Kinder, Gentler

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.

27 Responses to “Kinder, Gentler”

  1. Abba Yohannes Says:

    AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!

  2. David Withun Says:

    Thank you for this, Father. It’s exactly what I needed right now.

  3. Meg Says:

    On Saturday, my husband and I will celebrate 39 years of marriage. I can’t say we’ve never spoken a harsh word to each other, but it’s true that we almost never argue. Being gentle and kind to each other seems to have been the key to “our” success — and I can’t really call it “our” success — I firmly believe that God brought us together and has made all the “rough places plain” for us.

  4. RJackson Says:

    Father, this was poignant but offered me a couple of questions. Surely there are times that we have a moral obligation to speak out against evil? How do we know when to be silent and when to speak out? I continue to really enjoy your blog.

  5. Ruth Says:

    Wonderful post, Father. I will probably return to this again and again and put the quotes from St. Seraphim up where I can see them as often as possible.
    Thank you for this.

  6. Sasha Says:

    I think, you’ve worded it beautifully and precisely to the point: “Compassion for others and sympathy for their failings will bring the heart closer to the heart of God than any form of judging.”
    Thank you, father!

  7. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

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  9. fatherstephen Says:

    RJackson,

    Of course there are times to speak out. Perhaps the question to ask always is how to act in such a way that it is “for the salvation” of others in the broadest sense. It is also true that the world is not a just place. We should do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God as the Scriptures say. I know of people who use their passions for judgment and do so in the name of justice but in fact are only serving their passions and not justice. It always calls for discernment.

  10. November In My Soul Says:

    All too often I lash out at those that love me. Many times it is because they did not meet my expectations. The anger, the judgement brings discord into our family. As husband and father it is my responsibility to set the example, to love, to be patient, to be humble, to be willing to change and never afraid to admit that I am the greatset of sinners. Thank you for this excellent post. It struck straight as an arrow into my ego, my insecurity.

  11. Mike Cap Says:

    Christ is Risen!

    Thanks for this Father Stephen, and for the ‘strangers in a foreign land’ article (and for all the rest too!)

    Would you know where I could find this quote in Russian?

    Thanks,

    Mike

  12. Handmaid Anna Says:

    Father bless,
    During Holy week I was “embarrassed” to do prostrations because of my age and weight and the fact that it is new for me. I was afraid that I would not be able to get back up without help. Embarrassment be damned! My soul is at stake! I am realizing now that it is a physical way to come humbly before God as well as to teach me how to treat others. I am struggling to get back up as I struggle moment by moment to be kinder and gentler to others. I fall and get up, and fall and get up.
    Christ is Risen!
    Anna

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Anna,

    This first Lent after my parents’ Chrismation (they were 79) my Dad told me about prostrating before the Cross on the Sunday of the Cross. “I got down,” he said, “But they had to get me back up.” He’s fairly frail these days.

    My mother, good child of Appalachia that she is, when greeted “Christ is risen!” at her first Pascha, replied, “And I sure am glad!”

    Novel, but appropriate.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Mike,

    I do not know a source for this in Russian. Perhaps one of our many readers will know…

  15. Tracy Says:

    Christ is risen!

    My heart yearns to be kind and gentle, Father, but I live with someone who has an adamantine will to live zealously a non-Orthodox, moralistic, “religion” rather then the Gospel. Anger (for the most part) has gone away from my heart, but so has strength to continue to bear with such a closed, limiting, and therefore depressing, outlook on life — lived in the name of Christ, no less.

    Someone once wrote a book on the cruelty of heresy. Dark pseudo-gospels are indeed cruel, especially when, done “right” (according to such a religion’s cultural standards), they make every attempt to appear pious, self-sacrificing, and all sweetness and light. Any means are justifiable to “spread the faith.”

    Maybe it’s the same question asked above. How do you combat *subtle* evil? Trotting out “discernment” as the answer is, of course, true, but not very helpful. How do you discern?

    One tentative conclusion I have come to, through living in such circumstances, is that I can be guilty of spiritual pride, to think that I can be more “gentle and kind” than in fact I am capable of (genuinely) being, or, even, ought to be. Souls are indeed at stake.

    When does “gentleness” become doubt, fear, weakness, or plain old cowardice?

    Don’t get me wrong. St. Seraphim is my total hero.🙂 You can’t imagine how I long to be able to greet everyone with, “My joy!”

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Tracy,

    Though I’m probably only saying what you already know, above all things pray. Pray that even these difficulties will work for your mutual salvation.

    The Scriptures say, “Overcome evil by doing good,” which remains the best advice. Kindness, gentleness, even to our enemies or those who need changes in their life is still not a sin. If we have to act otherwise, it’s good to do so with good counsel. If you had opportunity for counseling, it sounds like a situation that would possibly benefit.

    I will remember you in my prayers.

  17. Zacharias Says:

    Christos Anesti!

    I too have wondered why people are so quick to judgement and find it so much easier to get angry than to maintain peace. Being a philosophy major I’ve had the opportunity to read about differen’t people’s idea of the “original state of nature.” Are we born inherently evil or good?

    Since familiarizing myself with Orthodox theology (not yet Chrismated… hopefully on Pentecost, God willing!) I’ve come think that maybe we’re so brutish with each other because of the fact that since the Fall we’re still born inherently good, but lacking the grace of God. Perhaps our quick tempers are a sign of this spiritual illness, and of hidden part of our nous secretly recognizing (Behold, you require truth in the innermost parts, you will make me to know wisdom in the innermost parts) the image and likeness of God while the intellect can’t seem to reconcile the fact.

    Just some thoughts!

  18. David Craige Says:

    A pearl of great price is hidden within the dunghill of mindlessness.. Being still
    it may be possible to enter the depths through the inner ear the resonance of light.

  19. Fr. James Early Says:

    Thanks Fr. Stephen–outstaning post. I read it twice and will keep reading it over and over. You really knocked the ball out of the park this time.

    I gave you a “shout out” on my blog:

    http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com/2008/05/too-gentle-too-kind.html

  20. Mike Cap Says:

    Also, Fr. Stephen, what is the painting at the top of the article? It seems as if Christ and St. Nicholas and some other saints have appeared to certain faithful people.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Mike,

    Forgive my oversight – I should have mentioned it before. It is a famous painting by Michail Nesterov, 20th century Russian painter. It is entitled, “The Conversion of the Rus,” and it does picture Christ, St. Nicholas, also St. Sergius of Radonezh, and perhaps others, conversing with a group of people. It does not mean to picture a scene from a particular story – simply to picture Christ and the Gospel coming to the Rus. Though there are folktales of Christ appearing from time to time in that land (as well as others) – which I take to be true.

    There are also many stories of the appearances of the saints – in dreams, and waking, always giving glory to God and directing the soul towards Christ and the faith.

  22. handmaid Says:

    Christ is Risen!
    Fr. Stephen, I have noticed that the artwork on your site has increased appreciably.
    I don’t know if I have ever told you that I imitated you in the posting of great art – you had posted Nesterov’s The Philosophers in one of your great blog entries…
    So, I thank you for giving me the inspiration for Christ is in our midst!
    Indeed He is Risen!
    handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Thank you indeed. I have a folder of Russian artwork that was given to me, and I’ve been in a bit of a mood to use it lately. Glad you like it. Nesterov, Vasnetsov, et al, are very captivating to me.

  24. Steve Says:

    Another phenomenal piece dear Fr. Stephen. Truly God the Father has revealed all things to God the Son.

  25. Micah Says:

    Christ is Risen!

    The divine peace that Adam lost through sin, he acquires again in the Pascha of Christ (cf. Luke 24: 36–49).

    This is the proper context of the Kiss of Peace.

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  27. Michael Bauman Says:

    Unfortunately, the phenomenon of anger and judgement is not much of a mystery to me–it comes from self-will. I am above God and all of his creatures, my will be done—or else.

    Fortunately, God does not act in that manner (some western theology to the contrary) or I would have long since been a crispy critter.

    Anger and judgement in our hearts is a foretaste of hell I think.

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