Daily Meditations

Keeping Silence, Not Passing Judgment (Part II)

Father Poimen used to say, “It is written: ‘What your eye has seen, that you shall attest to’ (Prov. 25:7). But I say to you: ‘Even if you grasp it with your hands, do not speak about it.’ One brother was fooled in this matter. He saw something that looked as if his brother were sinning with a woman. Strongly tempted, he went over and kicked them with his foot, believing that it was they, and said; ‘Stop it now! How long will you continue?’ And behold, they were sheaves of grain. That is why I tell you: ‘Even if you can grasp it with your hands, do not judge.’ “

Poimen knew that we can project our own fantasies even into nature. The brother of whom he speaks was projecting his sexual desires onto the sheaves of grain. He saw in them what he had continually been imagining to himself. So mistrustful was Poimen of all judging that he even forbids us to do it when we think we could grasp the other’s sin with our two hands. Even there, often enough, we are just grasping our own fantasies.

Silence means renouncing every projection. “When Father Agathon saw something and his heart wished to pass judgment on the thing, he would tell himself: ‘Agathon, don’t do it.’ And thus his thinking came to rest.” “If you see someone sinning, pray to the Lord and say: ‘Forgive me if I have sinned.’ “

Passing judgment on others makes us blind to our own mistakes. Silence while looking at others makes clear self-consciousness possible. We stop projecting our mistakes onto others. Thus one of the sayings reads: “In the skete there was an assembly once on account of a fallen brother. The fathers spoke; only Father Pior kept silent. Afterward he stood up, took a sack, filled it with sand, and carried it on his shoulder. Meanwhile he bore in front of him a little basket with a tiny amount of sand. The fathers asked him what that meant, and he answered: ‘This sack with all the sand is my sins. I have put them behind me so that they won’t worry me, and I won’t weep over them. And behold, the few errors of my brother are in front of me, and I say all sorts of things to condemn him. It is not right to do so. Rather I should carry my own in front of me and think about them and beg God to forgive them.’ Then the fathers stood up and said: ‘Truly this is the way of salvation!’ “

This sort of symbolic action can make it clearer to us how often we are on the point of condemning others. Perhaps we think that we are discussing another person out of concern for that person’s salvation. In reality we are making a great to-do about that person’s sins, while our own are much greater. But we simply won’t admit it. Here we need a Father Pior to make it clear to us in a friendly, careful fashion that it makes no sense to get excited about other people’s sins. It would be better to pray for them instead and to sense in prayer that we are all tempted, that none of us can guarantee that we will remain without mistakes.

Even when a brother really does sin, we shouldn’t condemn him. Thus Poimen says: “When a person sins and denies it, claiming, ‘I have not sinned,’ do not condemn him. Otherwise you discourage him. But if you say, ‘Do not lose heart, brother, in the future be careful!’ you awaken his soul to repentance.” Instead of condemning others, we should win them over to the love of God.

“The story was told about Father Isidore, the elder of the skete: If someone had a recalcitrant or weak brother, a neglectful or arrogant one, and wished to cast him out, he would say, ‘Bring him to me!’ And he would receive him and save him through his patience.”

~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers