When accused of a general failing – pride, foolishness, laziness, always agree. Be the first to admit it. You needn’t go out of your way to announce these passions, but the moment someone points the finger, join with them. When you accuse yourself, you avoid judgment. When you think them correct always in their observations, you avert the very passions attributed to you, and so overcome them. Don’t defend yourself. If they say, “So, you admit it!” say “Of course.” If they say, “then why don’t you change” say “because I am obstinate, too. Forgive me.”, or “that’s how far gone I am, pray for me”. It doesn’t matter whether technically they see anything real or not. God has granted them words, whether they are false prophets who pretend to see your sins instead of their own, or whether God is graciously reminding you of your sins. If you think with the fathers, you think that all these things that can be said about you are true, and that you cannot recount all the ways in which you have failed. If you think with the desert, you think that you fail in all ways, that every failure that can be attributed to you is true. But don’t be depressed by this, or let others insist that you be depressed. Shame is best expressed in acknowledgement and worship, not in self-pity. Genuine shame is in gratitude for being allowed to live without being struck down for your sins and utterly destroyed – weep over your sins, but don’t be destroyed by them, or it mocks God who has not destroyed you in judgment. If your accusers want you to fall down before them, you cannot – it is a thing you can only give to God. Even the angels do not ask as much. As the fathers say, “keep your mind in Hell and despair not”. So you can be cheerful, even tho remorseful, happy even though sad for your faults.
If someone accuses you of a fault, acknowledge it, and ask forgiveness. If they say that you must do something to gain forgiveness, say you’ll discuss it with your Confessor. It is not appropriate to arrange ‘penance’ from just anyone. The mysteriological significance of penance cannot be replaced with our assigning it to one another. This is likewise why we don’t bless one another. You and I are not priests – unless you’re a priest – I’m certainly not, so I won’t be blessing anyone today, or presuming to assign penance. At some point, another person’s inability to forgive your faults is their own burden, and must be something they work out likewise with their own Confessor. You don’t have to just shrug it off, but you aren’t a slave to someone else’s probationary program for you to fit in with their agenda. In response to “pray for me”, someone once said, “you make it hard to pray for you”. All I can say to that is, “I understand”, leaving it at that. Something similar might be “then we can pray for each other.” It needn’t be arrogant. We are taught to say, “by (that person’s) prayers save me”, believing that our sins are so corrupting that we cannot be saved apart from the prayers of others. Ask forgiveness, but asking isn’t agreeing to a 12-step plan where you mow someone else’s lawn. On the other hand, if you ruined their lawn, it’s probably the right gesture.
When accused of a specific crime, such as lying about something, don’t lie by confessing it falsely to anyone. You can say, “I am a liar”, and you know it’s true, because you have spoken words of God with your lips but not your heart. But don’t say, “yes, I lied about what I told you yesterday” unless that is true. The fathers don’t ask us to become liars in order to admit to being liars. If someone says, “but the fathers say you should admit every fault”, freely admit to any fault, but not to historical events that did not happen.
When there is a subtle blend of accusations – “you’re being proud about this – what you’re claiming happened didn’t happen” – just separate the failing from the facts. “I am indeed very proud. I have no doubt that I am being proud right now, and that I was proud before you even noticed it. Pray for me. However, what I have said is true, and I have not lied about it. Forgive me if I seem to be saying you’re mistaken.”
Accusations are a gift, so that all your enemies, as St. Nikolai Velimirovic has written, may be your friends. In this way, God makes peace in the whole world. “You’re too proud of your intellect.” Answer: “That is certainly true. Thank you for helping me remember.” But mistakes of history – “You cheated on the exam. No one could have gotten all the answers correct.” – are just that – mistakes. When someone is mistaken, especially about you, you don’t have to correct them. Don’t tell them “you are wrong” or “you are mistaken”, but also don’t join them in the error – that kind of accusation is the Evil One tempting you, though they don’t know it. “I disagree” is enough. “I don’t believe so” is sufficient. Keep it subjective – “I don’t think so”, not objective “you are in error”, to allow for your own weakness, blindness, or delusion – in humility – and because in this way you aren’t also accusing them, which otherwise you would be. But if they say, “You are a cheat”, say “Yes, certainly.” and remember that you’ve cheated yourself of paradise. Say, whenever accused of a fault, that the accuser is right. Then neither of you can be wounded by you fighting with them. When they offer the Enemy’s accusation, don’t even say “I think differently” – which is a positive statement – don’t offer your thoughts – humble yourself and leave no room for fighting over your ideas – instead say “I don’t think as much” – adding, if you wish, “though I am certainly capable of it”.
By leaving nothing for anyone to fight with, you leave nothing for them to stumble over, and nothing for the Enemy to seize from you and make into a weapon. You cannot be pulled into a war, if you become like a lamb, though I find it a very hard thing to do. In this humility, the Enemy’s arrows leave no mark. In this self-accusation, Judgement won’t destroy you. In this willingness to concede all that can be conceded, finding any way possible to agree over your own failings, you become a peacemaker – taking, as did Christ, all sins on yourself. Say, if you fail in it, “it’s my fault. It’s all my fault.” Love, as the apostle says, covers a multitude of sins.
And yes, it’s a tragic facet of public life (corporate culture, academia, politics, religion) that acknowledging weaknesses and following Christ can ruin your ability to be promoted, to even retain your position, and can be spread as gossip like wildfire, distorting your reputation and making life intolerable. In a religious environment, leave. You’re in the wrong one. For the rest of it, though, most of us developed two voices – the one that tells the truth, and the one that responds to manipulation. I don’t fault anyone for it. I have done what was needed to feed my family, and to survive, too. It’s a commentary on public life and the people who make it what it is that integrity is converted into just a means of destroying you, and people who cover their sins are rewarded by the same people with prosperity. When I was in those environments, I always tried to determine whether I was dealing with people who didn’t think of sin as sin, but as merely leverage to convert into a weapon, and those who were genuine. The latter were almost nonexistent, in my experience. And in corporate, academic, and political life I gave very little ground. That’s still how I would do it. For those who would condemn this, did every Christian present himself to be burned in the genocides against our people? Some did, some didn’t, but Saints are among both. But in religious environments, I have preferred to let the chips fall where they may. It is one way I have distinguished cults, with merely the appropriate religious affiliations and blessings, from genuinely Christian communities.
I will say again that to be an Orthodox Church, while incredibly important since there is no other Church, does not mean that you are a Christian community. Cults abound everywhere, because there is little else that religion can do when it embeds itself among people, than to turn the worship of the Creator into the worship of our own personalities. One group is busily ‘defending the truth’ but with clubs and virtual burnings at the stake. Cult, not Christian, whatever its pedigree. Another is busily replacing the Faith with a social theatre, a “mega-church” with a complete absence of genuine Orthodox tradition – in fact a campaign to eradicate it as some kind of vestige – it wishes more than anything to be the biggest non-denominational religious centre in its region, disguised as an Orthodox Church. Bigness and social acceptability are its twin idols. Cult, not Christian. In either environment, reputation can make or break you – it’s very much the same principle at work in corporate, academic, and political circles. Again, it’s better to leave them behind. Staying means accepting the ground of warfare by which they are busily converting human beings into cogs in an ideological and social apparatus that bears little resemblance to the Faith of our Fathers, whatever sign is on the door.
“You’re full of pride,” they would say. And they would be right. I am full of pride. Pray for me. “Separating yourself is a sin,” they would say. “I don’t believe so.” I really don’t believe so. Besides, I have not separated myself from the Church, merely from some versions of it that I don’t think have a monopoly on what it means to be Orthodox. In fact, if pressed, I suppose I would say I haven’t really learned any Orthodoxy from them at all. Surely, that’s my own failing. But nonetheless, to guard my soul, and to protect my family, I stay away. The community I am more or less a part of (I really like the ‘more or less’ – I find it much less prone to spiritual violence) doesn’t beat me up much. I show up twice a year at least, and I send my checks. “Not spiritual”, someone may say. “Of course, I fail in all such matters.” But what I am not, also, is very concerned about my reputation. As for corporate, academic, and political life, I’ve finally been granted, by God’s mercy, emancipation from those too.