This reflection is part of a series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastics of the early church. In the second and third centuries these individuals left society to pursue lives of prayer and holiness in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Seeking inner transformation through the concrete practice of their faith in love and service to the neighbour, their wisdom was recorded in collections of their sayings and stories about them. This literature comes down to us as a precious guide to the spiritual life, showing us in rich, practical detail what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself.”
There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault. So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, “We’re all waiting for you.” So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug, filled it with water, and brought it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of somebody else.” When they heard this, they called off the meeting.
A brother asked Abba Moses what it means to think in your heart that you are a sinner. Then the old man said, “When you are occupied with your own faults, you do not see those of your neighbour.”
Abba Moses gave this word to Abba Poemen: “If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you won’t have leisure to go to a neighbour’s funeral.”
Once there was a meeting of monks in Scetis, and they discussed the case of a guilty brother, bur Abba Pior said nothing. Afterward he took a big sack, filled it with sand, and carried it on his shoulders. Then he put a little sand in a small basket and carried it in front of him. The monks asked him, “What are you doing?” He answered, “The sack with a lot of sand is my sins; they are many, so I put them on my back and then I shall not weep for them. The basket with a little sand is the sins of our brother, and they are in front of me, and I see them and judge them. This is not right. I ought to have my own sins in front of me, and think about them, and ask God to forgive me.” When the monks heard this, they said, “This is the true way of salvation.”
When Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the ways of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die with they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them."
Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of a human being: always to take the blame for your own sins before God, and to expect temptation to your last breath.”
I have a terrible habit. I hope you don’t have it too, but I also suspect it’s fairly common to most people. The habit is this: when I feel hurt or upset or angered by what someone has done, a voice begins to chatter in my head. And what the voice chatters about is how terrible that other person is. It tells a story of how innocent I am and how wronged I have been. It suggests lots and lots of ways that the other person should improve or change their behavior. If I, in fact did something hurtful to someone else—and that fact is obvious and unavoidable—the voice assures me that I had my reasons, that I was justified to act in whatever way I did. The voice is full of judgment, criticism, blame, and evaluation—and it is always focused outward, always on the actions of other people. It minds others’ business, and never my own. The longer I listen to this voice the more firmly settled its narrative becomes. I become more righteous in my own mind, the other person becomes more wicked, and my feelings of resentment are magnified.
The Desert Elders teach us to distrust that voice deeply. They would have called it a demonic voice, tempting us to commit the sin of slander, which is tearing another person down in order to build ourselves up. In our modern worldview we might call this voice an aspect of our own minds—the ego, the lizard brain, or the voice of Jackal. Whatever we call it, the Elders’ wisdom applies: struggle against it, and mind your own business!
Part of minding one’s own business is declining to stand in judgment of the neighbor, and refusing to listen to the internal voice that wants to direct blame outward. “The monk,” says Abba Moses, “must die to his neighbor [which is to say, refuse to control or manipulate anyone else] and never judge him at all in any way whatever.” Listen to the quadruple negation that drives the point home: never judge him at all, in any way, whatever. Fundamental to growing in maturity, integration, and wholeness is to direct attention away from the supposed faults of others, and instead take responsibility for one’s own actions. As Abba Anthony said, the great work of a human being is to “always to take the blame for your own sins before God.”
The desert wisdom of taking responsibility for your own life and refusing to blame others is embodied in our day by the popular 12-Step programs. These are usually geared for people seeking healing from addictions of various kinds, but what they really are, are support programs for anyone who wants to grow in human maturity and deal better with life. The first steps are about admitting powerlessness (weakness, vulnerability), and casting oneself on God’s mercy for healing. This is the beginning of receiving grace. The next section is about making a “fearless moral inventory” of oneself – dealing with the corpse in one’s own front room, as Abba Moses graphically put it.
The Desert Elders and modern 12-Step practitioners speak from and to their particular contexts, but their wisdom is for all. Don’t judge, criticize, or blame others. Take responsibility for yourself. And mind your own business.