If we would remember, O brethren, the words of the holy elders, if we would always study them, we would not so easily give ourselves over to carelessness over ourselves. For if, as they have said, we were not careless concerning small things and what seems to us insignificant, we would not fall into what is great and serious. I always say to you that from these insignificant sins, from the fact that we say, "What importance is there in this or in that," is formed in the soul an evil habit, and a man begins to be careless about great things. Do you know what a serious sin it is to judge one's neighbor? For what is more serious than this? What it is that God hates so much, what is so loathsome to him? As the fathers have also said, there is nothing worse than judging. However, a man comes to this great evil from such disregard for the seemingly insignificant. For, from allowing himself a slight disdain for his neighbor, from saying, "Of what importance is it if I listen to what this brother says?" or "What importance is it if I also say that or that word? Of what importance is it if I look to see what this brother will do, or that pilgrim?"—from these very things a person's mind begins to leave its own sins unattended and notice the sins of his neighbor. Later from this we come to judge, speak evil of and belittle our neighbors, and finally, we fall into the very same thing which we are judging. For because a man does not take care for his own sins and does not weep, as the Fathers have said, over his own dead man, he cannot prosper in anything good, but rather constantly turns his attention to the deeds of his neighbor. And nothing so angers God, nothing so deprives a man and leads him into the state of abandonment by God as spiteful talk, or judgment, or belittling of neighbor.
It is one thing to speak evilly or reproach, it is another to judge, and yet another to belittle. To reproach means to say of someone that he lied, or got angry, or fell into fornication, or did some other such thing. Such a one has spoken evilly of his brother, that is, he has spoken with passion concerning his brother's sins. But to judge is to say that the man is a liar, an angry man, a fornicator. Here he has judged the very disposition of that man’s soul, he has pronounced a sentence on his whole life by saying that he is such a thing, and he has judged him as such; and this a serious sin. For it is one thing to say "He became angry," and another thing to say, "He is an angry man," and as I have said, to thus pronounce a sentence on his whole life. The sin of judging is so much more serious than any other sin that Christ Himself said, Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye (Luke 6:42), and the sin of one's neighbor is like a mote—a sliver; while judging is like a beam. So serious is judging, surpassing every other sin.
Nothing is more serious, as I have said many times, nothing worse than judging, having contempt for or despising our neighbor.
Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own sins, which we know so well, and about which we have to give an answer before God? Why do we usurp God's right to judge? What do we demand from His creature, His servant? Ought we not to tremble when we hear about what happened to that great elder, who upon hearing of a brother falling into fornication said, "Oh, he has done badly!" Or do you not know about the terrible story related in the Patericon? For an angel brought [Isaac the Theban] the soul of someone who had fallen into sin, and said to him, "Here is the person you have judged. He has just died. Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal punishment?" Could there be anything more terrible than this burden? What else could the angel mean by these words than, "Since you want to be the judge of the righteous and the sinners, what do you command for this poor soul? Shall you have mercy on him, or give him over to tortures?" The holy elder, stunned by this, spent the rest of his life in moaning and tears and measureless work, praying to God to be forgiven this sin, and all this after having fallen face to the ground before the angel and been forgiven, for the angel said to him, "You see, God has shown you what a serious sin is judging, so that you would never do it again. This signified forgiveness but the soul of the elder would not be consoled or cease its lamentations until he died.
So what is it we want from our neighbor? Why are we so concerned about the burden of others? We have plenty to be concerned about, brothers! Let each one of us attend to himself and his own sins. God alone has the authority to judge, to justify or to condemn, inasmuch as He knows the state of each one of us and our upbringing and our gifts, our constitution and abilities, and it is for him to judge each of these things according to the knowledge that He alone has. For God judges the affairs of a bishop in one way and those of a secular governor in another. His judgment is different for an abbot or for a disciple; he judges differently the aged and the young, the sick man and the healthy man. Who could understand all these judgments except the One who has created everything, formed everything, knows everything?
I remember once hearing the following story: a slave ship put in at a certain port where there lived a holy virgin who was in earnest about her spiritual life. When she learned about the arrival of the ship she was glad, for she wanted to purchase a little girl. She thought to herself, "I will take her into my home and bring her up in my way of life so that she knows nothing of the evils of the world." So she sent and enquired of the master of the ship and found that he had two small girls who he thought would suit her. Whereupon she gladly paid the price of one of the children and took her home. The ship's master left the place where the saint dwelt. He had not gone very far when he was met by a harlot, totally depraved, who saw the other small girl with him and wanted to buy her; the price was agreed and paid, and she took her away. Do you see this mystery of God? Do you see His judgment? Which of us could give explain this? The holy virgin took one of these little ones to bring her up in the fear of God, to instruct her in every good work, to teach her all that belongs to the monastic state and, in short, all the sweet fragrance of God's holy commandments. The harlot, having taken the unfortunate child, made her an instrument of the devil. For what could this plague teach her but the ruin of her soul? What can we have to say about this terrible fate? Both were small, both were sold, neither knew where they were going; one is found in the hands of God and the other falls into the hands of the devil. Is it possible to say that what God asks from the one he asks also from the other? How could that be! Suppose they both fell into fornication or some other deadly sin; is it possible that they both face the same judgment, although they fell into one and the same sin? Could this be possible? One learns about the Judgment and about the Kingdom of God day and night, while the other unfortunate knows nothing of it, never hears anything good but only the contrary, everything filthy, everything diabolical? How can He allow them to be judged by the same standard?
Wherefore a man can know nothing about the judgments of God. He alone is all-seeing and can judge the sins of all as He alone knows. Truly it happens that a man may do some sin out of simplicity, but he may have something good about him which is more pleasing to God than his whole life; and you sit in judgment and burden your own soul? And should it happen that he has fallen away, how do you know how much and how well he fought, how much blood he sweated before he did it? Perhaps so little fault can be found in him that God can look on his action as if it were just, for God looks on his labor and all the struggle he had before he did it, and has pity on him. And you know only his sin, then how God spared him; are you going to condemn him for it, and destroy your own soul? And how do you know what tears he has shed about it before God? You may well know about the sin, but you do not know about the repentance.
But there are times when we not only condemn but also despise a man; for it is one thing to condemn and quite another to despise, as I have said. Contempt is when we not only judge our neighbor, but despise him, are disgusted with him and wants to be rid of him with something vile, and this is worse than rash judgment and exceedingly more destructive.
Those who want to be saved scrutinize not the shortcomings of their neighbor but always their own, and they make progress. Such was the man who saw his brother doing wrong and sighed, saying, "Woe is me; him today—me tomorrow!" Do you see his caution? Do you see the disposition of his soul? How he swiftly foresaw how to avoid judging his brother? When he said "me tomorrow" he aroused fear of sinning, and by this he increased his caution about avoiding those sins which he was likely to commit, and so he escaped judging his neighbor; and he was not satisfied only with this, but cast himself under his brother's feet, saying, "He has repented for his sin but I do not always repent as I should, nor do I attain to repentance, for I have not the strength to repent." Do you see the divine light in his soul? Not only was he able to escape making judgment but he threw himself beneath his brother's feet as well. And we wretches judge rashly, we loathe and despise if we see something, or hear something, or even only suspect something! And what is worse, we do not let it stop at harming ourselves, but we go and look for another brother and say, "Here is what happened!" We harm him and put vile sin into his heart also and we do not fear the saying, Woe to the man who gives his neighbor something dark and dangerous to drink (Habbakuk 2:15)! But we do the devil's work and are not one bit concerned about it. What else has the devil to do but disturb and harm us? We are found to work with him for our own destruction and that of our neighbor, for a man who harms his own soul is working with, and helping, the demons. The man who seeks to profit his soul is co-operating with the angels. How is it that we fall into this state unless it is because we have no true love? If we had true love, then we would view our neighbor's shortcomings with co-suffering and compassion, as it is said, Love shall cover the multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). Love thinketh no evil; covers everything and the rest (I Cor. 13:5).
As I said, if we have true love, that very love would cover all sins, as did the saints when they saw the shortcomings of men. Were they blind and did not see sins? And who hated sin more than the saints? But they did not hate the sinners all the same time, nor condemn them, nor turn away from them, but they suffered with them, admonished them, comforted them, gave them remedies as sickly members, and did all they could to save them. Take a fisherman: when he casts his hook into the sea and a large fish takes the bait, he perceives first that the fish struggles violently and is full of fight, so he does not try to pull it in immediately by main force for the line would break and the catch would be lost in the end. No, he rather plays out the line and, as he says, allows the fish to run freely, but when he feels the line slacken and the first struggles have calmed down, he takes up the slack line and begins, little by little, to draw him in. So the holy fathers, by patience and love, draw the brother and do not spurn him nor become disgusted with him. As a mother who has an unruly son does not hate him or turn away from him but adorns him with love, and everything she does, she does for his consolation; so do the saints always cover, adorn and help the sinner, so that with time he will correct himself, and not harm anyone else, and in doing so they themselves greatly advance towards the love of Christ.
What did the blessed Ammon do when those brothers, greatly disturbed, came to him and said, "Come and see, Father, There is a young woman in Brother X's cell. What great love there was in that great soul. Knowing that the brother had hidden the woman in a large barrel, he went in sat down on it, and told the others to search the whole place. And when they found nothing he said to them, "May God forgive you!" And thus did he put them to shame, edify them and bring them great benefit by teaching them not to readily believe accusations against their neighbor. By his consideration for his brother he not only covered him after God but corrected him when the right moment came. Having thrown the others out, he took his hand and said, "Take a thought for you soul, brother." Immediately the brother was ashamed and came to compunction, so swiftly did the love and compassion of the elder work upon his soul.
Let us, therefore, strive to gain this love for ourselves, let us acquire this condescension towards our neighbor so that we may guard ourselves from destructively speaking evil of our neighbor, and from judging and despising him. Let us help one another, as we are members one of another. Which of us, having a wound on his hand or foot, or any other member, would despise it and cut it off, even if it turned septic? Would he not rather bathe it and take away the poison and put a plaster on it, sign it with the cross, sprinkle it with holy water and pray and beg the saints to pray for its cure, as Abbot Zosimas used to say—to put it simply, not to turn aside or run away from our own member, not even from its stench, but to do all we can to cure its disease. In this way we ought to bear one another's burden, to help one another and be helped by others who are stronger than ourselves, to think of everything and do everything that can help ourselves and others, as the Apostle said; we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Rom. 12:5); and whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it (I Cor. 12:26). What does our coenobium, our community life mean to you? Are we not all essentially one body, and all members of one another? Those in charge are the head; those who supervise and correct are the eyes; those entrusted with instruction are the mouth; those who listen and obey are the ears; those who do the work are the hands; those who run messages, who have outside ministries, are the feet. Are you the head? Instruct and edify. Are you the eyes? Watch and consider. Are you the mouth? Speak and give help. Are you the ear? Listen. The hand? Work. The foot? Do your errands! Let each one give assistance to the body according to his ability and take care to help one another, whether it is a matter of teaching and putting the word of God into the heart of a brother, of consoling him in time of trouble or of giving a hand with work and helping him. In a word, as I was saying, each one according to his means should take care to be at one with everyone else, for the more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.
And now in order to make clearer to you the strength of what has been said, I will give you a comparison from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle, the middle of which is called the center and a straight line coming from the center point to the circumference is called a radius. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said: let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God Himself is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to each other. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of Him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God. May God make us worthy to listen to what is profitable for us and do it. For in the measure that we pay attention and take care to carry out what we hear, God will always enlighten us and make us understand His will. To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Portions of this chapter were missing from the manuscript, and therefore adapted and used from Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings (Cistercian Publications, 1978).