"The one who speaks dispassionately about the sins of a companion speaks for two reasons: either to reform the friend or to benefit another. If the person speaks outside of these reasons either to himself or to another, she speaks either to reproach or to ridicule. That person shall not escape divine abandonment, but rather he will in every way fall into the same or another error, and, being reproached and put to shame by another, will be dishonored." Maximos the Confessor, Centuries on Love III, # 72
We must be careful when we criticize other people, especially noting our reason and rationale for criticism. Maximos cautions us about criticizing others. He acknowledges that there is a "dispassionate" critique of other whose aim is to assist the other in the reformation of his or her life or to assist others in the reformation of their lives. This is a legitimate basis for criticism. The goal of our relationships is the nurturing of others to grow and develop in a divine way, fully connected to the divine energies and struggling to be united to God in action, word, and thought. So we assist one another in the endeavor by critiquing each other for reformation and mutual benefit.
But there is another side of criticism of another, which ends in ridicule or reproach. In this mode of criticism the one criticizing stands completely apart from the other by assuming a more superior status or achievement. The result of such criticism is not to reform or benefit the other but to show his error and foolishness. We have all experienced this sort of humiliation in criticism, especially those who have gone through advanced or doctoral studies at a university. The problem with this kind of negative and ridiculing critique is twofold: it breaks the union of people in the divine energies; and it creates more emotional problems for both the one criticizing and the one criticized.
The wisdom of the ancient contemplatives tells us that the one doing negative criticism will at some point fall. It is not divine energy that informs the critique, but a kind of personal obfuscating of interior dynamics and flaws that will eventually result in the negative critic's own sin and error. This is how I understand the term "divine abandonment" in this saying. It is not that God abandons the negative critic, but that the negative critic ceases to cooperate with the divine energies moving people toward reformation of life and divinely healthy benefit. By cutting the self off from the flow of divine energy the negative critic sets the self up for a fall similar to those the critic criticizes. And the end result will be a dishonor and reproach of the negative critic.
So we must be careful in our critique of others, being very much attentive to our motives and to the divine energies. Our care does not mean that we do not critique others, but that in our critique of others we aim to assist others to live in the divine energies and to find their place in the divine economy. We cannot criticize in order to enhance our own status or to advance our own ideas, because that kind of criticism will eventually lead to our own failure and fall. But working together for the greater glory of God, working together for the mutual divinization of all people, we may criticize as a means of assistance for others. We criticize for the sake of divinization, and such criticism will in the end make us all divine.
--Richard Valantasis, Institute for Contemplative Living's "Thought for the Week," Sept. 5-11, 2011
I snapped this photo on my way to Edina, MO to get my hair cut (the person who cuts my hair moved there, and rather than deal with the hassle of finding a new person for this relationship, I started taking a road trip to get this done.)
I came around the bend and was transfixed by the breadth of this field of gold--tickseed sunflowers everywhere. After taking the picture, I just stood and took it all in. It was one of those situations where I just happened by, the right week of the year.
On the other hand...
If I were a person who was farming for a living, and this was my field, I'd see it as a failure. A nice spot of tillable land or pasture land was being overtaken by weeds. After all, in the world of arable land, tickseed sunflowers are weeds. It would not be a thing of beauty but a threat to my livelihood or a failure of some sort. It would evoke an entirely separate set of emotions in me.
I am reminded of a recent conversation with my friend Renz. We were discussing how certain animals evoke certain emotions in us, based more on iconography than ecology. In particular we were talking about the re-population of wolves, and how people seem to want that, but not to the point that sheep rancher's lambs are eaten. Part of the discussion is the "threat to one's livelihood" aspect, but part of the discussion was that fish farmers work under the assumption that raptors will eat a certain percentage of their "crop" because that's what raptors do in nature. We mused about the iconography and cultural thoughts of "wolves" and "lambs" and wondered how much that plays into it. What we criticize or who we criticize has a certain amount of cultural iconography to it, whether it is a geographical, ethnic, or internal personal culture. One wonders if we ought to take the tack of the fish farmers and accept a certain amount of disappointment or loss in our life as the result of the actions of others as a "given."
But the fact is, my beautiful flowers are someone else's weeds, and that's where looking at "criticism" comes in. The concept of "dispassionate criticism" is a place I've been trying to take myself lately. Do I criticize to assist others to live in the divine energies, or do I criticize because I see something as a threat? Historically, it's usually the latter.
I've seen a similar problem with my medical students in terms of having them do peer evaluations in lab exercises. They rank a person's participation in the exercise from 1 to 5 where 1 = was disruptive to 5 = very productive. I discovered right off the bat that the students who got anything but a 5 had a fit. Almost to the person, they said, "It's not fair I get marked down because someone doesn't like me." They equate anything but perfect as being a personal thing. They seem blind to the concept that what they didn't do perfectly might be something they need to work on, and not a personal attack.
It's hard to remember, I think, that the person who marks the other one down may truly like and care for them--but they still don't get a perfect score because there is something they need to address that could help them in their career.
Unfortunately, it only took them a quarter to learn to write down a 5, no matter what, and trust that everyone will obey "The code of the west" in the endeavor.
I'm pretty sure a loving God, at times, criticizes us. But in this criticism we are usually shown something better, not chewed out and put down. We are loved unconditionally, but that doesn't give us a Get Out of Jail free card for being shown the error of our ways. Like our medical students in my story, we tend to go personal. "Why don't you like me, God?"
Can we be brave enough to accept God's dispassionate criticism, or God's love in the midst of turmoil?