Monastic Tips for Self-isolation
Gossip and Judging
The entire world is experiencing the impact of COVID-19, the Novel Corona Virus pandemic. It is commonly said that one of the Chinese words for crisis can be interpreted as opportunity. With the limiting of so many being able to go out, we invite you to discover the opportunity to go in. To go in to the place of the heart. Over the coming days, we will be posting wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church regarding the values to be found from times of silence, solitude, and reflection.
When people find themselves isolated, one of the most common tendencies is to divert from our own failings by focusing on the failings or weaknesses of others. It was once said that gossip is like taking a feather pillow on top of a tall building, tearing it open and letting it fly through the air. We can hope we can retrieve our words, but once they are out there, Lord have mercy.
Social media, chat rooms, phone conversations can be wonderful forums for connection, staying in touch, and strengthening our love and support of one another. But too often they can also become platforms for hurtful words and spouting our unchecked opinions.
St. James, the brother of the Lord, said ‘he that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law’ (James 4:11 KJV), that is the law of love, to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Mt. 22:39 KJV). Nearly a thousand years ago, wise King Solomon taught, ‘When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise’ (Prov. 10:19, NASB).
Today let us meditate on the themes of gossip and judging from a Native American holy man, Nicholas Black Elk, as well as some of the Desert Fathers.
Black Elk* continues to speak
I remember a relative of mine used to come over and used to gossip about her aunts and uncles. She used to talk about them and complain about them. So before she left one day, my father said to her, ‘Daughter-in-law, the strong person doesn’t speak sharp words about their neighbor, or other persons. People hear such words and they like to hear them – then they somehow feel satisfied. Seems like all they want to do is hear bad things.’
My father gave her an example. He said: ‘It’s like a dog who gets so hungry at times it goes out and gets all sorts of bones. Even if they’re dry and rotted, he carries them back to the house and just piles them up stinking. The dog thinks there’s real meat on the bones, he picks them up to eat – they’re messy and not good for him at all. That’s the way it is with people. They like to hear and speak harsh words all the time in all places.’
‘You yourself, if you believe in God, should just forgive others. Don’t mention anything about them. The people you complain about might just be ignorant. They themselves want to do good for you because they see you talk nice about them. They see you don’t even care what they said to you. That way they’ll be back in the religion and do things you respect. And when they’re dead, you can say nice words about them.’
That’s what he told that lady. That’s the way he talked – in a nice way so she wasn’t offended. After my father said this to her, she was really getting along good with her relatives right up until they died.
Lucy Black Elk, remembrance of her father, Black Elk (Nicholas)
*Black Elk (1866-1950), one of the most famous Lakota elders, is best known for the book Black Elk Speaks, recorded by John Neihardt. This covered his life up to the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Most don’t know that, after that, he became a Catholic Christian and was given the name “Nicholas” in baptism. He ended his years as a Catechist, teaching and modeling the way of Jesus. His favorite activities were prayers to the Mother of God and the Liturgy.
Abba Moses on Judging
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The [elder] said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, p. 139
A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?’ The [elder] replied, ‘Whenever we cover our brother’s sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God will do the same about ours.’
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, p. 24
A brother sinned and the priest ordered him to go out of the church; Abba Bessarion got up and went with him, saying, ‘I, too, am a sinner.’
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, p. 25
St. Anthony on our brother
Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we have gained our brother, we have gained God, but we have scandalized our brother, we have sinned against Christ.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, p. 3
In conclusion, let us remember the advice of St. Barsanuphius in 6th century Palestine:
Every thought which is not preceded by the calmness of humility does not come from God, but clearly from the left side. Our Lord comes with quietness; but everything from the enemy comes with disturbance and unquietness.
Saints Barsanuphius and John; St. Herman Press, Platina, CA, p. 47
The antidote to gossip and judging is prayer and pausing. As we say the Prayer of Jesus, it helps us to discern. Is this thought disturbing my soul? Put it on the shelf. Is this thought driving me to do something? Lay it aside. Does this thought promote peace, humility and love? Consider it more carefully. This is the way of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers and Mothers. The Holy Apostle James summed it up by saying, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger’ (James1:19 NASB). Two ears, one mouth. As we follow these examples of the 'meekness of wisdom' (James 3:13, KJV) found in the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Apostles, the Holy Fathers/Mothers, and Native American tradition, our hearts will preserve peace, and our relationships will be secured. What an amazing opportunity we are experiencing!