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Spiritual Growth and Accepting the Slings and Arrows from Others

November 18, 2012

Shakespeare’s Hamlet once asked, “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.”  And the young tragic hero wavered between the pagan ethic of vengeful retaliation and the cowardly acquiescence to the status quo, without considering a third possibility: the Christian example of humility, forgiveness, and love. When we are assailed by the slings and arrows of others, even in the form of insulting words, we also vacillate between a false dialectic of answering back with vengeful retaliation beyond even an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth or a cowardly, smoldering silence that with an angry glance speaks volumes in return. There is, however, another more difficult, but incredibly more exalted way that attracts to the soul the grace of the All Holy Spirit.

The fathers are consistent in counseling us that we are to accept the slings and arrows of others in humility, patience, and love without fighting back and trying to justify our position.  This is the message of the Gospel and clearly the path chosen by our Lord Himself Who “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7) Commenting on this passage, Saint Athanasios the Great teaches: “He was dishonored, so that we might become honorable” (Against All Heresies, PG 28.504). That nobility of Christ before His accusers and slanders is a nobility that the Lord desires for us to acquire as well.

In chapter 9 of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I relate the teachings of various monastic masters on this subject: “In the case of insults and perceived wrongs, Abba Isaiah would tell monks to search their conscience whenever a brother speaks unkindly to them, for somewhere in God’s eyes they have sinned.  As a rule of thumb, Elder Paisios counsels believers to always consider how much they are at fault, rather than how much their neighbor has wronged them.  Saint John Cassian suggests that the irritated ascetic remind himself how he had planned to get the better of all his bad qualities and how a gentle breeze caused by a troubling word shook his entire house of virtue.  In other words, the disturbing word becomes an opportunity for humble honesty that is the foundation of genuine self-knowledge.  Abba Dorotheos likewise enjoins the grieved to stop brooding over their grievances and refocus on silence, heartfelt repentance, and prayer.”

I would dare say that these are among the most often overlooked spiritual teachings.  Yet, those who take these counsels to heart and attempt to incorporate them into their daily lives are able to grow spiritually precisely because the goal in such a spiritual exercise is humility, forgiveness, and love. If we spend most of our time seeking to justify ourselves, even if we are innocent, we lose precious opportunities for spiritual growth.  When we refuse to rise up against the slings and arrows hurled by others, we are following the kenotic path of the Lord Himself.  We are returning good for evil and making this world just a little bit better. And not only the world, but also our own soul, since in this way we refuse to give in to the self-justifying pride that so often lies beneath the surface of our words and actions.  Such a person seeks neither the esteem nor praise of men but rather seeks first the kingdom of God and whoever seeks will most surely find.

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