Hiding in Plain Sight and The False Accusation

treemonks

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wisdom 3:7 RSV)

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The story is told of St. Macarius that he was falsely accused of fathering a child by a young woman in the village. After being beaten and humiliated by the people there, he returned to his cell and gathered all of the mats and baskets he had made and gave instructions that they were to be sold, and the money given “to my wife.” In time, he was vindicated of the crime for which he had been falsely accused.

St. Francis’ disciple, Brother Juniper, was falsely accused of theft, murder and a number of such crimes. He immediately confessed that he was guilty of everything. He was rescued at the last minute from hanging through the intercession of the friars.

All of us stand falsely accused.

That might sound surprising, since most of us carry some constant level of moderate guilt. And though we wouldn’t dare go as far as Brother Juniper and submit to hanging, or agree to support a child for whom we have no responsibility, nonetheless, we generally agree to some level of guilt and quietly task ourselves with improving.

“I can’t believe I did that! What must I have been thinking?”

Our lives are a strange mix of virtue and vice. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil did not run between nations, nor even between groups or individuals, but within every human heart. Some portion of our heart accuses the other, and with just cause. But we also stand falsely accused.

Our passions cloud our judgment (and guilt can indeed act like a passion). We cannot accurately judge ourselves because we do not see the truth (not even of ourselves). By the same token, we do not and cannot judge others rightly. We are simply incompetent as judges.

Solzhenitsyn is right, however. The dividing line does not run between us, but within us. Sergius Bulgakov once suggested that the parable of the sheep and the goats is incorrectly applied to individual versus individual, and should be applied instead within the heart of each individual. This coincides with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s thoughts on salvation in which the judgment exists to destroy our sins and faults and restore us to our true nature. I will leave that argument to others (for there are so many who rise to great eloquence on the topic).

I have wandered within the heart for a very long time, both my own as well as others. If you suspend judgment, you find a vast reality, both good and bad, dark and light. I have never encountered a heart that is entirely dark, though I have been in some where the light was indeed quite dim and isolated. I always try to remind myself that Christ is the Light and that darkness does not overcome Him. Christ is the Shepherd of the light. An early Christian title for believers was “children of the light.”

Christ knows His sheep and calls us each by name. Most of us don’t know our names yet. Helping someone learn their name (and learning it myself) is the pastoral art. It is the work of Jesus.

Those whom we cannot love are strangers to us. When we are not able to recognize another, it is simply a symptom that we are seeing them through the darkness of our own heart. Christ knows His sheep and sees the truth of our being.

The hiddenness of the human life is often obscured by our modern understanding. In many contemporary Christian treatments, we are viewed as an intellect with a will. We think. We choose. And many are quick to pronounce judgments on others on account of their choices. Indeed, for some, the last choice in life supersedes all earlier choices: “as a tree falls, so it lies.” It is a deeply reductionistic approach to human beings, rendering us flat, with no depth beyond the most cursory surface of our decisions.

The Scriptures suggest something quite different. We are told that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We are told that what we shall be “does not yet appear” (1 John 3:2). We are told that we will receive “a new name written on a stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). This hiddenness is similar to other themes in the New Testament. The gospel itself is a mystery, hidden from the ages, etc. Christianity is “apocalyptic” in character, that is, it is revelatory, making known that which is hidden.

Of course, it’s difficult to live in a world in which the truth of its reality is hidden.

There is a theme, not restricted to Christianity alone, that sees spiritual awareness as “waking up.”

Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” (Eph 5:14)

To wake up is both to see what is there, but to discern what might be hidden. A true watchman has to engage in more than a cursory glance.

Life in a world whose truth is hidden is often quiet. It is marked far more by listening than speaking. It presumes its own ignorance and waits in wonder for what it does not know. It is frequently surprised.

Consider the soul of St. Macarius. Confronted with a false accuser, he responds with extreme humility and agrees to bear the unjust consequences. What kind of a soul can do such a thing? It means not only enduring a financial burden (tough on a desert monk), but silently bearing the condemnation of the entire community. (This scenario becomes part of the final trial of the protagonist in the recent Russian novel, Laurus). In truth, had Macarius acted out of noble intentions, he would easily have done damage to his soul (and that of his accuser). Rather, within himself, he recognizes, or becomes the sinner whom he is accused to be. This is true, even within Christ, when rightly understood.

Christ does not simply die on our behalf, or instead of us, He becomes sin in order to destroy sin (2 Cor. 5:22). Christ is without sin, and yet He becomes sin. There is nothing “noble” in such an action; nobility would be a deeply unjust accusation. It is self-emptying love.

St. Macarius emptied himself of all claims to righteousness in embracing the false accusation, and in doing so, destroyed that which was false. He embraces the unrighteousness that is hidden within himself, that God might vindicate him with His own righteousness. That is the nature of the true, hidden life.

That which is most obvious is never the full story, either about ourselves or others. Christ invites us into the fullness of His life, to live in union with the full story, no matter how deeply it might be hidden. At the very depth of the soul is a song of unbounded thanksgiving.

29 comments:

  1. What a blessing – thank you, Father Stephen! Why hasn’t it been obvious to me that I am an incompetent judge? And live my life accordingly? And remember others are no different and not be swayed by their pronouncements? Just one thought out of many your post inspired.

  2. Well, this is going to take meditating upon. My intellect has been thrown into a mild tail spin but at least my intuition seems to understand (as it always does). Still, thanks Father.

  3. Thank you, Father! The corruption I see in others is in me, and I see it everyday. I have a hard time guarding my heart from judgement. There’s however a split second of sincere regret in realizing that I am worse than the brother I see corrupt and sinful. I’m not sure how much a split second of realization weighs in eternity, but I am grateful to God for it.

  4. As I have gotten older, it has become more difficult to insult me. I know that whatever I am accused of, I am at the least quite capable of doing it. I may or may not have at that particular moment but that is of little import.

    “Forgive me” seems to be the most logical response.

    I often do not respond that way but I hope to.

    I have been surprised too when I have done a wrong to someone in the past and return to that person and ask forgiveness, they often do not remember the wrong.

    It is a strange road we travel.

    Lord have mercy.

  5. How true Father. I become more easily able to see fault in others if the fault really is in me. I am reminded of the childhood taunt: “It takes one to know one…” There is truth in that. I pray for the day when I can only see good in others.

  6. And the deeper part of this is found in the Elder Sophrony’s word regarding “bearing a little shame.” Encountering the truth of ourselves, even and especially the parts we do not like, if borne patiently, is actually a gateway into the deep song of thanksgiving.

  7. What an interesting story about St. Macarius! This wonderful post has drawn from my memory related thoughts…

    First, the teaching of Nikolai Velimirovich which I believe was given to me on this blog: “Your sins are my sins, my sins are your sins.” With St. Macarius and those few like him, not only are they embracing the “unrighteousness within” themselves, but they are also taking upon themselves the sin of someone else.

    In this way, they are following the path of Christ at a higher level that most of us ever will. They accept the sin of another and bear their condemnation, just as Christ bore the condemnation of all.

    A second thought comes from the writings of Mother Teresa in which she alludes to but doesn’t disclose her own deep feelings of inner darkness and abandonment by God. She taught her nuns that perhaps the greatest suffering that Jesus underwent was to BECOME sin so that, while dying on the cross, even His own Father would not claim Him as His beloved Son – as He had at the Baptism and Transfiguration. The Father could not accept sin and Jesus had become sin. Hence, His cry of anguish from the cross showed the depth of His loneliness and pain at having taken on the sins of the world.

    Mother Teresa herself, while she experienced no consolation or presence of God for decades, felt rejected by God though longing for Him deeply. She was able to accept this profound pain because, with the help of her spiritual directors, she was able to see that she was sharing in Christ’s Passion. She completely embraced the plight of the poor who did not know God, thereby taking on their darkness and emptiness. She devoted her life to helping them find God and the consolation she could not feel. In a different manner, she too followed Jesus by taking on the sin of others.

    I believe that God gives us great souls such as these to remind us of what is possible for us. In following Christ, we can learn (even if slowly, like me) that we do not have to – and, in fact, must not – seek to differentiate ourselves from the sinners we encounter as though we were innocent.

    For any sin committed by another has been or could have been committed by me. “Your sins are my sins, my sins are your sins.” And to be a follower of Christ means to bear each others’ sins – not because we are strong enough or virtuous enough to do so – but because Christ lives within us.

    This is how the healing mercy of the Gospel is made known. (Forgive me for writing so much – I hope this makes some sense.)

  8. Your message addressed a current circumstance more than I could have imagined or asked for. It added a dimension i had not considered. Thank you.

  9. Reflecting on that line of good and evil in my own heart reminded me of the primary need to dwell on God’s love and as Christ’s disciple to learn to love myself as He does and not cut myself in half as is so easy to do. The half I want to dwell on leads to self justification and a blindness to the evil (lack of good) on the other side. This creates a wall in my heart that shades and darkens those areas that most need the Light of Christ. How can I repent of that which I don’t allow myself to even see! I only love the part I am aware of. What is not loved will not be restored.

    I now go back to include the previous post on virtue. Virtue, like academics, requires discipline in all subjects. Three A’s and two F’ do not a good student make.

    Thank you for shedding light on my wall.

  10. Deacon James,
    I like what you have written here. Indeed discipline is needed to see ourselves as we are (with all the F’s we’ve got), which is not easy in that we are often inculcated into the values of the modern culture. Having F’s indicates weakness and failure. Seeing that in ourselves is not easy to accept or to love, therefore, we attempt to ignore those goats in ourselves.

    I repeat into this thread of comments a portion of the quote Dino offered in the previous thread:

    “… I must struggle unwaveringly to be in Christ, whether I receive Him or not, and even if I am given over to the sufferings of Gehenna, I ought to remember my sinfulness and must still, like Job, never let go of my struggle to be good.”

    And in the Wisdom Chapter (3:4) that Fr Stephen quotes above: “For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.”

    We are often under the impression that those who are weak are lesser than ourselves. Seeing their weakness, is so much easier than to bear our own. When I’m confronted with my weakness (wrongdoing) I wish to escape, and the easiest way is denial–and the behavior that comes out, is of pride. Working against this in myself, having a mindset that is a product of this culture, is not easy, to say the least.

    I greatly appreciate the reference Fr Stephen makes to the line between goats and sheep being in our own hearts. The struggle to be a servant of God is non-stop. But I have hope in God’s work in me in this struggle and look to the words that Fr Stephen quotes above:

    “…and will run like sparks through the stubble.”

    Glory be to God for All things.

  11. Father, you write, “Of course, it’s difficult to live in a world in which the truth of its reality is hidden.” Is it not even harder to live in a world where nothing is hidden? You have beautifully explained how the iconostasis, far from hiding the altar, actually reveals the altar. We can only see the mystery as a mystery when our access to it, our vision of it, is hindered. The man who tears down the iconostasis does not open the way to the altar; he merely desecrates the mystery and blinds himself to it. I feel as though our own society is almost religiously committed to the desecration of mysteries, literally leaving nothing sacred; and I fear that it drives us mad.

    It makes me wonder whether mystery is crucial to our nature. Do the fathers ever suggest that the Lord’s command that Adam and Eve not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil might have the purpose of establishing or preserving a mystery?

  12. Father, is there a modern tail, something similar to St. Macarius or Brother Juniper that you know of? An American version of Ostrov, the film, maybe not the same monetary context, but the same through line? I would love to develop a screenplay or adapt a book that illuminates the reality you speak of in this article. Somehow the false accusation, the un-desirable humiliation or failure, ultimately leading to redemption or sanctification. I would love to bring this paradox to the West, wrapped in a modern tail. The closest is maybe Shawshank Redemption? Thank You

  13. Reid,
    On the last question, I don’t know.

    But I think you’re right about living in a world where nothing is hidden. It’s not difficult, but it’s almost entirely delusional. It is, in the long run, the logical end of a secular conception of the world. A world in which there is no wonder.

  14. Eliot, Father mentioned the book Laurus, a Russian book recently translated to English I believe. I haven’t read it–don’t know if it fits what you’re looking for but it might be–or at least you might attempt an American version. It is about someone being a Fool for Christ. In this respect I think it is also about taking on the sins of another which is not exactly a hallmark of the American way of looking at ‘the good life’.

    Father, also your article brings out a question for me and is part of the life of discernment. When to speak the truth, and when to leave the truth hidden. St Macarius chose to accept the lie leveled against him. This happened to me not long ago and I didn’t accept the lie leveled against me. Knowing when to speak truth and when to keep one’s mouth shut, is excruciatingly hard for me to discern, and likely indicates my infancy in Christ.

  15. Thank you Fr Stephen. I reflect on your quote of Elder Sophrony and pray for a heart that is willing to be patient, to be open to the truth of myself and to bear a little shame as you gave us earlier.

  16. This essay is so full of beautiful vistas that require a stop and enjoy moment. Such rest stops always have a trail that goes somewhere unseen. An explore is called for.

    Your reminder of the etymology of ‘apocalyptic’ was one small overlook for me. This word has been redefined in our time to only consider the end, the devastation, the conflagration of creation (or some imagined world).

    To view this word in the same way as the Apostle of love who wrote what he saw in the Third Heaven can redefine how one reads the Book of Revelation. It is an uncovering. It is a scenic overlook from the eternal viewpoint.

    Our worldly viewpoint, like our technological civilization, ends up delighting in seeing Creation burn and be used up. St. John’s work is to uncover and shed Eternal Light on the history and meaning of God’s work in Creation.

    This is just one of the wonderful little explores that I have enjoyed while reading and rereading this ponder on what is ‘hidden in plain sight’.

  17. It would seem our inability to see ourselves accurately speaks to the phenomenon of preferring criticism to compliments and hatred rather than love.

    To stand comfortably under the gaze of someone who loves you can be quite difficult, at least for me.

    How much harder to approach Jesus whose love is perfect.

  18. Thank you, Father, for an inspiring post. It is so easy to be defensive when falsely accused, yet the example set by those wise and profoundly faithful men we follow is salutary and inspiring.

  19. This post gives such an illustration, and a greater depth of understanding around the beatitude about the blessedness of when men shall “revile you”, “persecute you ” and “say all manner of evil against you falsely” for His sake, that I was expecting you to quote it at the end.

  20. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    A friend and I were discussing this article, and she asked what you meant by “Christ is without sin, and yet He becomes sin.”

    While I insufficiently attempted to unpack it, based on my interpretation of what you were saying, it seemed to only cloud the issue further. Would you be able to elaborate a bit, especially on how the Sinless One “becomes sin.” Thanks in advance!

  21. “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Co 5:21)

    The heart of what I’m saying is here in 2 Cor. 5:21. When we think of sin as “things we have done wrong,” we miss the point. That legal, forensic imagery does not fit in many of the places where the Scriptures speak of sin. Actually, substituting the word “death” works better. “For our sake Christ became death, who knew no death, that in him we might be made alive…” would be the sense of it. The key is that God does not abolish death in an exterior manner. He enters within death itself and destroys it there. In the same way, Christ also enters into sin itself, “becomes sin,” and destroys it there.

    When we think of ourselves being rescued from sin and death, we should think of ourselves as in bondage, in chains, held in the grip of sin and death. Christ doesn’t just loose the chains, He first allows Himself to be chained with us, and then breaks the bonds, and takes us with Him.

    He becomes what we are, that we might become what He is. He “becomes sin,” though in no way actually sinning. That thought will not work if you use a legal understanding of sin. Hope that helps a little.

  22. I sadly still fail to see how subjecting oneself to lies and negative emotions is good. wouldn’t that be just validating the ghost of this negativity, that through action actually finds it s embodiment?
    It is very confusing to me, all I can think is that by taking these accusations on through self sacrifice we nullify the flow of this negative energy, that being accepted is somehow also annulled.
    How deeply confusing, if God wishes I’ll see clarity in this eventually.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom

  23. Lorenzo,

    What St. Marcarius did should not be seen as achievable by just anyone; it take a certain level of spiritual maturity to do it with any integrity.

    The key to the story is that he didn’t try to justify himself. Instead he did two things at once:

    a) he recognized that his heart was still dark in some places and that therefore he could legitimately claim to be sinful even if not because of this specific sin,

    and b) he put himself in God’s hands in a situation where he really had no other good recourse. He knew God would save him either through vindication or through trials that come with guilt and restitution.

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