This morning I was reading the work of St. John Climicus, 7th century monk-author from St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and came across a passage that triggered an edifying memory.
A number of years ago, I was speaking with a gentleman who was deeply involved in the charismatic renewal. He was a wonderfully a balanced fellow who really knew how to integrate his charismatic gifts with a spirituality grounded in humility and prudence, but he also possessed that marvelous quality that men and women in the Renewal often display: remarkable boldness in being explicit about their faith.
In fact, I remember that this man lived out an amazingly “out there” interpretation of that oft quoted St. Francis saying, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words” — he would do “silent” things that would of their nature create situations “of necessity” and “give them something to talk about,” giving him chance to speak about Christ. For example, he would always stop before his business meetings and enter into a brief moment for quiet prayer, which would often lead at some point to someone asking about what he was doing and his faith tradition (and nearly always astonished to learn he was Catholic, having never witnessed a Catholic praying in such manner). And because he did not otherwise look or act like a religious kinda guy, I understood why this would provoke fascination from others.
But to my point. There was one time when we were talking about a difficult fellow we both knew, sharing our common concern over his bad behavior. At some point in the conversation, after I had shared a slew of details about this person’s “issues,” my charismatic friend suddenly said to me: “Tom, I think we need to stop talking about him in this way now and turn him over to God.” And he proceeded to lead us in a prayer about this man, turning all our gripes and observations into petitions.
This experience stirred in me a mixture of shame for not thinking to pray for this man, of awkwardness for the sudden shift of course in our conversation, and of admiration for this friend whose faith had so-permeated his manner of being that such a shift from talk to prayer was absolutely natural to him. Though my own approach to such prayer would have been to pray for this man at my scheduled private time of prayer, or to pray quietly within, I loved three things about my friend’s approach: (1) The fact that he “got” the faith-fact that even when you talk critically about someone out of love and genuine concern, you must not fail to invest even more vigorous energy into prayer for them; (2) that when he started to pray, his prayer evinced a profound sense that the Jesus he addressed in prayer had been listening to our whole conversation; (3) that his request to suddenly turn to prayer in no way seemed to be a judgment on me or on our conversation, but rather made our critical observations, like so many church bells, into a call to prayer.
And so you ask, what was the Climacus quote that stirred up this memory? Well, it’s not exactly related to my recounted situation, but it addresses the question of how a Christ-attitude affects critical talk about others; and it addresses the ease with which we can slip from fraternal concern or cathartic venting to infernal detraction (see Catechism for a handy description of this slip). Climacus is acutely aware that human beings tend to mask their own faults by unmasking others’ faults, and, as with all the desert fathers, he argues that a God-inspired awareness of my own innumerable sins and faults should severely curtail the pleasure I derive from deriding others for their faults and sins. And though it may not always be wise or appropriate to be as abrupt as my friend or Climacus, the spirit of the call to prayer or to refuse to share in disparaging talk should always permeate a Christian life.
Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbor disparagingly, but rather say to him: “Stop, brother! I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?’ In this way you will achieve two things; you will heal yourself and your neighbor with one plaster. This is one of the shortest ways to the forgiveness of sins; I mean, not to judge. `Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.”