Our taboo – not a word about your neighbor’s shortcomings
In “The Philokalia” there is this wonderful image: it talks about a certain three-strand rope which is spliced by the Holy Trinity, which means by the Triune God Himself. A person can touch this divine, shining rope; he could even grab it, gird himself with it and always carry it on him. And then he would be firmly joined with God and at the same time always protected from all enemies. So, what is this three-strand rope? As saint Callistos and Ignatius tell us, this is love, spliced in humility and mercy. This is one of the most precious gifts that God gives to man. And man is called to hold on tightly to this golden salvific rope – love enjoined with humility and mercy.
There is nothing more precious than love. Love makes people stronger, lifts them above all the difficulties and above themselves. No temptations can ever break them, as long as they keep the love. As saint Callistos and Ignatius are telling us, love spliced in humility and mercy is the invincible weapon against all temptations.
Imagine: all the gigantic host of demons is retreating in helplessness, when people manifest love for one another, humility, and mercy! The demons cannot even look at that, let alone hurt these people in any way.
And thus we could daily create love between neighbors and ourselves; strengthen this golden rope connecting us with God. How can we do this?
Before we answer this question, I want us to think together: why do we love our neighbors? Perhaps, for their virtues and talents? Or because they are good to us? Or because we simply have grown used to them? No, these are all secondary matters. This is not why we love our neighbors. If everyone looks into the depth of his heart, he would see the single cause of love for all his neighbors. Saint John Chrysostom talks about this reason:
“Whoever loves truly, that person would not be fastidious about the family, or country, or wealth, or the mutuality of love, nor anything of this kind, but [no matter what his neighbor would be or how he would comport himself], the one who loves would not cease loving him, since he has a sufficient reason for love – Christ. Looking up steadily at Christ, that person remains steadfast and unchanged in love.”
The reason for love is that in another person we feel Christ Who lives in his soul. And this is the answer for us, in which way we could daily be creating and strengthening love. We are called to help each person understand to feel that he is an image of God, that Christ lives in him.
Speaking metaphorically, we are called to perform the work of an iconographer daily. When we look at our neighbor, when we talk to him – we thereby create a certain image in his soul. What kind of image can we create? If, for example, a person is constantly told that he doesn’t know how to do something; that he is doing something wrong; that he is not carrying himself right, or that he has some kind of infirmity, – what sort of image will be imprinted in his soul? Most likely, an image of a feeble, incompetent person. Yet, we are capable of imprinting a totally different image in our neighbor’s soul. Through our love and esteem we can be constantly reminding him that he is the image of God. By not rebuking him, not talking to him about his shortcomings, we esteem Christ in him, and our neighbor is certainly feeling this. And then he is elevated above himself. He remains in tranquility, he is capable of praying peacefully. And this image of God begins shining brighter in his soul. Elder Aemelianos has the following teaching:
“We must tell anyone about the mistake our neighbor has committed, not even to him personally. Even if the entire world knows about it, we will not demonstrate to our neighbor that we know of his mistake. We will bear ourselves simply and naturally in his presence, so that he would feel like a king, rejoicing in the nobility of human nature.”
Imagine what power is given to each of us! How important is the manner in which we communicate with our neighbors! We are capable of elevating a person so that he would feel like a king, like a child of God, that he would constantly remember God. And, on the contrary, one remark is enough to cast a person into despair, to make him think about his problems.
All this is not because people around us are so weak. Even with saints it happened that the rebuke caused them pain. I would like to tell you of one incident that took place with saint Porphyrios the Athonite. This is how he would tell of it himself:
“When I worked at a walk-in clinic in Athens, I was once asked to serve a moleben at the house of one ailing woman who lived across the street from the clinic. After the moleben, the woman and her husband insisted that I eat with them. I did not feel comfortable taking up their offer; in addition, I am a very simple person, I grew up in the mountains, I don’t even know how to hold a fork right. So I was embarrassed to eat in their presence. Yet, this woman’s husband began to insist:
- Father, we will be offended. Do us a favor. Look, even our little daughter is asking you.
And then I accepted their offer. I said a prayer, blessed the table, and we sat down to eat. Their little daughter saw me eat and said to her parents:
- Mom, he is not holding the spoon right.
So they tell her:
- Be quiet, be quite!
A few minutes later she goes again:
- He is not holding the spoon right.
You have no idea, just what I, the wretch, went through! I looked at them, how they were holding the spoons, and corrected myself. Then they put something else on my plate, I don’t exactly know what it was, and I began to eat with a fork.
The little girl, when she saw me holding the fork, jumped up in her chair:
- Mom, he is not holding the fork right!
Oh, just what I went through then!”
You see how this little incident has hurt the heart of saint Porphyrios. He would remember it for years. Yet, at the time when it happened he was already a man of holy life, he had the gift of clairvoyance, and was a spiritual father. And yet, this rebuke hurt him.
So also for us – one of the highest outpourings of love – is when we spare our neighbor, when we do not express our judgments about how somebody else is behaving, what he is doing, how he sings or cooks, or works; and when we do not have even this desire to correct our neighbor. This is the true love which the other person always feels and which elevates him.
And just in the same way, a person always feels when he is not being accepted the way he is; when we want to correct him and, for instance, discuss him in his absence. We might think that this person does not hear us and that, in general, we are talking to him kindly, no big deal. Yet, in reality, a person always knows if he has been judged. Through this love is being lost, and, thereby, Christ is being lost. God does not tolerate even the tiniest putdown of a person; He cannot dwell where there is judgment, rebuke, unacceptance.
This is not accident that the holy fathers say that not rebuking and not exposing one’s neighbor is one of the greatest virtues. In the Ancient Paterikon it talks about how one of the fathers had been asked: “What is the greatest virtue?” – to which he replied:
“There is no greater virtue than not putting down one’s neighbor.”
Why is it such a great virtue? Because not putting down your neighbor means not putting down Christ in his soul. And then Christ dwells next to us.
A Christian is called to do everything in order for Christ to dwell with him, in order to always feel His presence. And this takes place not only due to prayer, but also due our attitude to our neighbors, to our communication with them. When we receive our neighbors the way they are, when we are being watchful in order not to concentrate on their shortcomings but try to see Christ living in each one of them, then we truly unceasingly stand before the Lord.
And in it is the great beauty of Christian life. Let us try preserve it forever, in order to enter eternity with it, as elder Aemilianos says:
“Let us not reckon our communion with people, this beauty, as something ordinary, when it embraces in esteem and love all of our life, all the people. When we live in abdicating from our selfishness and in reverence before our neighbor, then we have the hope that God would make us worthy of His glory.”