We Must Not Let Pride, Contentiousness Or Judgmentalism Lead Us Astray

We Must Not Let Pride, Contentiousness Or Judgmentalism Lead Us Astray May 30, 2023

Paolo Uccello: Scenes From The Life Of The Holy Hermits / Wikimedia Commons

Trying to live a holy life, such as the desert fathers did, can easily led to great pride, and from that pride, we end becoming judgmental and hostile to others. We try to judge them based upon our accomplishments, thinking they should be just like us. Or, if we think they might not be our equals, we then expect them to take note of what we have done, and honor us. Indeed, when they don’t treat us as highly as we think of ourselves, we end up becoming angry, treating them with contempt. We think the more we have proven ourselves, the more people should listen to us and do as we tell them to do. We can be merciful and considerate if they do that, but if they don’t, that is when our true character reveals itself and our judgmental ways prove how far from holiness we really are. When we start being contemptuous of others, hopefully, we will notice it, and take note, realizing how far astray we have gone and so criticize ourselves, hoping to correct ourselves before it is too late. If we don’t, then we are likely to let ourselves be led by the nose by pride, vainglory, anger, and other similar passions, becoming extremely hostile and critical of others while ignoring our own grave faults. We will become very contentious, thinking that will get people to listen to us and affirm us as we wish. We think they will just suddenly see what we said is true, and how foolish they were not disagree with us. But, of course, that hardly is what happens. Usually people respond similar to the way they were treated by us, as a defensive reaction. That us, they fight against us. And then, thanks to our pride, we end up assuming that proves we are right, for didn’t Jesus said the world would hate us if we were his disciples? Thus, instead of considering whether or not we are in the wrong, we find excuses to justify ourselves and our pride, and in this way, become trapped by some of the greatest spiritual poisons possible.

As the early monastic community was filled with would-be holy men and women, so the community was filled with all kinds of prideful people, people who thought themselves to be great. Through that pride, they ended up being contentious and judgmental, if not outright cruel. The monastic elders saw, from experience, the various ways people who begin a pursuit for holiness can be led astray. And so, as a result, many of the them can be found offering advice which was meant to diffuse the spiritual traps involved. For example, in regards those who think being rejected by others proves one is on the right path, that is, one is like Jesus, we read: “An elder said: ‘Do not wish to be despised.’” [1] Those who desire being despised will act in such a way to get what they want from others. It’s not difficult to do. And so, when they are despised, they can be said to have obtained their reward, one which will not satisfy them but only make them much more bitter and angry, leaving them far from the holiness they think they have. Unless they see through the trap, they will double down, and in the process, reinforce the ego and the pride which flows from it, making it much more difficult for them to attain true holiness.

Similarly, the desert communities saw the way fights get in the way of spiritual progression. People get so focused in proving what they believe to others, they think they can prove the veracity of their opinions through debate. Most often, that proves not to be the case; People rarely change what others believe by contentious arguments. And so, when they see little to no success coming from their engagement with one person, they move on, and up going from person to person, quarreling with each them, hoping to find someone who will listen to and heed their arguments. And if, somehow, they get one convert, that doesn’t satisfy them; instead, they are encouraged to keep going on, engaging people with contentious debates, never being satisfied because they do not get universal recognition for their supposed genius. And so, it was understood, it was best to avoid those who were quarrelsome: “An elder said: ‘Keep well away from every man who is contentious in discussion.’ [2] The elders knew pride could make someone to be so quarrelsome, and because their desire to debate others came out of pride, they will never be satisfied until they feel they gain universal esteem. Thus, it was best to avoid them, for they will never get the accolades they think they deserve. The elders also knew that those who were so contentious did not consider or seek after the good of others, which meant, they often ended up becoming cruel when their pride was not satisfied. Their words would often end up as barbs meant to wound or hurt their opponents. By acting in this way, such people prove that they are far from what they think they are like. Holiness, and the wisdom which comes from it, shows us the way to engage others is with peace, seeking to heal, not harm them. And while, it is true, many who are contentious try to defend themselves by saying they are just debating others in order to share the truth to the world, the reality is far different:

The pursuit of contentious arguments is engaged in not for the sake of truth but out of a desire for praise, and there is such perversity in such things that they do not know how to cede to the truth and they contend to destroy correct doctrine itself.[3]

Indeed:

Contentious natures frequently reject even good ideas and judge as noble and useful not that which seems so to all others, even if it is advantageous, but that which is pleasing to them alone, even if it is hurtful. And the cause is folly and perversity of disposition, not heeding the advice of others, but trusting to their own opinions only and to whatever considerations enters their minds. Those things in which they take pleasure enter the mind, and they take pleasure in what they want. Now, he who thinks that which he desires is advantageous is not a safe judge of the right; he is like the blind who are led by the blind. [4]

Thus, being contentious is not a sign of someone who knows or respects the truth; rather, it is a sign of someone who seeks attention and praise for what they think they know and can show off to others. Obviously, there are times where we might have to speak up, and in doing so, appear contentious, but that is far different from purposefully going around looking for conflict, using such conflict to try to make ourselves look better than we are.

But, worse of all, the elders said, was judging others. “The elders used to say: ‘There is nothing worse than judging.’” [5] The same pride which leads someone to be contentious leads them to think greatly of themselves when they are despised by others. Being judgmental, however, shows a person reached a stage beyond mere contention, for now the person thinks, through their ego and pride, they know more than they do, that is, they think they know enough to act as judge, jury, and spiritual executioner. Because they base their judgment on such insufficient grounds, for they do not know the fullness of the truth, nor do they know the inner disposition and context of the actions of those they would like to condemn, their judgment only not only proves faulty, the lack of charity behind it leads to their own condemnation.

Now, in our spiritual walk, it is likely we will have had our pride make us, at times, contentious, at times, judgmental, and at times, having experienced someone despising us, make us think it proves we are in the right.  But if we are truly desiring what is good and true, we will counter such attitudes, using humility to remind us that we are not different than anyone else, that we are still far from the fullness of the truth, and with it, far from the fullness of the good ourselves. The more we realize this, the more we will not let such momentary lapses get the best of us. We will fight against the temptations which lead us to act in such a way. We will fight against our pride – that is, we will die to the false self pride has constructed for us; the more we are successful at this, the more we will find such contentiousness and judgmentalism will no longer tempt us. However, for this to happen, we must accept the dangers which lie before us. When confronted with the temptation to become needlessly contentious or judgmental, we must fight against it. This is why spiritual writers and authorities like the desert fathers consistently reminded us of these spiritual poisons. Having heard others talk about them and the dangers they represent, we will that much more likely fight against them when we see them arising in ourselves. While we might not attain perfection in our temporal life, we can and should strive for it; for, though we can’t become perfect, we can become better, and in doing so, see the potential for such perfection is in us, a potential which can and will be realized in the eschaton.

 


[1] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers: A Select Edition And Complete English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 79 [N.114/21.33].

[2] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, 81 [N.124/11.63].

[3] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae. Trans. Thomas L. Knoebel (New York: Newman Press, 2018), 166.

[4] St. Basil, “Letter 307” in Saint Basil: Letter. Volume 2 (186-368). Trans. Agnes Clare Way, CDP (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1955), 300.

[5] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, 75 [N.97/21.13].

 

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