The following quote (of St. Seraphim of Sarov) is framed and mounted in the narthex of my parish. I first obtained the quote from my Archbishop:
You cannot be too gentle, too kind.
Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.
Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…
Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.
Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.
I am continuously puzzled by the fact that people are frequently unkind and just as frequently not gentle. I cannot point to myself as a model in this – I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. But it nevertheless remains a puzzle.
As I ponder the human heart I can see that judgment comes easily to many of us. And most people who are harsh in their judgments of others are just as harsh in their judgment of themselves. It’s as if we had a Freudian Super-Ego living inside our heads judging everything in sight. Of course, this gives us no peace and robs us of compassion.
It is particularly difficult for religious people – for the expectations we allow ourselves to entertain may be nothing less than perfection. If you are Orthodox and you’ve dabbled in the canons or rubrics there are entirely new areas in which to expect perfection.
Of course, the answer to this is not “lowering expectations.” Some fear that anything less than the strictest approach will lead to wanton libertinism. The answer is have the right expectations. St. Seraphim did not say, “You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” because he was a famous libertine or had low expectations of the human capacity for a spiritual life. He spoke as he did, primarily, because he knew God. His admonitions do not differ from those of Christ – unless the reader of Scripture is reading with a bitter heart.
The question of right expectations is a matter of reading the gospels correctly and flows from truly knowing God. Religious knowledge can easily be substituted for knowledge of God – they are not at all the same thing. The conflict between Christ and the Pharisees has been there for us from the beginning to tell us that religious knowledge is the wrong expectation. Perfect conformity to religious regulation may indeed be demonic. It is the Publican who returns home justified rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:14).
“You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” is itself a proper statement of right expectation. We cannot be too kind, because God Himself is kind, “to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). For various reasons, the religious culture which most of us have internalized maximizes the importance of avoiding sexual temptation, performing certain religious actions (particularly outward ones), maintaining correct belief (this is particularly important for many Orthodox – and is not incorrect – when rightly practiced), and violations of certain moral matters.
These things are not wrong in and of themselves – but they can also be performed (to some degree) with no reference to God. There is the danger of simply becoming conformed to the general and accepted standards of middle-class behavior. This is a far cry from the Sermon on the Mount, and may completely ignore the matter of the heart – where grace alone can make a difference.
Thus St. Seraphim offers an admonition: “You cannot be too kind, too gentle.” Both are actions of the heart (unless we are simply being unctious like Dicken’s Uriah Heap). Compassion for others and sympathy for their failings will bring the heart closer to the heart of God than any form of judging.
As St. Seraphim boldly stated: “All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other.”
Somewhile back someone (not Orthodox) wrote to me about a recurring problem of anger in dealing with their children. My suggestion (very Orthodox) was to fall down at the feet of the child whenever this happened and to ask for their forgiveness (like the Orthodox do at Forgiveness Vespers). Such an act of humility not only teaches a valuable lesson to a child but also applied frequently enough to the heart will curb anger (by God’s grace). How do we see a heart change? By repentance and the sooner the better.
I think the same action, used in a marriage, would often have a beneficial effect.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the Prostitute Sonja (who is truly a saint), tells the murderer Raskolnikov, “Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer.'”
Her concern is far more for the redemption of his heart, and not for any outward shame or embarassment. Embarrassment be damned! A man’s soul is at stake!
The same is true for us when we turn to questions of kindness or gentleness. Kindness and gentleness require patience, require restraint, require a compassion that sees the truth of another human being rather than the abstract form of an imagined perfection. Kiss the earth and do not fear to confess before all men – not if your heart is at stake.
May St. Seraphim pray for us and ask the good God to teach us the true meaning of kindness and gentleness and give our poor hearts the grace to do what seems so hard.