In the silence of the desert, in the solitude of the cell, free from worldly entanglements, one could ascend to the contemplation and knowledge of God, and loving union with Him. This inner tradition of becoming “sharers of the divine nature” (2 Peter: 4 ) — all but lost to modern Christianity — survives, almost unchanged over the centuries in certain corners of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg is the founder of Monachos.net, the world’s premier site on the Church Fathers, monasticism, spirituality, and Church history and theology. He can also be heard on Ancient Faith Radio on his podcast ‘A Word From the Holy Fathers’. Hieromonk Irenei is one of Orthodoxy’s most gifted thinkers, writers and public speakers and this is his exclusive seminar in southern California in 2010.
Q: Can you clarify, or give us more information about not judging. I’m particularly interested in this as a parent because I know my children, and myself, need to learn how to distinguish between right and wrong. So I’m wondering does not making a judgment mean more forgiveness when you see right and wrong or does it just mean not make a judgment? What can you tell me?
Hieromonk Irenei: That’s a very good question. I think we have to begin with defining what the command against judging can’t possibly mean. It can’t possibly mean don’t distinguish between right and wrong because Christ specifically tells us to do that. We are called to know what is good and what is evil and to embrace what is good. We are called to help other people do this.
And in fact during the litanies of the Divine Liturgy, the prayers that we offer for the bishops of the Church are specifically that they may “rightly divide the word of God’s Truth.” The word for divide is translated many ways in English but in Greek it’s the same word as “judge.” Division between right and wrong is judgment. So there is a need to be able to discern between what is good and what is bad. And that is not forbidden by the commandment not to judge.
The difficult is when we use that discernment, not for spiritual growth, but simply to cast a judgment upon another. This is never spiritually healthy. The fact that you may be doing something wrong and I may know it’s wrong doesn’t mean that my telling you it’s wrong and telling you that it’s very bad is spiritually good for you, or for me. There may be occasions in life where pastorally I have to do that—where pastorally in order to love another person I have to identify for them what is wrong—that it is wrong and that it is self-destructive. But the litmus test is precisely the pastoral question: is this going to help somebody. That’s a question we have to ask ourselves anytime we make a judgment, before we make a judgment—can I help this person in some way?
And there are very legitimate times when the answer to that question is “yes,” but in our practical experience 99% of the time the answer is “no” because we judge everything. Someone’s dressed a certain way so they must be—fill in personality type A, B, C,... Somebody said something so obviously their ideas are a little strange. That priest didn’t have a beard, right? (laughter) What’s going on with him? Oh, he’s the one who always rushes through the service, or that’s’ the one who never crosses herself. There’s no spiritual benefit in these things. None. Even if they’re true.
The priest may not have a beard and that may be the person who always rushes through the service or never makes the sign of the cross. But to make that judgment, which has no pastoral dimension whatsoever, clouds the heart, hardens the heart, because I am ultimately determining that I am the source of the definition of right and wrong. I know better. I am ultimately superior to all of this because I know better. It’s very different than going up to a person and saying, “I see that you don’t make the sign of the cross during certain prayers. Why is that? Can you tell me about it? Can I tell you why in the Church we do make the sign of the cross?” That’s different.
That’s a pastoral venture to help a person. Or with children. for example. If you’re responsible for the children of a flock or for a classroom whatever the case may be there are times when you have to point out right and wrong in order to help them to grow. For example if I have a classroom full of young children and a guest speaker, and the guest speaker starts to say blasphemous things as though they were true I have to stand up and say no. It would be pastorally irresponsible of me to just sit and listen and do nothing. But that’s not the judgment we’re normally talking about and I think somewhere inside we know the distinction.
Helping people learn right from wrong if we’re raising them or responsible for them—helping meet a pastoral need for something specific. There’s always the question, “is that really what I’m doing? Is this judgment actually helping me or anybody else?” And the frightening thing is how often that answer is, “no.” I think probably this is the greatest struggle for all Christians. Certainly I can say that in confessions 90% of the struggles people have come from judgment. I judge constantly and it brings me pain. It makes me angry towards others it makes me impatient towards others. It removes from me, it rips from me the ability to find real joy in good things because I’m burdened by all this judgment. We have to be child-like, judge nobody. And in those moments when you need to help somebody discern right and wrong, that will be pretty clear. But the rest of the time, simply love.
Q: Thank you very much for your talk, Father, I have a question. But before I ask it I need to give a little background. I’m currently in the world, and trying to figure out how to live in the world before going into a monastery. And one of the things that I got told recently is that to live in the world you have to have a shred of ego to defend yourself or you’ll get turned into piecemeal. And I’m struggling with this because I know that I have more than enough ego that I have to kill off. And for him to say,” you have to hold on to a shred of it.” I don’t want to. And some of the things that you touched on are kind of confirming that regard to kill the ego. So could you give some more specific advice for somebody who is wanting to pursue a monastic path but for now has to be in the world?
Hieromonk Irenei: I don’t think that developing a healthy degree of ego is something that most of us struggle with. I think most of us have got us in spades, and the difficulty is how to control it and how to minimize it—the sense of self and self worth. Ego is a strange…we can add it to the list of words that Fr. Irenei doesn’t think mean anything. I just means “I’ in Greek. Yes in the world you have to be able to stand up against the forces of the world. But we have to remember that in the Christian life the strongest witness against evil is humility. It’s not force.
And this is where the temptation always comes. I see something that is wrong and I will by force overcome it with what is right. That rarely works. And even when it might accomplish something in the short term, it does do something to us. It puts me right at the center of things and my abilities and my knowledge and my strength there right at the heart of what I can give to somebody else. The strongest witness of Truth is a lived humility.
I remember a very poignant example not very long ago. A crowd of rather raucous gang-style lads who are always congregated, still do, on the corner of a certain street—and they sit there and taunt passers-by. And I remember one priest, a good man, big and strong, he had no fear of these lads, walked up to these lads and scolded them. And the priest was right in everything that he said. But he had this very forceful, “you must stop, you must change.” And you could just watch these children glaze over, they weren’t adults. And there was great laughter, “oh silly priest. The religious are always like that.” And they went back to doing what they were doing.
And I remember a short time later seeing another priest go up and just start to talk to them, saying, “what are you doing here?” Not in a confrontational way. Tell me what you do I see you here every day. Tell me what’s so great about this porch (laughter). And they would taunt him. “You always walk by in your silly robes and your silly hat making the sign of the cross.” And he just smiled and said, “yeah, yeah, we do. Of course, there’s a reason we do it. And they asked him, “Why.” And I remember (I was walking with this priest) I remember being utterly amazed. Here he had these gangs on the street corner, asking him why Christians did the things they did. It’s a remarkable thing. And he didn’t bring them to that point in the discussion by forcing something down their throats. He did it by being humble. He let them do it. He was humble and loving. “OK, that’s what you think. Here’s what we do. Here’s why we’re a little different. Here’s why we don’t talk like that.”
And they listened. And every time he walks by now they’ll come up to greet him. It’s amazing. It hasn’t changed their lives. They still congregate on the street corner. But he got through to them, not because he had a developed sense of self that allowed him to project, but because he practiced a real humility and love. And I would say that that’s what we need to strive for. Not to develop me, that I can combat anything that comes. But to live a Christ-like life. That’s what you need in the world. And it’s identical to what you need in a monastery. That’s a transferable skill for those of you who are undecided (laughter). I hope that helps a little.
Q: There’s show I haven’t seen it. It’s on T.V. It has an interesting premise, it’s called What Would You Do? They stage scenarios like a soccer mom drinking before she takes her children into a car or a man threatening a woman in a park. And I’m curious, if we close our mouth and do nothing, is that the preferred way when we see people in harm’s way? Or let’s say within the Church, what is the proper response?
Hieromonk Irenei: Very good question thank you. When we talk about closing our mouth and being still and being non-judgmental This doesn’t mean to become weaklings and it doesn’t mean to be disengaged from the pastoral care of other people. We’re talking about the fundamental way in which we order ourselves. We will all at some point find ourselves facing evil that causes suffering to another person. And the example of Christ is not to stand by and watch the evil happen. Christ interjects Himself when the adulterous woman is about to be stoned. He stands in-between and stops it. He doesn’t do it by a great show of force, but He gets right into the middle. Christ throws over the tables in the temple. He overturns them when He sees God being blasphemed in this way. The life in Christ is not a life that says, “in order to be non-judgmental, and not angry I will just let evil happen.” We are called to be pastoral—to look out for the care of others.
And that’s where discernment is important. It’s a skill we have to develop with time. To know when I am stepping in for the sake of the other person and when am I stepping in just to interject myself. And again the test always has to be the pastoral question. Does this person need my help? And if the answer that we’re giving is “yes, because I’m brilliant, and the thing that I’m going to tell them is going to change their life.” Then that’s all a delusion. But if the question is that person is suffering, being abused, hit, attacked, and you don’t try to assist them—then you fall prey to precisely what Christ says. “What you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to Me.” But that’s not really the kind of judgment that I think we’re talking about and I want to make sure that we can differentiate between the reaction to evil for pastoral reasons and the vice of judgment which is a state of being that puts me above other people. I am the one who decides, and that is always spiritually damaging. Always, without exception.
Q: My question is how does one remain forgiving and hospitable towards one who is known to be very toxic in one’s life, and not only destructive not only to an individual but to those around him…his whole family? What does that look like for someone who is not only trying to protect themselves from this destructive force but also their family? What does that look like?
Hieromonk Irenei: On the personal level, I would say to begin, is that being forgiving does not mean constantly putting yourself in a position where someone might hurt you. Christ, when He commissions the seventy apostles says, ‘if you go into a town where they welcome you, stay. If they don’t, go.” He doesn’t stay and suffer no matter what on purpose. In some cases we know that people cause us to be angry. And they do things that are going to provoke passions and anger in us. We don’t have to put ourselves in those circumstances. Of course, the difficultly is when you can’t get out of them…when you are not in control of this. But there’s nothing unchristian at all with saying “that relationship is unhealthy. I’m going to try to minimize my contact with it.” In fact that’s something explicitly called for in the Gospels.
We need to be discerning in the company that we keep. But you ask me what does it look like to forgive people like this. It looks strange. It looks odd to see someone…when you see a really forgiving person it’s puzzling because you see them wronged-sometimes dramatically-but the person is still loving them. And it’s hard to accept. You want to have righteous indignation and say, “No, that person is clearly bad and therefore we’ve wrung our hands of them.” “I wash my hands of Thee”, said Pontius Pilate. That’s not a quote that we want to be taking for ourselves. That’s not one of the good quotes from Scripture.
How do you do it? How do you forgive someone who constantly makes a sport of hurting you? Answering that question will take your whole life. But the root of it has to be seeing the suffering of another person. When you see another person who’s chosen to do bad, to do wrong, what else are you going to do but judge them, become angry at them and frustrated at them? Because you see a free agent freely doing what is bad. But we have to come to a point…we have to come to a point where evil is done because of a sickness of the heart. A basic Christian confession is that people are not born evil. There is no such thing as an evil person. There are people who do great evil, tremendous evil. But they’re not evil by constitution. That wrong that they exemplify is because their heart is broken, cold, defenseless, poisoned. And it’s ultimately a fruit of suffering. Any evil that one does is ultimately a fruit of a pain that they may not acknowledge. They may feel fine. They may utterly repudiate any suggestion that they have suffering within them. They may just believe that, “I’m right, and this is what I should do.” But from a Christian point of view, the only way that we can understand this is that something is broken inside. Their heart is longing for something that it doesn’t have.
And if you see a person in that way, it becomes much harder to respond judgmentally and harshly. I’m not saying it gets rid of the temptation. I’m not saying it’s a magic way out. But if you look at a person who’s doing wrong and you see a suffering heart. If you see a person in need of redemption and you see the evil that they’ve done to you as the fruit of suffering, then the compassion is stirred up inside of you. But again this doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t all leave this room and the next time someone does something bad say, “oh he’s suffering and therefore I am fine.” This is a condition of the heart that takes long exercise.
It’s a real ascesis because our natural inclination is just to get mad, defensive, angry, to want to punish. Christ beholds the sin of the world. We should always remember this as Christians. A world that from the first moment of existence has done everything in it’s power to rebel against Him and deny Him and taunt Him. Through centuries and centuries. And He becomes incarnate and they taunt and mock all the more. None of us have faced that kind of hatred and anger. And yet He responds by offering his life. He could have called down fire and destroyed everything. And we have to say from a rational point of view that that was entirely justified. But He offers His life in compassion to save the world. That is our paradigm. That is what we have to do. Little by little to find a way to offer ourselves. See that the cause of evil is pain, the pain of sin. The pain of a world that needs to know God and doesn’t and respond accordingly.