One of the Missionaries of Charity who lived with Mother Teresa had what Mother called a “terrible tongue.” After it flared up one day and caused a disturbance, Mother sent for the sister.
The sister showed Mother a book where she had kept a tally of her efforts to control her tongue. She had succeeded nineteen times in overcoming herself. She had fallen once.
“Nobody saw these nineteen,” Mother says in the book Where There is Love, There is God, “but all saw the fall. …We can see the fault, but we never know the reason.”
The sister’s interior struggle was hidden from the eyes of those who witnessed her fall. They had no idea how hard she was working to fix her imperfection.
“We must remember—we cannot help seeing the faults of [others],” Mother Teresa says, “but…we must never pass judgment on their intentions—the intention only Jesus knows. That is why Jesus is so kind and full of mercy, because He knows what we really mean each time.”
Drinking the Sacred Wine of Charity
“The principal malice of sin depends on the intention and counsel of the heart,” St. Francis de Sales explains in the book Introduction to the Devout Life. To us on the outside, these things—the intention and counsel of the heart—are hidden, and so we must never judge other people.
“Can we never pass judgment on our neighbor? No, never,” St. Francis says. “In courts of justice, …it is God who judges the criminals. …It is the part of an unprofitable soul to amuse itself with examining the lives of other people.”
According to St. Francis, those who have a tendency to judge others usually do so for one of several reasons: either (a) they have a naturally bitter disposition (such a disposition in itself is not a sin but a dangerous imperfection); (b) they are arrogant and proud, thinking that they raise their own honor when they look down on other men; (c) they like to show their intelligence by philosophizing about other men’s behavior; or (d) they are acting out of jealousy or anger, such as in the case of a betrayed lover.
The cure for all of these poisons, St. Francis says, is to “drink the sacred wine of charity.”
When we are faced with a situation where a neighbor’s actions are questionable, we must always choose the most charitable explanation possible, St. Francis says. Even if a sin is obvious, we must still imitate Jesus, who pleaded the ignorance of those who crucified Him.
“When we cannot excuse a sin,” St. Francis says, “let us at least make it worthy of compassion by attributing the most favorable cause we can to it, such as ignorance or weakness.”
Avoiding Slander and Detraction
St. Francis also strongly exhorts Christians to avoid slander at all costs, as it is “a form of murder. …At one stroke [the slanderer] stings and poisons the listener’s ear and the reputation of the man he is speaking against.”
Even if we have seen a neighbor commit a vice, we are in danger of falsehood if we call him a drunkard, a glutton, an adulterer, or make any other accusation on the grounds of what we witnessed.
“Since God’s goodness is so immense that a single moment suffices for us to ask for and receive his grace, what certainty can we have that a man who yesterday was a sinner is such today?” says St. Francis. “Hence we can never say that a man is wicked without exposing ourselves to the danger of telling a lie. If we must say something it is only that he did such and such a bad deed, that he lived a bad life at such a time, or that he does ill at present. We must never draw conclusions from yesterday to today, nor from today to yesterday, and still less to tomorrow.”
If we must condemn another’s vice for the benefit of either the person spoken about or the person spoken to—for example, warning an unsuspecting young lady about a dangerously imprudent man—we still must be very careful to spare as much as possible the person in whom the vice is found, telling only the necessary truth, nothing less and nothing more.
St. Francis suggests four ways to respond when you hear anyone spoken ill of:
- 1. Make the accusation doubtful, if you can do so justly.
- 2. If you can’t, then make an excuse for the intention of the accused person.
- 3. If that can’t be done, express sympathy for the accused and change the subject of conversation, recalling that those who do not fall into sin owe it all to God’s grace.
- 4. Tell of some good deed of the accused person if you know any.
“I Know I Wil Go Straight to God”
In the same book where she tells the story of the sister with the terrible tongue, Mother Teresa also tells the story of a brother who was dying. He had a big smile on his face.
“I have never criticized, grumbled against anybody,” he said. “I know I will go straight to God. I never judged anybody and God will never judge me.”
It may sound presumptuous, but if he was speaking the truth, then this brother was simply taking Jesus at His word.
“Judge not, that you may not be judged,” Jesus says in Matthew 7. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
The sister with the terrible tongue and the dying brother are two sides of this one coin—two living reflections of this Scripture passage. The sister shows us an example of why we shouldn’t be quick to judge others. And the dying man reflects the peace and confidence we may have in God when we measure generously toward others (cf. Luke 6:38) and leave the judgment to Him.
In the end, those who drink the “sacred wine of charity” will receive from God the compassion they gave to His beloved children.
image: Saint Francis de Sales, architectural details of Eglise de la Madeleine, photo by Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock