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Self-Reproach-A Curative for Judging Others

July 30, 2012

As we continue to reflect upon the cultivation of good thoughts, we can’t underestimate the power and value of one of the most useful tools in the spiritual life: self-reproach (αὐτομεψία). It is especially useful at those times and under those circumstances in which we are tempted to judge or reproach another (ἀλλομεψία). We seem to have a tendency to critique and if it’s not turned constructively inward, it finds itself moving destructively outward. Hesychia and real prayer entail a turning inward for the sake of ascending to God. In general, logismoi, that constant stream of thoughts, can prevent us from hesychia and real prayer; judgmental thoughts, however, do even further damage for they often lead to the arousal of other passions such as anger and resentment as well as the smothering of virtues of compassion and love, all in the context of an ever-swelling pride.

The ancient fathers appreciated the inherently destructive nature of judgmental thoughts and could clearly see their interconnections with a web of passions.  They also understood how to remedy this situation, tame the logismoi, and allow the nous to attain that dispassionate state in which God is known and experienced as Love.   In the chapter entitled “The Garden of the Heart”, I cite various examples of fathers who counseled their spiritual children to adopt the principle of self-reproach:

“Alongside recalling Divine Providence, ancient monastics also advise the faithful to use self-reproach as a basic interpretive principle in order to avoid judging others who sin as well as to prevent agitation, anger, and pride.  For example, when Saint Dorotheos would notice a brother failing in some way to lead a Christian life, he would say to himself, ‘Woe is me, him today and surely me tomorrow.’”

In a feel-good culture that loathes such an approach to the self and discourages it in others, the tool of self-reproach remains a life principle that works.  For instance, in Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups, many members often say “But for the grace of God go I” when mention is made of a member who has slipped back into bad habits.  It is a remedy for the onset of bad thoughts and has a remarkable restorative and calming power, for it doesn’t ignite the tinderbox of the passions.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of this principle may be found in the life of St. Silouan the Athonite who reposed in 1938.  As a novice, Silouan was already recognized for his profound spirituality and was even told by his spiritual father, “”If you are like this now, what will you be by the time you are an old man!”  Rather than serving as a consolation to the young monk, it became a constant source of titanic struggle against vainglory and pride that lasted fifteen years.  Finally, in his prayer Silouan heard the words which would serve as the key to conquering these thoughts.  “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.”  Saint Silouan derived great spiritual benefit from these words and interpreted them in the following fashion, “He who has humbled himself has conquered the enemy. No enemy can come near the man who in his heart esteems himself deserving of eternal fire. No earthly thoughts find place in his soul — heart and mind, he lives entirely in God. And the man who has come to know the Holy Spirit, and learned humility of Him, has become like to his Teacher, Jesus Christ, Son of God, and resembles Him.”

In my book, I describe the proper use of this cognitive tool by noting, “the aim of this rubric is not to provide simplistic answers to life’s complexities, but to encourage traits of gratitude and humility at all times through what cognitive theorists would describe as a fundamental change in core beliefs or schemata about the self and the outside world.”

A grateful heart is necessarily a humble heart.  The principle of self-reproach keeps the wolves of judgmental attitudes at bay while conversely inspiring humility and gratitude for the wonderful works of the Lord in one’s own life. It is a tool that when used wisely can attract the grace of God and transfigure the mortally proud and darkly judgmental into humble children of light and heirs to life eternal.

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