A desert monastic said that contempt and reproaching another person in thought will prevent us from seeing the divine light. The monastic pioneers of the fourth and fifth centuries were constantly admonishing each other to stop judging each other judgmentally. This admonition sounds good until we realize that we always have good reasons for our own judgmental attitudes toward people we know or know about.
In one of my favorite stories about the desert monastics, one of their number had committed an unspecified sin and the other monastics gathered to pass judgment on him. The wisest and most respected elder was slow to come and when he arrived, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. The puzzled monastics asked him what he was doing and the elder replied: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them, and you would have me judge this brother.” End of trial.
This story warns us that judging another person entails losing awareness of our own sins. The other person’s sins distract us from our own. René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us zero in on an even deeper problem. Reflecting on the shortcomings of others hooks us into a rivalrous relationship with them. Our judgmentalism hooks us into the desires that lead the other to that sin. Perhaps this is why we are often warned that we judge most harshly those people who do what we secretly want to do or maybe actually secretly do them. As with every rivalrous relationship, judging another makes that person an obstacle to self-understanding and, as the elder quoted above warns us, also creates an obstacle between us and God.
It isn’t enough to just look the other way as the desert monastics often did. What is needed is an involvement with the other that is not judgmental but loving. In another story, an elder is called to join other monastics in raiding the cell of a monastic who was harboring a woman. When the elder entered the cell, he saw a hamper and sat on it while the others searched the cell without finding the woman. After the elder sent the other monastics away, he stood up, opened the hamper where the woman was hiding and said to his brother and the woman: “Take care for your soul.”
The convoluted chapters about punishment in Benedict’s Rule (analyzed in Tools for Peace) hint at mimetic traps in dealing with delinquent monastics. Finally, he throws up his hands and says that prayer is the greatest remedy of all. In prayer, we make ourselves the equal of whomever we are inclined to judge and we open ourselves up to God.