In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:
One day blessed Theophilus the archbishop came to the mountain of Nitria and the abba of the mountain came to meet him. The archbishop said to him, ‘Father, in this way of life which you follow, what do you find to be best?’ The old man said to him, ‘The act of accusing myself, and of constantly reproaching myself.’ Abba Theophilus said to him, ‘There is no other way but this.’
St. Macarius the Great, whom we remember today, was equally direct:
Do no evil to anyone, and do not judge anyone. Observe this and you will be saved.
We are reminded of the words of the Holy Apostle Paul who admonishes those approaching the Holy Mysteries:
For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
Moreover, today, with the opening of the Lenten Triodion, just three weeks before the beginning of Lent itself, we hear the well-known parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Lord speaks directly to each one of us when he tells of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee who has scrupulously fulfilled all of the ordinances of the Mosaic law, at least outwardly, dares to devote the time of his prayer to uttering words of condemnation, God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. But in an instant, the very man he condemns, this publican—a member of that class of tax collectors and other public officials of the Roman Empire, viewed by all as betrayers of God and the Jewish people—this publican surpasses him. Not even daring to lift his eyes to heaven the publican strikes his breast and prays: God be merciful to me a sinner. The first justifies himself but is not justified in the sight of God, the second condemns himself and goes away truly justified.
The Lord our God is all-knowing, all-wise. He is more aware of our passions and habitual sins than we are. We do not fool him with boastful words, even if we sometimes succeed in fooling ourselves. He is also fully aware of our brother’s faults, and does not need us to relate them to Him or to gossip about them with others. It will not make Him look upon us more favorably even if our brother is all that we say He is. But in truth when we condemn our brother, we always do so with an incomplete knowledge and understanding of his condition. Even if we work and pray with him everyday for forty years, short of a divine revelation, we cannot see all that goes on in his heart, can at best only partially understand his struggle. Even if he tells about some fault or fall himself, we do not get a complete picture. This means that very often when we judge him we are merely speculating, drawing conclusions which may be utterly false or at best only partially accurate. In a real sense, we are, to one degree or another, lying. And what audacity it takes to lie to God in prayer, to think that we can make the God who knows all hearts and minds look upon us more favorably by condemning and slandering a fellow servant. Even if we could be, by some chance, completely accurate in our assessment of another man’s sins, what would it profit us? A complete knowledge of another man’s passions and vices helps us neither today nor at Dread Judgment.
Speaking of this pernicious activity, St. John of Kronstadt writes
I have seen and heard men relate maliciously and malevolently the dark spots in the life and activity of great and even holy men, and condemn on account of such imaginary or real dark spots, the whole life of such men… [S]uch people do not justify themselves, but only increase their own condemnation by beholding the mote in their brother’s eye and judging him, not considering the beam, (truly a beam) in their own eye… You say: “There are such and such sins in this holy father, or in that pious man.” What of that? He is a man, and no man is sinless… Are you yourself sinless? If not, then why do you cast the stone of condemnation at your brother? If I were to examine your life, in accordance with the Word of God, I should convict you by your own words of innumerable and grievous sins: of pride, presumption, unbelief, love of money, adultery, and of the misinterpretation of the Word of God and of God’s commandments, of coldness to your faith, and of what not besides… Brother! “Who are thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth.”
Holy fathers, brothers and sisters, if we take these words seriously, are we not compelled to admit that each one of us is spiritually sick? Some are less so, perhaps by virtue of their good upbringing, or after much care and healing medicine prescribed by the Church. Others of us are grievously, terminally ill, maybe because we have not yet had the benefit of such medicine or, what is more likely, because we have for whatever reason refused healing and nourishment. But our common human malady remains the same. This is why we have the Church, this spiritual hospital. This is why we have monasteries, intensive care wards, as it were, and the penitential seasons such as Lent, with the disciplines of prayer, fasting, alms-giving: balms for our ailing souls. Sick men do not typically concern themselves overmuch condition of the patient in the next bed, they don’t run to the physician to report on the vital signs of the patient in the next room, or to suggest this or that plan of treatment. On the contrary, they may love and pray for a fellow patient they have met, but they are much too busy with their own troubles for idle curiosity and vain pursuits.
Let us then waste no mental energy, not a breath, on the sins or shortcomings of our brother. If I have not honorably and faithfully fulfilled my vows to the Lord God—as a clergyman, a monk, a husband or wife, as an Orthodox Christian—if I have not distanced myself in every way possible from those sins which I confess to my spiritual father or confessor, if I have not made a firm resolve and taken concrete steps never to repeat them, if I have not, in deed and word, “renounce[d] Satan, and all his Angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride,” if I have not practiced what I have preached (and I certainly have not), then what is left for me but to join my voice to that the publican: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Only by the path of humility can we have any hope of going away justified. “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Amen.
Let us come to ourselves like the prodigal; let us, like him, speak firm words of resolve to our own souls: “I will arise and go to my Father”; and the Gracious God will perfect our small intention.
He knows that we do not know the way to Him, or the manner in which to traverse it; but, hearing us say: “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart”, and seeing us begin our journey towards Him, He will then rush out to us, falling on us, and kissing our neck: He will send His All-Accomplishing Holy Spirit upon us, and guide us into all truth, not only in our understanding, but in all our deeds, all our life.
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.