When I was a teenager, I became the best of friends with another young man who was my age, and I spent most of my free time with him. This young man was known for being a very negative and critical person. My parents were not happy about our friendship, fearing the negative influence he would have on me, and they sometimes expressed their concern, but I would hear nothing of it, making excuses for him. One of the primary effects of that friendship was the terrible habit I developed of gossiping about people and slandering those whom I did not like. At first, I joined in with the desire to be liked and accepted by him, but later it became a part of me, whether I was with him or not. This friend and I would spend hours upon hours nearly every time we spoke, mocking and deriding other people, laughing at their expense, blinded by our pride and self-love, thinking we were better than everyone else. Deep down, I knew this behavior was wrong, but after several years of indulging in this sin, when I began to repent and change my way of life, this deep-rooted passion proved very difficult to uproot. I still remained very judgmental because my efforts to change were half-hearted.
A few years later, after my friend had moved away and we had lost contact, I remember having a conversation with a girl I knew, where I was mocking a mutual friend of ours, pointing out what I didn’t like about him, thinking that she was in sympathy with my poisonous words. At some point after I had amused myself for quite a while with these biting remarks, she blurted out, “My goodness! When I’m not around, do you talk about me like that?” Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word aptly spoken, so says the book of Proverbs (25:11). I fumbled for excuses, and tried to assure her that I never would speak about her like that, but I don’t think that she believed me. Why would she? Her words haunted me then, and twenty years later I still remember them with pain of heart.
Today we remember our venerable father, St. John Climacus. I wish to speak with you now, using quotes from a chapter in St. John’s book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Each chapter is called a step, meaning a step on the spiritual ladder, and each step is connected with the one that comes before it and also the one that comes after it. St John says: “The holy virtues are like Jacob’s ladder, and the unholy vices are like the chains that fell from the chief Apostle Peter. For the virtues, leading them one to another, bear him who chooses them up to Heaven; but the vices by their nature beget and stifle one another.”1
Frequently you will hear St. John say such things like “this virtue is the mother of that virtue” or “this vice gives birth to many daughters” and so on. Virtues and vices are connected with one another, like links in a chain, like steps on a ladder.
The chapter I will be quoting from is Step Ten, “On Slander or Calumny.”
St. John begins in this way:
No sensible person, I think, will dispute that slander is born of hatred and remembrance of wrongs. …
Slander is an offspring of hatred, a subtle yet coarse disease, a leech lurking unfelt, wasting and draining the blood of love. It is simulation of love, the patron of a heavy and unclean heart, the ruin of chastity.2
I will add here that to those who have struggled for some time, it is no secret that our chastity can be ruined by both anger and judging. Slander is verbalizing our judgmental thoughts, but we can be overwhelmed with lustful passions even if we speak not a word, but merely judge and slander others in our thoughts, harboring ill feelings towards our neighbors, our brothers, our spouses, our spiritual fathers. God, in His mercy and providence, will allow temptations to beset us, so that we humble down and cease judging and slandering our neighbor and instead focus on the multitude of our own sins that we need to repent of. Our job is not to change other people, but to change ourselves.
St. John continues:
I have heard people slandering, and I have rebuked them. And these doers of evil replied in self-defence that they were doing so out of love and care for the person whom they were slandering. I said to them: ‘Stop that kind of love, otherwise you will be condemning as a liar him who said: “Him that privily talked against his neighbor, did I drive away” (Psalm 100:5, LXX). If you say you love, then pray secretly, and do not mock the man. For this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord.’ But I will not hide this from you… Judas was in the company of Christ’s disciples, and the thief was in the company of murderers. Yet it is a wondrous thing, how in a single instant, they exchanged places.
He who wants to overcome the spirit of slander should not ascribe the blame to the person who falls, but to the demon who suggests it. For no one really wants to sin against God, even though we all sin without being forced to do so.
I have known a man who sinned openly and repented secretly. I condemned him as a profligate, but he was chaste before God, having propitiated Him by a genuine conversion.
Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbour 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 neighbour 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’ (Luke 6:37).3
There is a story from The Prologue of Ohrid for March 30th that illustrates the beauty and ease with which someone may enter paradise. The monk’s name is not even remembered on earth, but he is known in heaven for this one virtue which he practiced his whole life. St. Nikolai writes:
This monk was lazy, careless, and lacking in his prayer life, but throughout all of his life he did not judge anyone. When dying, he was happy. When the brethren asked him how it was that with so many sins he could die joyfully, he replied, “I now see angels who are showing me a page containing my numerous sins. I said to them, ‘Our Lord said: Judge not, and ye shall not be judged (Luke 6:37).’ I have never judged anyone, and I hope in the mercy of God that He will not judge me.” And the angels tore up the paper. Upon hearing this, the monks were astonished and learned from it.4
St. John continues:
Fire and water are incompatible; and so is judging others in one who wants to repent. If you see someone falling into sin at the very moment of his death, even then do not judge him, because the Divine judgment is hidden from men. Some have fallen openly into great sins, but they have done greater good deeds in secret; so their critics were tricked, getting smoke instead of the sun.
Listen to me, listen, all you malicious reckoners of other men’s accounts! If it is true (as it really is true) that ‘with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged’ (Matthew 7:2), then whatever sins we blame our neighbour for, whether bodily or spiritual, we shall fall into them ourselves. That is certain.5
This brings to my mind what the psalmist writes: and let the trap, which he hath hidden, catch him, and into that same snare let him fall (Psalm 34:8, LXX).
St. John continues in Step Ten:
Hasty and severe judges of the sins of their neighbour fall into this passion because they have not yet attained to a thorough and constant remembrance and concern for their own sins. For if anyone could see his own vices accurately without the veil of self-love, he would worry about no one else in this life, considering that he would not have time enough for mourning for himself, even though he were to live a hundred years, and even though he were to see a whole River Jordan of tears streaming from his eyes. I have observed such mourning, and I did not find in it even a trace of calumny or criticism. …
This is one of the marks by which we can recognize spiteful and slanderous people: they are piteously plunged in the spirit of hatred; and with pleasure and without a qualm, they slander the teaching or affairs or achievements of their neighbour.
I have seen some committing the gravest sins in secret and without exposure; and in their supposed purity, they have harshly inveighed against persons who have had a petty fall in public.
To judge others is a shameless arrogation of the Divine prerogative; to condemn is the ruin of one’s soul.
Even without any other passion, self-esteem can ruin a man; and in the same way, if we have formed the habit of judging, we can be utterly ruined by this alone; for indeed, the Pharisee was condemned for this very thing.
A good grape-picker, who eats the ripe grapes, will not start gathering unripe ones. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of whatever virtues it sees in anyone. But a fool looks for faults and defects. And of such it is said: ‘They have searched after iniquity, and in searching they are grown weary of searching’ (Psalm 63:7, LXX).
Do not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they are often deceived.6
How often I myself have learned from experience that my eyes can deceive me, that my thoughts against someone are completely false and imaginary and untrue. And yet, I can still nurture them, preferring the vanity and pride of believing my own eyes and my own thoughts over the way of Christ, who, even though He knew Judas would betray Him, even though He knew Peter would deny Him, even though He knew the apostles would abandon him and flee at His hour of need, even though He knew the Jews would demand His death, even though He knew Pilate would wash his hands of Him, even though He knew the Roman soldiers would spit on Him, even though he knew the multitudes would praise Him one day and the next day cry: “Crucify Him!”, even though He knew Thomas would doubt Him, even though He knew that all of us would be guilty of denying His love for us all, slandering and mocking one another, God’s very image; still He looks at us with unfathomable compassion and says to you and me, “Do you know how much I love you, my child? Do you know? If I were to show you how much, you could not bear it. I love everyone as my own children, from the least to the greatest, both saints and sinners. Why, therefore do you mock and slander and gossip about one another, crucifying me anew with these sins that are so easily overcome with very little effort? Let Me fill you with My love so that you may see yourselves as the worst of sinners, and everyone else as angels and saints: children of My love. Then you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
St. John concludes: “The tenth ascent. He who has mastered it is one who practices love or mourning.”7
When I was growing up, my parents used to have a quote that was decoratively written and hung in a picture frame in our kitchen. It said, “The absent are safe with us,” which means that those who were not present with us need not fear that they would be spoken ill of in our home. Although I can still remember that quote and where it hung in our kitchen, I did not apply that wise saying in my life, as you heard me tell you at the beginning. If that saying were hanging in your kitchen, here inour trapeza, would it be true? Are the absent safe with us?
Every weekday during the Great Fast, we hear in church multiple times a day the prayer of St. Ephraim. In a way, it is the golden rule of Great Lent. Someone asked me recently if they should say this prayer outside of the Great Fast. Of course, we don’t say it liturgically in church outside of Lent, but certainly, this prayer can be said throughout the year. With the last line especially we should imitate that nameless but blessed monk whose list of sins were torn asunder by the angels, and with all our hearts, beseech our loving and merciful Savior, “Yea, O Lord King, grant me to seemyfailings, and not condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on March 12/25, 2012, Fourth Sunday of Great Lent (commemoration of St. John Climacus).