Regarding the faults of others Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov writes that,
It is worth noticing that, after acquiring spiritual understanding, the defects and faults of one’s neighbour begin to seem very slight and insignificant, as redeemed by the Saviour and easily cured by repentance—those very faults and defects which seemed to the carnal understanding so big and serious. Evidently the carnal mind, being itself a plank, gives them this huge significance. The carnal mind sees in others sins that are not there at all.
However, we are still sinners, and in a parish we sometimes must point out actualities, even acerbically. As with everything, without corrective checks and balances things easily can go askew. Thus, from the final canon of the Council in Trulo (AD 692), we read:
It behoves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, and to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner…, and to apply medicine suitable for the disease…in some way or other, either by means of sternness and astringency, or by greater softness and mild medicines, to resist this sickness and to exert himself for the healing of the ulcer, now examining the fruits of repentance and wisely managing the person…
This is done in humility and love, only to cauterize never to punish. Too much preoccupation with anger and criticism of others forces out forgiveness and genuine love, as does picking and re-opening the wound- dwelling on the ways we are sinned against.
“Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind? Do you love your neighbour as yourself?” No. Not if you’re keeping tabs on your neighbour’s faults, dissecting his word and berating your love-ones and friends about his sins. Not if you don’t try to find common ground and coexistence in love. Not if you’re spending more time criticising them than praying for them. Not if you slam the door and walk away. When we reject reconciliation we judge our brother and find him guilty. God alone judges. We must repent and learn to love and accept.
The persecuted is persecutor when he hates his enemy
We are all of us wounded by each other’s words and deeds, and we are subtly wounded when we wound another. It cuts both ways. We say the “wrong thing” and we wound someone, and there’s always someone who’ll jump on us and make us suffer for our mistakes. We must accept this just as we come to expect it.
A good place to be is in a miniscule part of a small church that nobody’s heard of, with zero cultural influence in the west, and in a tiny parish that is materially poor. This is exactly where I need to be. However, it’s no utopia here in the sticks, no bed of roses. Even in a small rural parish we’re not safe from trials and tribulations. Thank God!
Developing a humble disposition
In the parish we learn the gift of silence and to place ourselves below our brother. Certainly, we are nothing, we bear no ill will, and we shan’t defend ourselves against judgments, other than to say that we are always in a very large company: no parish, no priest – and certainly no parishioner – is perfect. We have learned this from long and hard experience.
Bring it on, all of it…
But, for everything, including the criticisms levelled against our own very real failings – and even for the failings themselves, we joyfully offer all thanks and glory to God! This knowledge provides clarity: perfection is of God alone.
A poor shepherd
Truly, I am in grave danger when I am craning my neck to look over the fence at my neighbour’s poor flock and weedy meadows just so that I can justify my perception of him as a bad/lazy/inhumane/incompetent shepherd (delete, apply as appropriate). Actually, by doing this I place my neck in a noose and commit both spiritual murder and suicide.
Blessed are you when men revile you…
It is preferable to be the recipient of criticism who agrees with the critic, or even the recipient of an unjustifiable onslaught than to be a critic who lacks the capacity for self-judgment and self-condemnation. We ought to be grateful for judgments against us as these might just enable us to view our own failings (mine are large, and I have many!) with greater clarity.
Love your enemy
We must remain deeply committed to the critic-attacker, concerned for his/her future, and welcome him/her back with open arms and an ever-open heart. In any case, the attacker is often our closest spiritual friend even when they hate us.
What can we take away of any practical application…?
Pot calling the kettle black: “Keep it zipped!”
It is all too easily to become a “politically correct” member of the “thought police”. When we are “offended” we must ensure that we are not becoming “offensive”. This is challenging!
Reconciliation: Making up
Maintain communion. Never refuse an olive branch. Don’t sulk. Find common ground. Offer and ask forgiveness as quickly as you’re able. This is challenging!
Commitment: “I’m not going anywhere!”
Commit to a parish, to the sweat and hard graft of service to others, and to the rough and tumble of the Christian struggle. This is challenging!
Family life: “Better off together!”
No-one is perfect. The parish – and ours I love with all my heart – is a family, with a father, godparents, godbrothers, sisters, children. In our family we’ve occasionally squabbled. Yes, we speak our mind and sometimes it stings, but we work things out, we put up with each other’s brokenness and crankiness and selfish cruelties. This is challenging!
Love: “I love you!”
We tolerate and learn to love each other, warts and all, not in spite of our faults, but because of them. God demands this of us. We learn that everyone is trying to survive and that sometimes the stresses make us wobble or even crack. This is challenging!
Confession: “Forgive me, the sinner!”
Certainly we should be open in word and deed, confessing regularly, fully and with radical self-honesty, especially when the toxicity levels are rising. Deal swiftly with anger before it masters us, and our obsessive thoughts become corrosive. This is challenging!
Humility “not my will but yours”
Sometimes we might just be graced to discover that we’re wrong- that the outward ugliness of another disguises deeper more beautiful realities; that the slippery rocky paths are sometimes preferable to smooth tarmac; that the apparently rotten fruit we’re offered may be the best available (and certainly the best that we “deserve”). Even Christ Himself drinks vinegar, which as Bishop Paul of Tracheia points out, is ‘fruit turned sour’; fruit which ‘Adam’s hands had plucked from the tree’.
Tolerance: “turn the other cheek”
Sometimes we’ve even been granted a little tolerance: to not run away from love-ones, not find anyone unbearable, to not send them away, to not bark or snap at them or lash out in the first place. Perhaps, rather than exposing and dwelling on the failings of others, we’d all do well to adhere to the word of the Holy King David: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Psalm 31:1) – however personally egregious to us they might be. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, (Matthew 5:44). This is challenging!
The reward of patience
Let’s be frank: some people are really hard work!!! But they are an especial gift from God. The ugly, the hate-filled, the sanctimonious know-all, the whiner, the criticiser, the nit-picker…we need them all, we are deficient without them. And vice versa: they are deficient without us, which is why we must never desert them or reject them or run away from them. It boils down to this: I am going to love this person whether I want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands me to do. Through the faults of others we discover our own failings (we too are the hater, the know-all), and together – through God’s grace – we are remade in God’s likeness. Together we’re saved. Alone we’re just lost.
I’ll leave the final word to a far wiser pastor than I (Fr. Richard D. Andrews of St. George’s Church, St. Paul, MN):
We live in a fallen world in which Jesus has consigned the devil and his angels to operate and be active until the Second Coming. And because the dark forces of evil have not yet been finally eliminated, serious spiritual warfare continues. Whether we like it or not, we are all drawn into this battle. There are no neutral parties. Either we stand with God or we stand with Satan.
The stakes are high in this war. Our eternal salvation is in peril. And what we do, how we act, the words we say, even what we think, all of these can affect our relationship with God, with the evil one and with each other. We are not saved alone. It’s not just me and “sweet Jesus”! My salvation is wrapped up together with my neighbour’s.
May God have mercy on us all.
the useless sinner and most unworthy presbyter, Father Jakob