The Loathing of All Saints

Re-post from 11/1/13 (and I left a comment at the end I had made in response to a question..don’t know what it was, though)

Sometimes I hear it said that those who refuse to judge and condemn others’ misdeeds aren’t realistic about life, burying their heads in the sand. It’s false mercy, they say, that fails to confront the damage evil can wreak when the good choose to do nothing.

True enough.

But on this feast of All-Saints, let me introduce you to a different take by a saint whom many of you likely do not know. Desert Father and monk St. Isaac of Ninevah (d. 700 A.D.) wrote often about what he called the “harm of foolish zeal that has the guise of being divine.” The virtue of zeal, which is a single-minded passion in pursuit of some cause, can become a vice of it is not oriented toward the true good. Isaac often spoke of “foolish zealot-monks” who saw it as their mission to “spew their caustic judgments” on the failures of others, delighting in publicly manifesting and spreading their missteps so others might join them in their “self-righteous calumny.” In this, Isaac says, they err as their motive and goal is shaped not by love but by anger and a loveless justice. The minds of such zealots “are filled with thoughts of judgment and secret joy in the foolishness or downfall of another,” since, he said, it steals attention away from their own inner emptiness and wretchedness.

So what’s the alternative? Isaac says that instead leveling judgments born of self-righteous anger, men of faith should first desire another’s salvation and to bear their infirmities, loathing to voice judgment. If they do find themselves bound by the demands of charity or justice to voice rebuke and judgment, their first thought should be to seek God’s mercy for them and that God allow them to bear the weight of the evildoer’s sins for the sake of their salvation. “Such was the way of he Master.”

Dostoevsky echoed Isaac’s counsel in Brothers Karamazov:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (Book VI, Chapter 3)

St. Isaac, while discussing the traits of this anger-driven religious compulsion of the zealots, adds this:

A zealous man never achieves peace of mind. And he who is a stranger to peace is a stranger to joy. If, as it is said, peace of mind is perfect health, and zeal is opposed to peace, then the man who has a wrong zeal is ill with a grievous disease. Though you presume, O man, to send forth your zeal against the infirmities of other men, you have expelled the health of your own soul. Be assiduous, therefore, in laboring for your own soul’s health. If you wish to heal the infirm, know that the sick are in greater need of loving care than of rebuke. Therefore, although you do not help others, you expend labor to bring grievous illness upon yourself. Zeal is not reckoned among men to be a form of wisdom, but one of the illnesses of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance. The beginning of divine wisdom is clemency and gentleness, which arise from greatness of soul and the bearing of infirmities of men. For, the Apostle Paul says, ‘let the strong bear the infirmities of the weak’, and ‘Restore him that has fallen in the spirit of meekness.’ The Apostle numbers peace and patience among the fruits of the Spirit … In this way let us not pray like the hypocrite: “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Imagine possessing the zealous love of St. Paul who tells us of his desire to offer God his own salvation in exchange for that of his Jewish brethren who have rejected Christ. It’s breathtaking:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3)

Though in my weakness I could only wish to salute such self-forgetful love from afar, it serves as a stark reminder that the merciful, in the face of evil, desire to imitate Jesus who responded to evil by taking on Himself the sins of the world.

2 comments on “The Loathing of All Saints

  1. I am not exactly certain what you are saying here, so I won’t venture a comment yet. But as an aside, for parents it’s so important to have this “end” in mind as they raise their children. Though we cannot begin child rearing with a call to radical altruism or that form of charity (mercy) that is the fruit of a long life of ascetical labor cooperating with grace, we must have a formational plan that helps each child to move from (1) self-possession, (2) an individual sense of accountability and (3) a clear understanding of the right-wrong meaning of justice toward (1) self-gift, (2) a deeper awareness of solidarity’s demands for becoming one’s brother’s keeper and (3) the call to suffer-for-the-good-of-the-other demands of mercy. The second “phase” of growth in Christian virtue perfects/transcends, though it does eliminate, the first phase. So as a parent of older children who still need to be held accountable, rebuked, by parents for their own growth and welfare, you still do that. That’s built in to the parenting role. But in this vision I shared, which is a vision of the higher levels of Christian perfection that Jesus displayed super-eminently on the Cross as he assumed the guilt of us all — “became sin” — one can clearly see that the call for others to “repent” or the need to expose or punish others’ sins must be, for the Christian, inextricably bound to the willingness (“fiat”) to suffer with and for them, to co-bear their guilt in Christ, in whatever ways God may choose. This is what the story of Élisabeth Arrighi Leseur is really a story of in relation to her atheist husband. She asked God to allow her to co-bear with Christ her husband’s malice and ignorance, was willing to have her inner peace shaken by being allowed to share in her husband’s inner turmoil; much as Therese at the end of her life felt God had allowed her to taste within the despair of the atheist in order to obtain for them the grace of faith. A profound sense of solidarity shaped by the Christian theology of the Paschal mystery. It means, in other words, that justice alone never suffices in determining our relationship with evildoers, but in Jesus mercy is the justice of the Kingdom. And mercy does not eliminate the demands of justice — without justice mercy would have no evil to heal — but it always goes beyond justice, in a radical call to solidarity that Jesus rendered co-redemptively fruitful.
    Another vantage: Jesus condemned wrongdoing, called out the Pharisees and Lawyers and Scribes, etc., but he only did that in view of his future Passion, where his words of condemnation would be perfected by his words of mercy; his call for sinners to repent would be perfected by his vicarious Passion that bore those very sins away into the abyss of divine-human love.
    Another: this also helps to purge from us the disordered and self-centered joy we can get in calumny, in judging others’ failings, like the Pharisee who prays in the Temple about his own goodness vis-a-vis the filthy lot of men like the tax collector behind him.
    “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer Jesus gives is “yes,” and the manner of “keeping” includes the willingness to suffer with and for and on behalf of the sinner, the fallen, the weak, according to the demands of our personal vocation and life circumstances.
    Back to your example: so a parent of kids who need to be called out on bad choices does that out of love, must do that for their good, but in addition this parent makes it known to God that they are willing to receive whatever God might send them to co-suffer for their children’s welfare and salvation. Often, secretly. Like Monica’s years of grief filled tears and suffering with a harsh spouse which she offered for both of them — she was willing to get dirty to lift from the pit those who were mired.
    I should stop now as I may be simply rambling around your actual question! Thanks for provoking my thought! Blessing son tha fam — always awesome to see your name…….

  2. nos says:


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