloquent pleadings of delicacy of conscience no audience should be given but that of calm contempt.
Now that we have considered the existing evil which a readiness to take scandal implies in us, we may consider the way in which it hinders us in the attainment of perfection. It hinders us in the acquisition of self-knowledge. Watchfulness over ourselves is nothing short of an actual mortification. We eagerly lay hold of the slightest excuse for turning our attention away from ourselves, and the conduct of others is the readiest object to which we turn. No one is so blind to his own faults as a man who has the habit of detecting the faults of others. It also causes us to stand in our own light. We ourselves actually intercept the sunshine which would fall on our own souls. A man who is apt to take scandal is never a blithe or a genial man. He has never a clear light round about him. He is not made for happiness; and was ever a melancholy man made into a Saint? A downcast man is raw material which can only be manufactured into a very ordinary Christian. Moreover, if we have any sort of earnestness about us, our taking scandal must at last become a source of scruples to us. If it is not quite the same thing as censoriousness, who shall draw the line between them? We know very well that it is not at our best times that we take scandal, and it must dawn upon us by degrees that it is so often contemporary with a state of spiritual malady that the coincidence can hardly be accidental. At the same time, the act is so intrinsically ungenerous in itself that it tends to destroy all generous impulses in ourselves. No one can be generous with God who has not a great, broad love of his neighbour.
Furthermore, it destroys our influence with others. We irritate where we ought to enliven. To be suspected of want of sympathy is to be disabled as an apostle. He who is critical will necessarily be unpersuasive. Even in literature, what department of it is less persuasive, and thus less influential, than that of criticism? Men are amused by it, but they do not form their judgments on it. There are few things in the literary world more striking than the little weight of criticism compared with the amount and the ability of it. We like to find fault ourselves; but we are never attracted to another man who finds fault. It is the last refuge of our good humour that we like to have a monopoly censure, Then, again, this habit entangles us in a hundred self-raised difficulties about fraternal correction, that rock of narrow souls; for a man's presumption is mostly in proportion to his narrowness. Men awake sometimes, and find that they have almost unconsciously worked themselves into a false position. This is a terrible affair in spirituality, It is harder to work ourselves right than to recover our balance after a sin. Yet the supposed obligation of fraternal correction is always enticing us into false positions. It also calls our attention off from God, and fixes them with a sort of diseased earnestness upon earthly miseries and pusillanimities. It is bad enough to look off from God by looking too much on ourselves; but to look off from God in order to look upon our neighbours, is a greater evil still. It deranges the whole interior world of thought, upon which the exercise of charity so much depends. It hinders us in acquiring the government of the tongue. It prevents our succeeding in good works where zealous and free co-operation with others is needed. It is the cloak which jealousy is forever assuming and calling it by the name of caution. Finally, we think all these things virtues, while they are in reality vices of the most unamiable description.
I do not think I have exaggerated the evil of this quickness to take scandal. I confess it is a fault which vexes me more than many others, and for many reasons. Its victims are good men, men full of promise, and whose souls have been the theatres of no inconsiderable operations of grace. It seizes them for the most part, just at the time when higher attainments seem opening to them. Its peculiarity is, that it is incompatible with the higher graces of the spiritual life, that it defiles that which was now almost cleansed, and vulgarizes that which was on the point of establishing its title to nobility. When we consider how many are called to perfection, and how few are perfect, may we not almost say that we do well to be angry with that evil which so opportunely and so effectually mars the work of grace?
In what does perfection consist? In a childlike, short-sighted charity; charity which believes all things; in a grand supernatural conviction that every one is better than ourselves; in estimating far too low the amount of evil in the world; in looking far too exclusively on what is good; in the ingenuity of kind constructions; in an inattention, hardly intelligible, to the faults of others; in a graceful perversity of incredulousness about scandals, which sometimes in the Saints runs close upon being a scandal of itself. This is perfection; this is the temper and genius of Saints and saint-Iike men. It is a life of desire, oblivious of earthly things. It is a radiant, energetic faith that man's slowness and coldness will not interfere with the success of God's glory. Yet all the while it is instinctively fighting, by prayer and reparation, against evils, which it will not allow itself consciously to believe. No shadow of moroseness ever falls over the bright mind of a Saint. It is not possible that it should do so. Finally, perfection has the gift of entering into the universal Spirit of God, Who is worshipped in so many different ways, and is content. Now, is not all this just the very opposite of the temper and spirit of a man who is apt to take scandal? The difference is so plain that it is needless to comment on it. He is happy who on his dying bed can say, "No one has ever given me scandal in my life!" He has either not seen his neighbour's faults, or, when he saw them, the sight had to reach him through so much sunshine of his own that they did not strike him so much as faults to blame, but rather as reasons for a deeper and a tenderer love. (Father F. Faber, Spiritual Conferences, "On Taking Scandal".
FATHER FABER ON JUDGING
...But there is one class of kind thoughts which must be dwelt upon apart. I allude to kind interpretations. The habit of not judging others is one which it is very difficult to acquire, and which is generally not acquired till late on in the spiritual life. If men have ever indulged in judging others, the mere sight of an action almost involuntarily suggests an internal commentary upon it. It has become so natural to judge, however little their own duties or responsibilities are connected with what they are judging, that the actions of others present themselves to the mind as in the attitude of asking a verdict from it. All our fellow-men who come within the reach of our knowledge - and for he most retired of us the circle is a wide one - are prisoners at the bar; and if we are unjust, ignorant, capricious judges, it must be granted to us that we are indefatigable ones. Now, all this is simple ruin to our souls. At any risk, at the cost of life, there must be an end of this, or it will end in everlasting banishment from God. The standard of the last judgment is absolute. It is this - the measure which we have meted to others. Our present humour in judging others reveals to us what our sentence would be if we died now. Are we content to abide that issue? But, as it is impossible all at once to stop judging, and as it is also impossible to go on judging uncharitably, we must pass through the intermediate stage of kind interpretations. Few men have passed beyond this to a habit of perfect charity, which has blessedly stripped them of their judicial ermine and their deeply-rooted judicial habits of mind. We ought, therefore, to cultivate most sedulously the habit of kind interpretations.
Men's actions are very difficult to judge. Their real character depends in a great measure on the motives which prompt them, and those motives are invisible to us. Appearances are often against what we afterwards discover to have been deeds of virtue. Moreover, a line of conduct is, in its look at least, very little like a logical process. It is complicated with all manner of inconsistencies, and often deformed by what is in reality a hidden consistency. Nobody can judge men but God, and we can hardly obtain a higher or more reverent view of God than that which represents Him to us a judging men with perfect knowledge, unperplexed certainty, and undisturbed compassion. Now, kind interpretations are imitations of the merciful ingenuity of the Creator finding excuses for His creatures. IT is almost a day of revelation to us when theology enables us to perceive that God is so merciful precisely because He is so wise; and from this truth it is an easy inference that kindness is our best wisdom, because it is an image of the wisdom of God. This is the idea of kind interpretations, and this is the use which we must make of them. The habit of judging is so nearly incurable, and its cure is such an almost interminable process, that we must concentrate ourselves for along while on keeping it in check, and this check is to be found in kind interpretations. We must come to esteem very lightly our sharp eye for evil, on which, perhaps, we once prided ourselves as cleverness. It has been to us a fountain of sarcasm; and how seldom since Adam was created has sarcasm fallen short of being a sin! We must look at our talent for analysis of character as a dreadful possibility of huge uncharitableness. We should have been much better without it from the first. It is the hardest talent of all to manage, because it is so difficult to make any glory for God out of it. We are sure to continue to say clever things so long as we continue to indulge in this analysis; and clever things are equally sure to be sharp and acid. Sight is a great blessing, but there are times and places where it is far more blessed not to see. It would be comparatively easy for us to be holy if only we could always see the character of our neighbours either in soft shade or with the kindly deceits of moonlight upon them. Of course, we are not to grow blind to evil, for thus we should speedily become unreal; but we must grow to something higher, and something truer, than a quickness in detecting evil.
...But while common-sense convinces us of the truth of kind interpretations, common selfishness ought to open our eyes to their wisdom and their policy. We must have passed through life unobservantly if we have never perceived that a man is very much himself what he thinks of others. Of course his own faults may be the cause of his unfavourable judgments of others; but they are also, and in a very marked way, effects of those same judgments. A man who was on a higher eminence before will soon by harsh judgments of others sink to the level of his own judgments. When you hear a man attribute meanness to another, you may sure, not only that the critic is an ill-natured man, but that he has got a similar element of meanness in himself, or is fast sinking to it. A man is always capable himself of a sin which he thinks another is capable of, or which he himself is capable of imputing to another. Even a well-founded suspicion more or less degrades a man. His suspicion may be verified, and he may escape some material harm by having cherished the suspicion. But he is unavoidably the worse man in consequence of having entertained it. This is a very serious consideration, and rather a frightening argument in favour of charitable interpretations. Furthermore, our hidden judgments of others are, almost with a show of special and miraculous interference, visited upon ourselves. Virtue grows in us under the influence of kindly judgments, as is they were its nutriment. But in the case of harsh judgments we find we often fall into the sin of which have judged another guilty, although it is not perhaps a sin at all common to ourselves. Or, if matters do not go so far as this, we find ourselves suddenly overwhelmed with a tempest of unusual temptations, and on reflection conscience is ready to remind us that the sin to which we are thus violently and unexpectedly tempted is on which we have of late been uncharitably attributing to others. Sometimes also we are ourselves falsely accused and widely believed to be guilty of some fault of which we re quite innocent; but it is a fault of which we have recently, in our mind at least, accused another. Moreover, the truth or falsehood of our judgments seem to have very little to do with the matter. The truth of them does not protect us from their unpleasant consequences; just as the truth of a libel is no sufficient defence of it. It is the uncharitableness of the judgment, or the judging at all, to which this self-avenging power is fastened. It works itself out like a law, quietly but infallibly. Is not this matter for very serious reflection?
Excerpts from "Kindness" by Father Faber, Chapter II, Kind Thoughts
RASH JUDGMENT - According to St John of the Cross
St. John [of the Cross] repeats the admonition relative to judgment of one’s neighbor in the first of his Four Maxims to a Religious. As he says: “Those who fail in charity toward their neighbor fail likewise to profit by any other works of virtue they may perform, and they continually go from bad to worse.”
It is sad to think that after many years in religious life one has lost not only the merit of his virtuous actions but has actually fallen into the dangerous state of sin. Let us consider in logical order the evils which may result from a neglect of this important admonition. There is, first of all, a tendency to judge one’s neighbor unfavorably, and this is termed “rash judgment.” This is equally serious, whether interior or exterior. St. John says that this consists in mental criticism and murmuring resulting in rash statements against one’s neighbor. This is corroborated in the celebrated passage of St. James: “If any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue, this man’s religion is vain.”
In every order, religious, social, or moral, there are certain truths which are fundamental because everyone agrees to them. In secondary truths and the appreciation of details and concrete acts, each one sees them according to his own dispositions. Thus in the actions of our neighbor we see only the external action and know little or nothing of the motives which prompted him to do this act. In order to judge correctly whether a person is worthy of praise or blame, knowledge is a principal requisite. Usually we are ignorant of the true principle of morality guiding the actions of others, therefore it is inevitable that when we judge according to our own light we are often guilty of error.
In every rank of life there are narrow-minded individuals whose horizon is limited to the private and public life of their neighbor. This is not only deplorable but it is a genuine spiritual infirmity.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the tendency to judge one’s neighbor proceeds from two causes: “…either the person is evil- minded and unconsciously judges others by his own evil dispositions or he harbors such envy, hatred, or contempt for his neighbor that he experiences a secret delight in thinking evil of him and readily believes any misconception of his neighbor’s actions.” This teaching of St. Thomas should teach us to restrain our judgment of our neighbor, because suspicious and unfavorable judgments are a revelation of the infirmities of our own souls. When we are caught by a keen observer in a merciless judgment against our neighbor we should blush at the portrayal of a quality in ourselves which even natural pride would prompt us to conceal. It was St. Bonaventure who said, “When you perceive anything reprehensible in your neighbor, turn your eyes on yourself; before you cast any judgment, examine yourself well, and condemn in yourself that which you would have condemned in him.”
If such motives of human respect are insufficient to keep us from rash judgment, then the uneasiness of our conscience should. Concerning the moral aspect of this question St. Thomas states; “Those, who, because of slight indications doubt the goodness of their neighbor, sin venially. If he holds malice against his neighbor and because of this accuses him of wrong, then he is guilty of mortal sin, because of his contempt of his neighbor.”
St. Paul is even more severe when he says, “thou art inexcusable O man, whosoever thou art, that judgest. For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself.” To the Corinthians he adds, “Therefore judge not … until the Lord come, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness.” The same exhortation is found in St. Luke: “Condemn not and you shall not be condemned. Forgive and you shall be forgiven. … For with the same measure that you shall mete, it shall be measured out to you.” Such words are indicative of the fact that on the day of final judgment the same standards will be applied to us personally as we have applied to our fellow men. No matter how incredible it may seem, we know that God, who is all mercy and infinite virtue, judges far more leniently than we oftentimes judge our neighbor. God, knowing and understanding human defects and weaknesses, is ever ready to make all kinds of allowances; thus it is not surprising to read in the Book of Wisdom: “Thou being Master of power, judgest with tranquillity; and with great favor disposeth us … but thou hast taught thy people by such works that they must be just and humane. …”
Only when man possesses a deep self-knowledge and a broader knowledge of men will he find himself mild in his judgment of others. Yet this is the goal we must strive for, first in our thoughts, since charitable thoughts transform material actions into acts of supernatural value, and this only when we are completely imbued with the spirit of divine love and mercy.
Since God has reserved the right of judgment to Himself, man has no right whatsoever to anticipate the judgment of God and pass sentence on his fellow man, for in so doing he is but condemning himself, Regardless of the actions of our fellow men we must always view them in the spirit of charity and in the realization that “judgment is the Lord’s, not man’s.”
It is true that we nearly always judge without premeditation or malice. Our judgments are usually based on personal antagonism, ignorance, and perhaps a clash of personalities; yet it is not expedient that we rely on such excuses for judging our neighbor. Ignorance may lessen our guilt but at the same time it is equally true that we are bound to regulate our charity and justice toward our neighbor in accordance with God’s law of charity. This regulation must begin in the interior since it is our thoughts which govern our speech and our actions. Charitable thoughts will beget charitable words; likewise envious and uncharitable thoughts dispose us to hideous sins against charity and justice.
Everyone is aware from personal experience that rash judgment is moral poisoning. Once the imagination is given free reign then we find evil in others. The insidious poison which we have administered to ourselves increases with each uncharitable thought. We soon find it difficult to be amiable and indulgent toward our fellow religious and as the poison spreads we become more and more intolerant of any weakness, until even the smallest fault becomes magnified to alarming proportions. We can no longer remain master of our speech when we have arrived at this stage because it is always true, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
The evils resulting from lack of interior silence and uncharitable speech are without number and God alone knows the damage caused both in the cloister and out of it once this evil has been indulged in. If a rock is dislodged from the top of the mountain, we cannot measure the destruction it will cause until it finally comes to rest in the valley below. This is an apt picture of the slanderous tongue which is a weight from the heart. As it breaks from the sanctuary in which it has been nurtured it hurtles into an abyss which becomes fathomless, leaving bitterness and disaster in its wake. Such words may be filled with resentment and anger, envy and jealousy, but they are always weighted with selfishness, mirroring the narrow soul from which they emerged. They are as arrows shot from one heart to another, communicating to each new victim poison and bitterness. Innocent and pure aspirations become dissipated; souls which have lived in happiness are filled with discontent; but those who have harbored mutual distrust are filled with malice and hatred. What, then, shall stop these icy waves of uncharitableness launched forth by a cold and restless heart in a moment of imprudent confidence? God alone knows, as He alone reads the depths of a human heart.
It is not our intention to study the sins of the tongue in their various forms since volumes are written on this subject. We need only to say that all the evil aspects related to rash judgment are applicable to slander and faultfinding, which evils cover a vaster field than the subject treated here. Rash judgment is self-toxic, whereas slander and faultfinding serve to poison all whom it contacts. Thus a single slanderous word, imprudently uttered, can be more destructive than a drop of poison assimilated by the system, destroying the vital principles of an organic being. Such words cool charity, destroy the most prudent sensibility, and poison the finest sentiments. Each one can study for himself the disastrous effects of backbiting, especially when he hears a person whom he had hitherto esteemed being the subject of such insidious slander. As a result he finds himself becoming suspicious and distrustful, even of his friend, carefully watching for evidences of the evil report. Distrust magnifies the defects of those under observation making it very difficult for us to be outwardly charitable toward them. These sins of the tongue are the worst of all enemies against charity since they ruin peace and confidence. Therefore the Holy Ghost warns us: “A wicked word shall change the heart, making what is good, evil — what is life, death — and the tongue is the ruler of them.”
Another danger which threatens those occupied in observing the defects of their neighbors is the consequence of these actions. In speaking about this St. John cites the example of Lot’s wife being changed into a pillar of salt, claiming that the wretched souls occupied with other people’s actions likewise acquire saline qualities themselves. Just as salt becomes hard, so too, the soul which indulges in meddling in another’s affairs, becomes hardened and unkind toward those around him. His haughtiness and intolerance serve to build a wall of separation between the offender and the offended, causing numerous unreasonable and illogical judgments to be passed. Salt is likewise a sign of barrenness; life cannot develop near rocks of salt. Neither can a soul engaged in uncharitableness do otherwise than render barren all that they may contact. Their skill in revealing another’s weakness and their hard and merciless criticisms cause generous hearts to feel completely depressed and insecure in their company. Near them there is only barrenness, there is no joy; there is no life.
It is impossible for simplicity and confidence to exist where restless and uncharitable souls are continually observing others for the sole pleasure of malicious criticism. Such a spirit is bound to breed discontent and an attitude of reserve which soon degenerates into jealousy and suspicion. Eventually the charm of religious life, which is love and mutual confidence, is destroyed and a rigid formalism replaces the original spirit of peace. Nothing remains but the letter of the law, that letter, which, according to St. Paul “…kills, instead of quickening.”
It is certain that while we live among men we shall have to bear with their weaknesses and they, in turn, will have to bear with ours; but we must try to live oblivious of the faults which are ever present in human nature. It is with this in mind that St. John of the Cross admonishes us to refrain from interfering in the affairs of our neighbor, to detach ourselves from created objects, and to regulate our affections toward our fellow men.
Never should the faults of our neighbor be discussed with our fellow men, unless with one who has the authority to correct the situation, and then only in the spirit of the greatest charity. This is insisted on by St. John of the Cross when he says: “Never under the pretext of zeal, or of charity, reveal what we know about our neighbor save to the person who has a right to hear of this, and then with great charity, and at the proper time.
The habit of practicing the virtue contrary to the fault you have noticed in others produces more effective results than mere words. A prudent and holy superior applied this remedy to an agitated religious who denounced a violation of the rule in another. “I am grateful to you, my dear son, for this zeal for the glory of God and the observance of the rule. Since you are aware of the offense that such a violation has given to God, I willingly grant you permission to fast today in expiation for the fault which has been committed.”
If those who are afflicted with undue curiosity about their neighbor’s welfare would thus assiduously make reparation for the faults they observe in others, then they would be less inclined to notice the trivial actions of those around them. Doing this would further the plans of Divine Providence to make religious houses the delightful garden where the tree of love would be preserved in its full luxuriance. It is here that Christ meant the great commandment to grow and bear much fruit: “Love one another as I have loved you….”
St. John of the Cross shows us clearly that to be just to God and to fulfill His command of mutual love and understanding we must be merciful to men in thought and deed. Our fraternal charity is then but the fulfillment of our filial piety toward God. Not only in fact, but in reality, Christ has identified Himself with each one of our neighbors so intimately that charity toward our neighbor is but a means of serving Christ Himself. Thus, whether we are living in the cloister or in the world, as long as our hearts remain a garden of delight for Christ through the spirit and practice of charity then “…we are the good odor of Christ unto God, …to others the odor of life unto life….”
The Secret of Sanctity of St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Lucas of St. Joseph, O.C.D., Bruce, Milwaukee, 1962, pp. 41-46. (Fr. Lucas was martyred by the Communists in Spain in 1936.)