Friday, November 26, 2010

On Judging Pharisees

"He who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” There is a tension in the life of the Christian between law and Spirit, and often it is a very uncomfortable tension.
Those of us who have tried to take St. Paul’s advice and live by the Spirit, as in “walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh,” have quickly discovered that without some rules, some guidelines, “walking in the Spirit” quickly degenerates into doing what I think is right, which is hard to distinguish from what feels good to me at the moment.
And what feels good to me is not always what breaks the rules. What feels good to me might be what appears righteous, even though it might not be the mind of the Spirit. Jesus’s eating with publicans and sinners certainly never appeared righteous, yet Jesus always had the mind of the Spirit. One of the central themes of the Gospel is that harlots and sinners enter the Kingdom of Heaven before those who are externally righteous. The passions of inordinate desire are no less the mind of the Spirit than the passions of vanity, pride and self-righteousness. In fact, several of the Fathers of the Church have argued that inordinate natural desires (addictions to too much of what is natural to desire in appropriate contexts and in appropriate measure) is far less spiritually damaging than the spiritual, demonic passions of pride and her children.
How easy it is to slip off the narrow way! How difficult it is to attend to the mind of the Spirit! Having been filled with the Holy Spirit, we have grieved Him, and thus find it difficult to attend to His voice.
Keeping moral and religious rules does not make us righteous--but such rules do point to righteousness. Rules are important. Rules guide us, or better yet, guide us to the Guide. Because rules are important, St. Maria of Paris (Skobtsova), herself a famous and saintly rule breaker and martyr for Christ, wrote the essay “A Justification of Pharisaism.” In it she argues that those who keep with unbending strictness the rules of the Church, those who seem to sacrifice all compassion for the sake of keeping the rules exactly as they have been handed down, they too have a very important role to play in in the life of the Church. They preserve the Tradition. They preserve the rules that point to the Rule, to the Holy Spirit.
Just as it is wrong to judge sinners, it is also wrong to judge Pharisees.

Only God knows the mind of the Spirit. We see in part and know in part. We each struggle to stay on the narrow way, sliding neither to the left (licentiousness) nor to the right (self-righteousness). “The letter kills,” St. Paul tells us, “but the Spirit gives life.” And yet, not being full of the Spirit, having grieved the Spirit and struggling in repentance to be filled again, we look to the letter to guide us, to guide us to the Spirit who gives life.


Barbara said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Is the essay you mention by St. Maria in her Essential Writings book?

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Barbara,
Yes, the one edited by Jim Forest.

Michelle said...

... not judging Pharisees ... not judging the judgemental ... yeah! It's so obviously wrong when you think about it, but it's so hard to avoid ...