Making an Examination of Conscience

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"To conquer himself is the grandest victory that man can gain." 

-St. Ignatius of Loyola, Letter 51       

 

"The Examination of Conscience",

by Fr. John Baptist Scaramelli, S.J.

(The following five chapters were extracted from: The Directorium Asceticum, vol I. Seventh edition, 1917. R. & T. Washbourne, Ltd., London. pp. 334-364)

 

Article IX.—Eighth means of attaining to Christian Perfection. – Daily Examination of Conscience.

Chapter I.

That Daily Examination of Conscience is a Most Important Means of Christian Perfection is Shown from the Authority of the Fathers of the Church.

THERE are two kinds of Confession whereby a devout person may cancel the sins which sully his conscience: the first is Sacramental, and is made at the feet of a Confessor; the other is wholly secret, and takes place between God and the soul, to the exclusion of every other person; and this is called the Daily Examination of Conscience, because it is generally practised every day by such as aim at purity of heart and progress in perfection. In both these kinds of Confession, search after sin, and humble sorrow, with an efficacious purpose of amendment, are required. In both, we have to accuse ourselves of our sins: in the first, to the ears of the Priest, in the second, in the presence of God. If our repentance in this solitary accusation of ourselves reach to perfect contrition, both one and the other kind of confession avail to obtain pardon and to restore to the soul its former purity. There is, however, this difference, that when any one is guilty of grievous sin, he is under a grave obligation to make it known in Sacramental Confession, else he would fall back again under God's displeasure by his neglect of a most weighty divine commandment. But when any one is conscious of slighter faults only, it is still a matter of counsel to disclose them in sacramental confession, and, even necessary, as we have seen above, if the person would aspire to perfection, in order that he may be able to gain that purity of conscience which, more than any other thing, disposes us to the perfect love of God. This notwithstanding, the confession we make to God alone has certain advantages which sacramental confession does not possess: for we can make it in any place, at any hour, at any moment; in fact, whenever we choose: which is not the case with sacramental confession, where a Priest is needed as the minister, and a fixed place and time must be chosen. Having then in the foregoing Article spoken of sacramental confession, which we make to the ministers of holy Church, it will not be out of place to treat now of this other kind of confession, which, without the intervention of any minister, is made before God, and is none other than the daily examination of conscience. And we shall treat of this subject the more willingly, as it, too, is a most important means of acquiring purity of heart, and consequently of attaining to perfection. This will be shown in the present Chapter, from the authority of the holy Fathers, and in the following one, by intrinsic proofs.

St. Basil says: "At the close of each day, when all our labours, both of body and mind, are brought to an end, each one, before retiring to rest, should set himself to an attentive examination of his conscience, in order to discover the faults which he has committed during the past day." St. Ephrem, a writer of great authority in the early Church, explains this by the parity of a merchant who, morning and night, balances his accounts, and, because he is anxious that his business should flourish, examines diligently what are his gains and what his losses. And thus should we also, says the Saint, if we desire to advance in Christian perfection, both morning and evening look into the state of our accounts, and examine into the spiritual traffic which we are carrying on with God. Then coming down to particulars he writes: "At night-time, withdrawing into the closet of thy heart, thou shouldst question thyself, saying, 'Have I this day, offended my God in any one point? Have I spoken idle words? Have I through neglect or contempt omitted to do any good action? Have I wounded in any particular my neighbour's feelings? Has my tongue given way to any kind of detraction?' &c. And when morning comes, examine again how thy business and thy spiritual merchandise have proceeded during the past night. ‘Have I had any bad thoughts, have I been negligent in dwelling upon them?’" &c. He finishes by saying, that if we discover any sin or failing, it must be blotted out by repentance, and washed away with tears of contrition.

Have you ever observed with what exactness and diligence the master of a house regulates his domestic concerns? Every day he calls in his steward, takes account of his expenditure, insisting upon an accurate statement of all; he examines diligently, to see whether the said expenditure has been superfluous or extravagant, or whether, on the contrary, it has been too limited and insufficient. And this he does in order that he may neither go beyond, nor yet fall below, what is necessary and suitable for the proper support of his family. In like manner should we act in regulating our own selves. In the little world which we all have within us, reason is the mistress that commands, the faculties of the soul and the senses of our body are the servants from whom it has to claim obedience and submission. Let then the reason summon the powers of the soul to give account daily of what they have been doing. Let it call on the understanding for an account of its thoughts, and examine whether these have been vain, proud, resentful, unchaste, contrary to brotherly love, and if they have wilfully or even carelessly dwelt on such objects. Let it summon the will to give account of its affections, whether they have been sinful or imperfect, and whether or not it has in a manner consented thereunto. Let it strictly cross-question all the senses of the body. The eyes must be examined whether they have been over-inquisitive, immodest, or too free and wanton. The tongue must be questioned as to its words; have they been offensive, unchaste, angry, idle, contrary to charity? The ears, the touch, the taste, the hands, must be called to give an exact account of all they have done. Next, by a lively repentance we must correct whatever we shall discover to have been inordinate and sinful, and everything must be set in order anew by a firm and resolute purpose of amendment. By this daily search into our every action, the reason will be enabled to regulate all with justice and exactitude and we shall make easy, rapid, and safe progress towards the perfection to which we are called. This comparison is borrowed entirely from St. John Chrysostom, who employs it in order to show the importance of this daily self-examination, and who exhorts us to the practice thereof.

St. Gregory the Great says, that whoever fails to examine daily into all that he has done, said, and thought, is not at home with, and present to, himself, but lives an outside and chance life, and is consequently losing sight altogether of his perfection. St. Bernard assures us that if we will but examine ourselves morning and night, and prescribe to ourselves, early and late, the rule of our life, we shall never fall into any serious fault. And not to weary our kind reader by multiplied and lengthy texts which might easily be accumulated, I will only add that St. Dorotheus, though one of the early Fathers, while recommending examination of conscience as a most sure means of keeping the soul pure and unblemished, says, that this lesson had been handed down at his time from his forefathers and their predecessors. It is therefore unquestionable that from the very first ages of the Church, the saints looked upon daily examination of conscience as a most powerful means of speedily attaining to purity of heart, and through this to Christian perfection.

Nor have the saints recommended this Examination of Conscience by their teachings only, they have further encouraged us to the assiduous practice of the same by their example; for, indeed, it would be difficult to point out a single holy Confessor who has not made use of it as of a ladder by which to climb to the summit of perfection. St. Ignatius of Loyola, not content with examining his conscience twice a day, conformably with the instructions of the ancient Fathers, never let a single hour pass by without recollecting himself, and searching minutely into all his thoughts, words, and actions, during that brief space of time; repenting of every slight imperfection which the pure eye of his mind could discover, and renewing the spirit within him by a freshly-formed purpose of spending the coming hour in a more faultless manner. He was unable even to understand how any one could aspire to sanctity and not keep constant watch over his heart by examining all its movements. Hence, one who had been a close observer of the course of his whole life, was able to say that the life of St. Ignatius was one uninterrupted examination of conscience. It will not be foreign to the present subject if I relate an expression of wonder on the part of the Saint which renders him worthy of greater wonder on our part; for having one day chanced to meet one of the Fathers of the Society, he asked him familiarly how often he had entered into himself for the purpose of self-examination up to that hour. "Seven times," replied the latter. "Ah, me! so seldom!" answered the Saint, quite astonished. And it was not yet evening when this happened; but some hours of the day were still to come. St. Francis Borgia was also in the habit of taking account of himself at least once in every hour: indeed, St. Dorotheus recommends the practice to all devout persons as most advantageous to the soul. "We may hence infer, that as the saints have so earnestly inculcated, and so diligently practised, this daily Examination of Conscience, it must needs be a most necessary means for the attainment of perfection.

 

Chapter II.

Reasons Which Made the Saints Look Upon Daily Examination of Conscience as Most Necessary.

The principal reason why the saints so earnestly exhort us to watch over our every action by means of daily self-examination, is based on the corruption of our nature, proceeding from the sin of our first parent, on account of which the same failings ever tend to shoot forth anew within us, the same sins to reappear, and the same passions to rage within our hearts. Hence it is necessary to observe, at least once a day, what poisonous weeds have sprung up within our hearts in order that we may prune them with the knife of a true contrition. How unwise would not that gardener be, who, having once cleared the ground of weeds, were never to do so more! seeing that the soil will always begin again and again to put forth useless and noxious plants which stifle the growth of such as have value. A vine-dresser would surely be thought to have lost his senses, and very justly too, if, after having once removed from the trees and vines all superfluous branches and tendrils, he were never again to perform the like operation; for vines and trees are ever putting forth a fresh and undue luxuriance of branches, shoots, and leaves. No less folly would it be in a Christian, if having by some one good Confession uprooted in his heart the poisonous growth of his faults, and pruned the wasteful luxuriance of his feelings, he were to neglect to do the same thing day by day, through a diligent Examination of Conscience: being fully aware, as he must be, that some evil weed or other springs up every day; that some branch of sin puts forth its shoots; that some one passion awakens; and that without constant pruning the beauteous garden of the soul would soon become a hideous tangle of sin. But let us hear St. Bernard on this point: "Who is there," he says, "in this world, who has so perfectly cut away from within himself all vain and superfluous attachments, as to have no need to cut or prune away anything more? Believe me, the evils that have been cut down will put forth new shoots; after having been driven forth, they will surely come back; when quenched they will once more burst into flame; and though now they are lying dormant, soon will they wake anew. Hence, it avails little to have used the pruning-knife once; we must use it often, and, inasmuch as may be possible, never let it out of our hands; because, unless we want to hoodwink and blind ourselves, we shall always be finding something in ourselves that needs cutting away." The same Saint then adds: "As long as you dwell in this mortal body, whatever may be your strivings after progress in spiritual life, you deceive yourself if you fancy that your lusts and vices are dead, and not rather forcibly kept under for the time." Never therefore must we let ourselves be lulled into a false security, but we must keep a daily watch and ward over our vicious tendencies by frequently examining our conscience, and must strike them down, when they make their appearance, by repeated blows of contrition.

If a King were to learn for certain that within the limits of his realm his foes were lurking, hidden among the woods and thickets, he certainly would not fail to pursue them vigorously. And when he had found them, think you that he would let them remain there at large? Undoubtedly not. After having tracked them out with the greatest diligence, he would put them all to the sword, and make a wholesale slaughter of them, as soon as they were fully discovered. "Now, remember," St. Bernard continues, "that you have within you an enemy whom you may overcome and subdue, but whom you cannot exterminate; whether you will it or not, this enemy will ever be living within you, and will ever carry on an implacable war against you. Who, then, is this great, undying enemy, or rather, who are these many enemies who can only die when you die yourself? I answer: your own passions, your own vices, and the weaknesses which your passions and vices beget." Seek them out, then, every day by the Examination of Conscience; and having, through a diligent search, discovered them, slay them with the sword of a true sorrow; hew them down by the earnestness of your resolve; so that they may be left on the field, not indeed dead, as that cannot be, but so wounded and disabled that they may no longer be able to hinder your progress in the way of perfection.

Tell me, pray, have you ever heard of a shipwright who succeeded in framing a ship so strongly that neither the beating of the waves nor the violence of the winds could ever spring the slightest leak? You answer, that this would be impossible, because a ship is made up of so many beams, so many planks, so many joints, all fastened together, that hourly beaten as it is by the buffeting of wind and water, it must sooner or later loosen some of them. What then can be done to hinder the poor vessel which is constantly taking in water, drop by drop though it may be, from eventually sinking, and being swamped in the midst of the ocean? There is but one remedy: it is to work the pumps regularly, in order to prevent the water accumulating in the hold. Now man, in the ocean of misery in which we are constrained to sail, is very like a tempest-tost ship, being made up, so to speak, of enfeebled powers, of weak senses, of passions always ready to betray; nor is it to be expected that, amid the shock of so many temptations, having to encounter so many occasions and dangers of evil, he will not leave some small opening by which venial sins, at least, and trivial faults will find their way into the soul, and by their accumulation bring about in course of time that shipwreck which we call mortal sin; or, if not this, at all events hinder him from reaching in safety the port which he is desirous of making, —I mean, from attaining perfection. What then is to be done to hinder this dreadful misfortune from coming upon us by slow degrees? What, but daily to empty the conscience of the faults we have committed, by a serious examination of ourselves? to cast them out by contrition, to close up the rifts through which they find an entrance, by our firm purposes and constantly-renewed resolutions to amend? This simile I have borrowed from St. Augustine. "The troubled waters of venial offences," says the holy Doctor, "rise daily in the hold of our hearts; whoever, then, wishes not to perish, let him empty it out every day, as sailors do the hold of a ship, by a careful and contrite examination of conscience."

From this argument another may be deduced which proves to demonstration that it is idle to dream of attaining Christian perfection without examining our conscience; for, if what we have heretofore proved be true; if, that is, without a daily scrutiny of our hearts we cannot rid ourselves of the vices, sins, and failings to which we are so prone, it is equally demonstrable that without this examination, virtue can have no growth whatever within us; still less can the divine flower of charity blossom forth in our hearts. In order that the grain may grow in the field, the ground must first of all be cleared of briars and brambles: we must first cart away the stones which encumber the soil, otherwise, as we read in the Gospel parable, the thorns will choke the seed, and the stones will deprive it of the moisture necessary. So too, the chosen seed of virtue cannot spring up and flourish in the soil of our hearts, unless they be first cleared of the roots of vices and of bad passions; unless they be previously cleansed of those daily faults, which, little by little, harden it and make it as impervious as a rock All this is admirably expressed in the sweet language of St. Bernard. "Virtue," he writes, "cannot grow in the company of vice. If the one is to flourish, the other must perish. Clear away, then, what is superfluous and vicious, and that which is wholesome and virtuous will at once spring up. Whatever you withhold from your lusts will turn to the profit and advantage of your spiritual life." "Therefore," concludes the holy Doctor, "let us take heed to cut down by a diligent self-examination the noxious growth of faults, vices, and defects, if we wish to see the flowers of every virtue bloom forth in the garden of our souls."

St. Augustine, treating especially of charity, which, as we have so frequently said, is the very sap of our perfection, states positively, that it will increase in the measure of our efforts to keep down the lusts of our disorderly passions, and that charity will be perfect in him who has entirely mortified and extinguished his selfish lusts. As a vessel full of water will gradually become full of air when the liquid is being drawn off, and, when all the water is emptied out, will contain nothing else but air; so, and much more, says St. Augustine, will our hearts fill with divine love in proportion as they are emptied of selfish desires, and then only will they be full of love when they are perfectly emptied of every disorderly inclination. St. Paul accounts for this in these words: "The end of all the commandments" —and by strict consequence, the crowning of the edifice of our perfection—"is charity." But this flower of paradise blooms only in pure hearts, in consciences cleansed from all evil lusts. Now, to bring the heart to this stainless purity, no means can be more effectual than the frequent use of self-examination; than an exact care to cleanse it of its defilements by sorrow for our faults, to provide against future stains by good purposes, and never to let a day pass without thus cultivating the soul He, then, who desires to see the red rose of charity, the white lilies of purity, the purple violet of humility and penance, indeed the flowers of every virtue, blossoming in his heart, must apply himself frequently to this holy exercise, and thus his soul will become perfect, lovely, and beautiful to behold, and the King of Heaven will come down to take His pleasure in it as in a Paradise of delights.

It will appear to no one an extraordinary matter to set apart a few minutes daily for examining and purifying our heart, if he calls to mind that the sages of old, pagan though they were, thought that this daily self-examination was necessary for the bettering of their life, and made use of it for that purpose. Pythagoras prescribes it to his disciples, many of whom were in the habit of searching into themselves regularly every evening. Cicero tells us of himself, that always at the close of each day he called himself to account for everything that he had spoken, heard, and done during the whole course of that day. Seneca tells us that every night he sat thus in judgment over his own actions. "Each night," he writes, "when the lamp is put out in my chamber, and my wife, aware of my custom, keeps silence, I examine into the whole course of the past day. I think over all I have said and done, concealing nothing from myself, passing over nothing. If I discover anything amiss, I say to myself, ‘I forgive thee this time, but do so no more.’" Now, if heathens, out of the desire they had for wisdom, made daily use of this self-examination, how much rather should it not be practised by Christians out of a desire of becoming pleasing to God by cleanness of heart, of attaining supernatural perfection, and of arriving at the possession of those surpassing good things which are in store for the perfect beyond the stars.

I may allege a further reason, which, as it escaped the sages of old, should be better known to us who are gifted with the light of faith. It is this: that by frequently and searchingly looking into ourselves, not in a superficial manner, but with inward compunction of spirit, we escape the severe and rigorous judgment that otherwise awaits us before the tribunal of God; for, as St. Paul says, If we judge ourselves we shall not be judged. Cornelius a Lapide applies these words to our subject in this very sense, and in the following terms: —"If we examine and search into our conscience, submitting it to a rigorous trial, and if, when we discover any sins, we wash them away with tears of contrition, we shall not be judged by God; in other words, we shall escape punishment at His awful judgement."

Such being the case, the reader will do well to reflect on the terrors of God's judgment-day, on the searching examination which will then be made into his faults; to think how inexorable the judge will show Himself; how severe the punishment which will then be awarded by an irrevocable sentence: he may then be quite sure that he will feel glad to examine his conscience, not, only once, but several times a day, in order to escape so awful a judgment. A Religious of godly life appeared after his death, clad in sable garb, with a downcast and melancholy countenance, one of his brethren, a former friend of his. His friend asked him why he appeared in such a mournful aspect. The dead man answered, "It is beyond belief ! it is beyond belief!" "But what," replied the friend, "what is it that is beyond belief?" "It is," rejoined the dead man, "the rigour of God’s judgment and the severity of His chastisements." At these words he vanished, leaving his friend more dead than alive from very terror.

It pleased God to give a specimen of the rigour of the divine judgment to St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi during her life time, in order that her example might inspire us with a wholesome dread. Having one evening knelt down to her usual Examination of Conscience, she was suddenly rapt in ecstasy and borne up to God's presence. Then our Lord, with a beam of His most pure light, penetrated her with such a sense of the malice of each of her faults, that those who heard her make her Examination aloud, while the ecstasy lasted, were struck with horror no less than herself. The first fault she mentioned was having omitted, on awaking in the morning, to direct her earliest thoughts to God, being busy with the care of calling up the sisters, in order that they might get ready to praise God, as she was fearful lest she might be late. This omission, which many of us would doubtless account an act of holy zeal, appeared so heinous to the Saint, that she implored God's mercy, declaring meanwhile that she was unworthy of it, and deserving of a thousand hells. Next she accused herself that, while standing in Choir, instead of being wholly absorbed in God's praise, she had felt some annoyance at seeing the prescribed inclinations of the head and other ceremonies omitted. Here again she craved mercy for what we should consider zeal for God's honour. She then accused herself, as she had already done in Confession that very day, of having rebuked one of her novices with an expression not quite gentle and sweet. She besought God to pardon her, and in order to obtain forgiveness, pleaded the merits of His most bitter Passion. That same day, while conversing at the grille with an aunt of hers, she had been rapt in ecstasy, and carried forcibly from herself by the power of God. Feeling the inward motion of God's spirit, she had signalled to the nuns to take her away, lest she should be seen in this condition by a secular person. The nuns, however, did not understand what she wished to convey by these signals, so that she fell into ecstasy in public, without being able to help it. Now, for this, in which none of us could discover even the shadow of a fault, she blamed herself bitterly, calling it great hypocrisy, since she had appeared better than she was, —craving God's pardon, and protesting that if He cast her into hell, she deserved to be under the feet of Judas. She continued to accuse herself of such slight defects as these, with the like expressions of contrition, and at length concluded in words which would befit a repentant adulterer or murderer, whom the enormity of his crimes had well-nigh driven to despair of God’s mercy, saying, "O God, as I have so often offended Thee today, I will not add to my other sins the crowning offence of despairing of Thy mercy. Full well I know, O Lord, that I am unworthy of pardon, but the blood that Thou hast shed for me emboldens me to look for forgiveness." On another occasion God showed the Saint, while she was in an ecstasy, all the sins she had committed in her past life. On beholding them, she sobbed bitterly, and exclaimed, "Willingly would I go to hell, if only by so doing I could bring about that I had never offended Thee." Yet it is well known how blamelessly this Saint had lived, even from her tenderest years. So much does the weight of our faults increase when God takes upon Himself the examination of them, and shows them to the soul as they really are in themselves. What then will be our state at God's judgement-seat, on beholding our crimes in a light much clearer and far more penetrating than that in which this holy virgin saw her slight failings? Truly, disembodied souls see things in a far different light from that in which we behold the same while yet in the bonds of the flesh! What dread, what horror will one day be ours! I am sure that if the sight of our faults could cause death in the next world, we should die a thousand times from sheer fright. But what remedy is there for this? None other than reliance on the counsel of the Apostle: to sit in judgment now upon ourselves. If we judge ourselves we shall not be judged. None other than to call our consciences to account at least once in the day; to search into various movements; to examine them all with a critical and observant eye; and on discovering anything amiss, to blot it out by acts of lively contrition and firm purposes of amendment; bearing in mind that, as St. Augustine says, "God loves to pardon those who confess their faults to Him with lowly repentance, and forbears from judging those severely who, with a contrite heart, do judgment upon themselves."

 

CHAPTER III.

The Manner of Making the Daily Examination of Conscience Explained.

According to the plan laid down by St. Ignatius in the book of his Spiritual Exercises, this devout practice should consist of five parts. In the first place, we put ourselves in the presence of God by an act of faith and profound adoration, and give Him thanks for all the favours we have received from the divine bounty, but especially on that particular day. St. Bernard warns us to be very much indeed on our guard not to be backward in giving God the thanks so due for the benefits which He imparts to us: since gratitude dictates that we should duly render thanks to the "giver of all good gifts," for every favour, whether ordinary, or great, or small. Now, the time of Examination of Conscience is most suitable for this purpose, as then it is that the soul strikes a balance between what it has received from God, and the return it has made to Him. So much the more, too, as gratitude for favours received disposes the soul to that sorrow which will have to follow upon the thought of the ingratitude we have shown by our sins.

In the second place, we must ask God to give us light to know our sins and negligences. This prayer is most necessary, for, as St. Gregory the Great says, "Self-love deludes us and blinds the eye of our mind so that we fail to perceive our faults, or they appear much less grievous than they really are, and thus we make less account of them than we ought." Hence it is of the utmost importance for us to ask God to dispel the darkness which self-love sheds over our minds, that, the eye of our soul being cleared and purified, we may be able to discover all our sins, penetrate their malice, and estimate it at its proper weight. The more so because, failing this self-knowledge, we cannot have a true repentance for our sins; since as the same holy Pope remarks, "God does not bestow the grace of compunction until He have previously made us conscious of the enormity of our faults."

In the third place, we must make a diligent search into all the sins or imperfections into which we have fallen during the past day or during the preceding night. "Set up a tribunal within thyself," says St. Augustine, "and judge the cause of the life thou hast this day led. Let thy thoughts go in search of thy sins, and let them accuse thee before God. Let thy conscience stand as witness against thee. Let the fear and love of God be the holy executioners to slay thy sins with the sword of repentance." Very different from the judgments of earthly tribunals —which usually end with the condemnation of the accused,—this inward judgment will secure thy acquittal and the pardon of thy sins. "But to attain this end," says St. John Chrysostom, "thou must proceed against thyself with rigour and exactness. Thou must carefully examine all the thoughts that have passed through thy mind, all the words that have issued from thy mouth, and all the actions that thou hast done; nor will any time he better suited for doing this than at eventide, when thou art about to lay thee down upon thy bed." "But remember," continues the Saint, "that this examination is not to be made upon thy life in the gross, passing over slight faults as of little moment; for thou shouldst take strict account even of these, as doing this thou wilt guard thyself from more grievous faults."(30) This latter caution should be borne in mind especially by such as are somewhat advanced in the way of perfection, and who may be looked upon as already being among the proficients, or the perfect; for in such persons every fault increases in magnitude; and, as St. Isidore observes, that which might be termed a slight fault and of small moment in a mere beginner, can no longer be called a small sin in one who has advanced on the way to perfection; in such a one every fault should be accounted as serious. If a boy at school be guilty of a barbarism in language, he is to be pitied; but if his teacher be guilty of the same, he deserves no compassion: because he is bound to be perfect, or nearly perfect, in his own profession. The same holds good of spiritual persons. Hence, they should proceed in their self-examination with attentive and all-observing eye, taking account of every defect; and, as St. Isidore says, considering that nothing can be of slight importance in the state to which they have attained.

In the fourth place, the Examination must be followed by an act of sorrow and contrition for the sins we have committed. "If thou find," says St. John Chrysostom, "that in the course of the day thou hast done some good action, give loving thanks to God; for by His gift hast thou been able to do it. But if thou discover faults and sins, blot them out with penitential tears." This sorrow must, as far as possible, be heartfelt, and full of inward confusion and humility, as we have seen above while treating of Confession. The offender, under the sense of his faults and of his infidelity to God, must present himself in the sight of the Almighty as a perverse and ungrateful son would present himself before an affectionate father, and with heartfelt confusion should say in the words of St. Bernard, "How can I be so bold as to raise my eyes to the countenance of so kind a Father, being, as I am, so undutiful a son? I blush for having done things unworthy of my station, for having proved myself the degenerate son of so good a Father. Let rivers of tears flow down from mine eyes; let my face be covered with confusion, my countenance redden with shame, and my soul be overshadowed with deep humiliation." The reader may be sure that the more this sorrow is humble and sincere, the more will it avail to purge the soul of all defilement.

The saints further counsel a devout person who discovers, on examination some notable defect, to impose some penance upon himself in reparation of the fault he has committed, and as a precaution against future relapses. St. John Chrysostom says, "Let thy mind and thy thoughts sit in judgment over thy soul. Look into thy doings, cast out thy faults, and to each of them assign a fitting chastisement and a proportionate penance." In connection with this subject, Theodoret relates, that a certain monk, Eusebius by name, happened during the reading of the Holy Gospel, to allow his eyes and mind to wander and dwell upon some peasants who were at work in the neighbouring fields. On recalling this negligence in his Examination of Conscience, he imposed on himself, for the fault he had committed the penance, not only of never looking at the field that had been the guilty occasion of his distraction, but of never again raising his eyes to heaven. But having marked out for himself a straight path, just broad enough to admit of passage, he always went by it to the chapel, and returned by it to his cell, without ever setting foot outside that narrow alley. And fearing lest, by raising his head, he might accidentally glance at the objects which he had forbidden his eyes to look upon, what did he do, but fix an iron girdle around his loins, and an iron collar round his neck, and having fastened both together with a short chain, he was thus forced to remain always with his head bent down towards the ground, so as to be quite unable to see either the fields or the sky. Theodoret ends his narrative by observing, that in punishment of this curiosity and distraction, the monk persevered in his great mortification during the forty years that he survived.

I have not mentioned this fact because I hold the opinion that such extraordinary penances are to be imitated, but only to show that it was ever the custom of God's saints to impose upon themselves some mortification in punishment for the faults into which they happen to fall. Of course, in the use of such penances, each one has to consult his bodily and spiritual strength, and to choose, by the counsel of his Director, such as may, without unduly tasking his powers, help to restrain and deter him from falling anew. St. John Chrysostom suggests many such discreet penances; as, for instance, for the faults of the tongue, to recite some prayers; for unguarded looks, to give some alms, or observe some fast; for foolish expenditure, the compensation of a greater parsimony. And elsewhere, he advises the use of stripes in chastisement of our faults, assuring us that far from dying under this infliction, we shall be helped to escape death. Such was the practice of St. Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi, who, after bewailing her faults in the ecstasy we have so lately mentioned, withdrew into a cell apart, and there tore her body with a frightful discipline. Should it happen, however, that any one find himself unable to inflict stripes upon himself on each occasion, on account of the frequency of his falls, he may, at least, in his usual disciplines, add some few additional strokes, in proportion to the faults which he may have committed. If unable to fast, he may deny himself somewhat at his accustomed meals in punishment of his transgressions: he may mortify his unbridled tongue by making with it the sign of the cross so many times upon the floor: he may accompany his prayers with the mortification of reciting them with his hands under his knees, or with his arms out-stretched in the form of a cross; and such other penances according as the devotion and compunction of each one may suggest.

In the fifth place, we must make a firm purpose not to offend God any more. This purpose, as St. John Chrysostom, frequently quoted by us, observes, should be so efficacious as to instill into the soul a holy fear of ever again relapsing into sin; so that, like a guilty person who has been severely rebuked, we may not venture to lift up our heads for shame, but ever bear in mind the reproach administered. In order to be of any real use this purpose of amendment must descend to particulars. That passion or disordered affection which has led you astray, is to be put to the torture; that is the one to be racked with contrition; that is precisely the one you must strike down by good resolves, so that it may no more venture to assail you, or may, at least, attack you with diminished strength. For it is, by particular, and not by general, resolutions, that our vices are usually overcome, as, by taking in hand sometimes this and sometimes that one of our faults, we strengthen the will in a generous and constant resistance, first to one and then to another of our failings, and thus, at length, by slow degrees, we get rid of each and all of them.

And furthermore we must look into the origin of our faults; we must go down to the depths of our soul, to find out the root of these evil weeds, so as to be able to pull them up out of our hearts. What use is there in shaking off the leaves, or clipping the branches of a tree that never bears fruit, and does nothing but cast a hurtful shade upon the ground? Unless the root be destroyed, all avails nothing; the tree will soon be covered with foliage in greater luxuriance than ever. Thus too, our resolutions will be to little purpose so long as we cut not off the occasions and origin of our faults — and our defects will continually return to defile our souls, however much we may resolve not to be guilty of them in future. Lastly, the Examination of Conscience should end with an Our Father and Hail Mary, and a fervent prayer to God for grace never to offend Him more, and to carry out in practice all that we have promised to do — remembering that we can do nothing without the help of God.

 

CHAPTER IV.

On the Particular Examination. Its Advantages for the Attaining of Perfection. The Method of Making it.

It is impossible to overcome all at once the passions which domineer over us: to uproot by one effort all the vice that is implanted in our souls; and at one and the same time to bring about a complete amendment of our conduct. Hence Cassian, with all the other masters of the spiritual life, teaches that in correcting our evil habits, we must proceed methodically. We must specially keep in view our predominant passion or vice, and be determined to fight against it with all the might of our soul. Against this vice or passion, continues Cassian, as against our chief enemy, we must use all our weapons; that is, all our meditations, our good resolutions, our prayers, our fasts, our tears: all our efforts, in short, in order to conquer it, to beat it down, and take it by storm. Now, what is all this but to make the Particular Examination of which we are now speaking; since this consists in nothing else than discovering what is our predominant passion, and what the faults to which we are most liable, and then setting to work to uproot them, by particular examinations and special pious devices, as we are now going to show.

As soon as we shall have succeeded in overcoming some one passion, or in correcting ourselves of some particular fault, we should take another, and then another, in hand; thus, little by little, this spiritual industry will help us to ascend to the height of perfection. The top of a high tower is not reached by means of windows, but by means of steps. When any one wishes to ascend to the top, he takes the first step of the staircase, beginning to leave the ground below him and to approach the summit. He then takes the second, the third, the fourth step, and so on; and the more he increases his distance from the level ground, the more he nears the lofty summit; and the higher he mounts—the further continually he leaves behind him the base of the tower—the more does he approach the top of the building. Thus too, may we, by means of the Particular Examination, rid ourselves this month of one sin, in the next subdue some passion, and, after six months' striving, uproot altogether some vicious habit; proceeding further and further from the low and grovelling state of the imperfect, and approaching nearer and nearer to the summit of perfection. This comparison is borrowed from St. John Chrysostom, who perceives a figure of this gradual advance in perfection (by means of the correction of some fault and the acquirement of some virtue) in the well-known ladder of Jacob's dream, which reached from earth to heaven; for we too, by the steps of progressive improvement mount up towards.

And, what is truly admirable, even the pagan philosophers—whether for our instruction or confusion I hardly know—have adopted practices similar to those which I am now explaining, with a view to their own amendment. Listen to what Plutarch relates of himself: "Being a lover of meekness no less than of wisdom, I determined within myself to spend some days without yielding to anger; just as I might have bound myself to abstain from drunkenness and wine, as is the custom in certain feasts, where the use of this drink is forbidden. I next continued to exert special efforts for one or two months, and made short trials of my strength. Thus, in course of time, I came to bear with greater troubles and annoyances, being able to maintain my mastery over myself, so as to remain calm, gentle, and devoid of all anger. By these means I kept myself unstained by evil words, debasing actions, and the shameless lusts which, for a passing gratification, leave the soul pierced through and through with deep remorse and poignant regrets." Now, these contrivances, if we reflect upon them a little, are precisely what is implied in the Particular Examination of which we are now discoursing, the object of which is to curb our passions, uproot our vices, and implant within the soul Christian perfection; as will be more plainly set forth in the following paragraph. And if a philosopher, by the sole light of his natural reason, was able to discover the efficacy of this means in order to the amendment of his life, and practised it with such constancy, how much more willingly should it not be embraced by a Christian who has the light of faith, and the example of so many saints and spiritual persons that walked by this road, and by it attained perfection; by a Christian, I say, who is more strictly bound than the heathens to aim at procuring the amendment of his life.

We come now to the practical part of this most useful exercise. It comprises, as we may learn from that golden book, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, five distinct acts. First : On rising in the morning, we are to make a firm, strong purpose to avoid the fault of which we intend to correct ourselves by means of the Particular Examination; and this purpose must be earnestly renewed in time of meditation; for, as Thomas a Kempis says, "Our spiritual progress is proportioned to our good purposes." Secondly: If we happen to fall during the day, we must lay our hands on our hearts, and make an act of sorrow, with a determination to be more careful for the future. It was the custom of the monks of olden times to note down their faults as soon as they had committed them. St. John Climacus relates, that having visited a monastery of most strict and austere observance, he saw that the monk who was in charge of the refectory, had a small book hanging at his girdle, and on asking him to what use the book was put, the monk answered that it served for him to note down the thoughts that pasted through his mind; and, adds the Saint, from what I witnessed among the rest of the brotherhood, I perceived that this was the custom of the greater number. He concludes with these remarkable words: "He is a good spiritual banker who, every night, strikes the balance of each day's losses and gains. But that this may be done with accuracy, it is required that we should take note, hour by hour, of the profit and loss which is the result of our daily spiritual traffic." Some, in order to be able to keep this account more easily and regularly, carry about with them, but concealed from sight, a string of beads, on which they register their faults as soon as ever they happen to fall into them. By which means they are enabled to keep an exact account of their failings without attracting the least notice of others, or having to draw upon their own memory. Thirdly: At night, when we are making the general examination of the whole day, we should take special notice of the fault we have set ourselves to uproot by means of the Particular Examination; making special acts of contrition for our failings under this head, and renewing our good purposes with greater earnestness: we should then mark them down on a small piece of paper, or in a little book. St. Ignatius gives a model of these entries. He tells us to draw on a sheet of paper certain lines of unequal length, each rather longer than the following: on the longer ones we are to note down the faults committed on the earlier days of the week: the lines which correspond to the following gradually shorten; because it may be supposed that we are improving, and consequently diminishing daily the number of our faults.

Fourthly: After a few weeks have passed, we should examine our paper or book, to see the number of times we have fallen in each day, comparing day with day, week with week, and carefully taking account of our progress or determination: as St. John Chrysostom teaches. If we find that there has been improvement, we must give thanks to God, and take heart to strive more earnestly after our full and complete amendment. Should we, however, discover that no amendment has been made, and that we have perhaps even gone back, we must determine to employ additional means; such as, for instance, to be more watchful over ourselves, to have more frequent recourse to God in prayer, to make use of some bodily penance; so that we may move the heart of God to grant such more powerful and efficacious assistance as may help us to overcome our weakness: and other things of this description.

Fifthly: We should further impose some mortification on ourselves, in the measure of the frequency of our failings. It has been already observed, that this remedy should be applied to every notable transgression; and it may now be added, that it is especially suitable to use such penance for the uprooting of the faults upon which the Particular Examination is made, as the correction of this should be our main object. We may allege, by way of conclusion, the example of St. Ignatius, that great master of the spiritual life. Failing in health, on account of advancing years, having been, long enriched by God with so many supernatural gifts, and being, as it were, consummate in all perfection, he still always made his Particular Examination, and kept by him a little book in which be noted down his failings; nor did he, even to his latest breath, omit this holy and useful practice; for, after his death, this book was found under his pillow, left there as if it were his dying recommendation to all devout persons never to neglect a practice of such great efficacy for the amendment of their lives, and for the attainment of perfection.

 

CHAPTER V.

Practical Hints to Directors on the Subject of the Present Article.

First suggestion. Concerning the use of daily examination of conscience, two reflections will occur to every Director: First, that this exercise may be taken up by any one, even by those who are incapacitated by want of education from the use of other religious practices, such as meditating, and reading spiritual books. Every one is able to go to Confession, and therefore able also to examine his conscience every day, and grieve over his faults. Secondly, that no single person should ever dispense himself from making this examination. I am not speaking merely of such as aspire to perfection, but even of those who neither profess it, nor trouble themselves about it; because this is an important means not merely for securing the perfection, but the very salvation of our souls. Nor will the Director be slow to believe this truth, if he will only reflect that it is the natural tendency of all human things to deteriorate and eventually to perish and come to nothing unless they be repaired. A building is ever getting out of order in some one of its parts; and if it be not frequently put in repair, it will at length tumble down and be reduced to a heap of bricks. A farm is ever tending to deteriorate, and, if the soil be not generously enriched, all will finally become an uncultivated waste. A garment is injured a little every day by wearing, and, unless it be mended, will soon be a collection of rags. Now, these are but so many types of our souls. Such is the violence with which our passions incline us to evil ; so powerful are the incitements of the devil urging us to what is wrong; so numerous are the dangerous occasions which allure us to sin; that it is- impossible for our souls—exposed as they are to so many assaults—not to fall at times, not to yield occasionally to so many fascinations, and not to descend gradually on the downward path, to the great ruin of our souls. If such losses are not daily made good by the Examination of Conscience, by repentance and renewal of good purposes, it cannot be but that we shall become disorganised to such an extent as at length to perish miserably, as is indeed the case every day with those careless Christians who do not avail themselves of these means. The Director will, therefore, strive with a holy effort to inculcate this so advantageous a practice on all his penitents of whatever class they may be composed.

St. Gregory the Great explains, by a comparison drawn from our bodily life, the decay which daily takes place in our souls, and the need there is of making it good by self examination, repentance and tears. "Our bodies," he writes, "develop and decay insensibly, without our perceiving it. Who has ever watched the gradual lengthening and growth of the body of a young child? Who has ever seen the limbs of a decrepit old man contract and become shrunken? Who was ever conscious of the growth or decay of his own body? By slow and imperceptible degrees the hair grows white, the flesh gathers into wrinkles, the limbs wither, the body becomes bent, and the frame, without our perceiving it, slowly wastes away." "Thus, too," goes on the holy Doctor, "does the spirit within us grow and decay without our being conscious of it; and even as devout persons, when diligent, advance in virtue unawares, so do the souls of the negligent and slothful, who will not take daily account of their improvement or deterioration, continue to sink downwards and to get more and more out of order, without their perceiving it." "Hence," the same holy Pontiff concludes, "we must frequently look into ourselves; often search our own consciences, and by repentance strive to renew ourselves and regain our former state." I repeat, then, if a Director have any zeal for the salvation of the souls of persons who have placed themselves under his care, he will not fail to inculcate the use of daily examination of conscience.

Second suggestion. The teaching of the saints, as was pointed out in the preceding Chapters, is that this examination of conscience should be made twice daily, morning and evening. In proof whereof we alleged St. Ephrem, St. Dorotheus, St. Bernard; nor are there wanting founders of Religious Orders who, following the teachings of the saints, have imposed it as a rule binding on all their subjects. But, as the Director may be unable to obtain this double examination of conscience from every one, he must at least take care that none of his penitents omit it before lying down to rest, as the end of the day is the most suitable time for taking account of our conscience and of all that we have done; because the darkness itself and the quiet of night time are favourable both to attention and recollection, and consequently to repentance for our faults. Should, however, the penitent be so tepid as not to afford hope of a careful and diligent examination, we must strive to obtain from him that he will at least cast his eyes over the past day, see what are those more grievous failings which present themselves at once to the mind, and, afterwards blot them out by an act of contrition. This will serve not only to cleanse once more his conscience of its stains, but to render him more guarded on the day following. He thus will avoid a fate which is but too common to many of the faithful, who having once started on the wrong path, throw the reins—so to speak—on the neck of their passions, and go deeper and deeper into sin, without restraint as without remorse. If the penitent refuse to do even this trifle, he must acknowledge that he cares very little indeed for his eternal salvation. Just as a tradesman, who can never bring himself to strike the balance of his receipts and expenses, gives a clear sign that he is indifferent whether he be making money or losing it.

Third suggestion. The Particular Examination may be proposed to such persons as, being freed from the bonds of grievous sin, begin to aspire to perfection; this being a most effectual help to its attainment. To ensure this result, however, the Director must assign the subject matter about which the Examination should be made. Let him also observe, in the account of conscience received from penitents, what is the predominant passion of each, what the most frequent fault, and what the greatest hindrance in the way of his progress in spirit; and let him direct each to make his Particular Examination upon that point, first instructing every one as to the proper manner of making it according to the method we have detailed above. However, let him bear in mind, that among the several defects he may notice, it is better to begin with the correction of such as are outward, both because these are commonly occasions of scandal, or at least of disedification, to our neighbour, and because they are more easily corrected than inward defects, which are rooted in our souls, and are, as it were, a part of our nature. Common prudence dictates that it is better to begin with more easy tasks, and to make these a stepping-stone to more difficult and arduous undertakings.

Fourth suggestion. The Director should engage his penitents to give an account of the progress made in the matter of their Particular Examination. He should himself impose the mortifications and penances to be performed in expiation of the faults which each one may commit, and should suggest the means to be employed in order to secure a more generous victory. But if he discover any notable deterioration or carelessness, he may, at times, in punishment of the negligence, deprive the penitent of Holy Communion; that is, of course, if the person have sufficient virtue to bear the privation with calmness and humility. Dranelius relates, that among certain Indian nations, the masters of those youths who were applying themselves to the acquisition of wisdom, used at night, before the pupils sat down to their meal, to exact an accurate account of their good actions during the day, and when they found that they had been careless about making progress, they sent them to bed fasting, in order that the next day they might be more diligent in the pursuit of virtue. A similar, but spiritual, fast, may at times be imposed on our penitents when we perceive that they are careless about making progress, and especially about amending that fault to which the Particular Examination would help them with ease to attend.

The Director must further take heed lest, instead of being to his penitents a means of improvement, the Particular Examination become for them a very injurious source of disquiet, as frequently happens in the case of women, who are by nature timid, and more especially when to this natural timidity are added the suggestions of the devil. For, seeing that, in spite of their so frequent examinations they advance but little (at least in comparison of what they would desire), and that they are always falling again into the same faults, they lose heart and begin to think that perfection for them is out of the question. The Director will drive these vain alarms from their minds. He will teach them to humble themselves in peace, not to lose courage at the sight of their frailty, but to put all their trust in God. He, will remind them that God allows these relapses, and permits the same passions to prevail over them, in order that they may know and feel how great is their own misery, may acknowledge it in all humility, be self-diffident, look to God for their deliverance, and implore it of Him with fullest trust. He will give them to understand that though we have to do our part in all earnestness towards uprooting our defects and overcoming our passions, yet the victory is the gift of God, and must be bestowed by His bountiful arms: that He will withhold it from such as lose heart and get discouraged, and grant it to such only as distrust themselves and place all their trust in Him alone.

SINS OF THE TONGUE:
The Backbiting Tongue

By Father Belet, of the Diocese of Basle
Translated from the French, 1870 ed.

 

Table of Contents:

1. The nature of backbiting. Its various species. Its gravity.
2. The terrible evils that backbiting breeds. Reparation of the damage it causes.
3. Appropriate names for backbiters. Usual chastisements to which they expose themselves.
4. Listening to backbiters is a great sin.

 

1. The nature of backbiting. Its various species. Its gravity.

In 1617 someone published a volume entitled, The Horseman's Book: The Art of Riding, treating the use of bridles, whips, guides, and so on. Such a title is of a nature to give rise to sad thoughts. We have learned how to make bits, bridles, halters and pincers, and how to adapt them to a horse's head or mouth; we have learned the art of directing these animals at will by means of a small bit. But we possess a tongue so ill-tempered that no bridle can curb it: this raging beast resists bits, halters and pincers alike, knocking down every obstacle in its path. It wants to be as free as a horse in the wild. Let us see what Saint James has to say on the subject: "We put bits into horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we control their whole body also. But no man can tame the tongue." (1)

(1) Jas. 3:3-8

Without a doubt, the most poisonous tongue of all is the backbiter's. It spits its deadly venom to the four winds. It is an evil known throughout the earth. One can never stigmatize and deplore it enough.

Therefore, we shall now study the nature of this evil, its various species, and the gravity of the evils it breeds.

I.

Therefore, what is backbiting or detraction?

Here is the definition given by Saint Thomas Aquinas: "Backbiting is denigration of a neighbor's reputation by means of secret words." (2) Indeed, a person may wound someone by word in two ways: openly and to his face (that is, by insulting him); and secretly, when he is absent -- and that is backbiting.

(2) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theoligica, Part II, Section II, Quest. 73, Art. I.

Palladius relates that someone once asked Saint Anthony, "What is backbiting?" and he replied, "It is every sort of wicked word we dare not speak in front of the person about whom we are talking."

This is truly the nature of backbiters. They cannot do physical harm to those who are absent, so they strike at them with their tongue. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, "Destroying a person's reputation is a very serious wrong." (3) And Saint Bernard declares, "Backbiting is a great vice, a great sin, a great crime." (4)

(3) Ibid. Part II, Section II, Question 83, Article 2.
(4) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Chapter 33.

There are eight specific ways in which a man can backbite his neighbor:

1. When he gets carried away by vanity and imputes things against his neighbor that never happened, or when he adds to the truth imaginary circumstances that constitute either a lie or detraction.

2. When he brings a hidden or unknown fault to light. What he says is true, but he should not say it. He backbites, not by saying something untrue, but by wounding his neighbor's reputation. This is a very common sin among us.

Now you might object, "Do you mean to say I can't tell the truth ?" No, my friend. It is not permitted, unless you can do so without harming your neighbor. What you say is true, I admit, but it is hidden. The sinner has wounded his conscience in God's sight, but he has not lost his reputation before men; therefore, you may not weaken or destroy it with your tongue. And even if the sin you reveal is not altogether secret but known only to a few, as long as it is not public knowledge, you are backbiting if you reveal it to someone who was unaware of it And thus you are harming your neighbor.

3. When he exaggerates a crime, be it true, or false. This is a danger to which we readily expose ourselves when we talk about the vices of others.

4. When he relates something about another person that is not evil in any way, but speaks as though his neighbor had done it for evil reasons and adds various explanations such as, "Yes, he did that, but not with God in mind... He's not so pious as all that; he seeks to please men, he wants to stand out… You should know him, he's a hypocrite."

5. When a backbiter declares nothing but is happy to say, "I've heard it said that…" or, "There's a rumor going around..." or when he relates something as if it were doubtful: "So-and-so might not be exactly what you think, I don't think he is deserving of confidence. His neighbors never heard anything about his holiness, except that only since yesterday has he been rated among the devout." Or again, when he praises with coldness and reticence. Aulu-Gelle says, "It is more shameful to be coldly and reservedly praised than harshly and bitterly accused." All these ways of acting must be avoided with the greatest care, for people always seek evil more than good.

6. Backbiting is so subtle that anyone can defame another person with a simple gesture. He hears someone being praised for his integrity, piety or generosity, and he says, "Oh. you don't know that fellow? I see right through him. Ask me anything about him, I know him inside out." Or he raises an eyebrow and remains silent; he shakes his head; he turns his eyes so as to have it understood that the person being praised does not deserve it Sometimes a backbiter may keep his mouth shut and just turn his hand two or three times to indicate that the person in question is lightheaded and changes from hour to hour.

7. He can backbite not only with body language but also with silence. He may wickedly say nothing about the integrity or morals of his neighbor, especially when he is questioned about them or when his neighbor is accused of some crime.

8. Finally, a person is guilty of backbiting if he is publicly blamed for something he did, and he denies his guilt, thereby making his accuser pass for a liar. It is surely not an obligation to publicly admit a fault committed in secret. However, one should justify himself in some other way, saying, for instance, "Those are only words, they don't prove anything. Whoever heard them may have been mistaken. Don't believe everything you hear." This way of speaking is far more acceptable than the first.

II.

That is how backbiting does its diabolical work. It changes costume so slickly, we can hardly recognize it. Malice is ingenious: It spots a beam where there is only a wisp of straw, an elephant where there is only a fly, a mountain high as the Alps where there is only a molehill. It turns dream into reality and taints the virtues of others so skilfully with its own colors that we mistake them for vices.

Look at the backbiter as he prepares to blacken someone's reputation. He begins by looking severe and modest, lowering his gaze, heaving sighs and speaking in a slow, serious voice. He takes a host of curves and detours to conceal his deadly art. He goes the long way round before shooting his poison. "It grieves me that a man of his caliber should degrade himself to that point," he says. "It's not me who would have revealed his hidden crimes, but since everyone is talking about it, the truth must have its way. You can't deny or excuse it." He begins with praise so that people will believe his words more easily, and to give himself the right to criticize all the more harshly afterwards. But he always takes great care to conclude with words of pity.

The more credit and authority a speaker has, the more sinful and deadly his backbiting, for people believe him more easily. Saint Bernard puts it well: "This plague comes in infinite varieties. Some people spew detraction carelessly and bluntly, just as it comes to their mouth. Others try to conceal the malice they cannot hold in, beneath an appearance of lying modesty. They begin by heaving sad sighs, speaking slowly and gravely, knitting their brows. Detraction slips out with a plaintive air and as though despite themselves, in contrite and grieving tones: 'I'm really at a loss with him. I don't hate him, but all my words have been unable to correct him.' Or else they say, 'I knew all that perfectly well; I never mentioned it, but since others have, I can't hide the truth. I admit it with deep sorrow, it is all too true.'"

When Esdras was pondering worriedly on how God governed the world, an Angel appeared to him and asked him three questions. Here is the first: "How do you think someone might be able to weigh fire? Attempt to do it Clever the man who can." (5)

(5) Esdr 4:5

Now, every page of Holy Scripture depicts backbiting as a burning fire: "What chastisement will be inflicted on you, O treacherous tongue? Sharp arrows of a warrior with fiery coals of brushwood." (6) "The tongue is a fire," (7) says Saint James. Solomon says about the godless man, "A scoundrel is a furnace of evil, and on his lips there is a scorching fire." (8) Indeed, compare the power and speed of fire to the power and speed of the tongue: there is a strong resemblance. When fire breaks its bounds and strikes out, it spreads desolation everywhere. So it is with the tongue: when it escapes from its prison and flies free, it does not return without having wreaked dreadful havoc.

(6) Ps 119:3
(7) Jas 3:6
(8) Prov 16:27

Therefore, the tongue is a fire, and it takes great wisdom to weigh it on an accurate scale. The wiser and more prudent a man is in everything, the more careful he is in measuring his words. "The words of the prudent are carefully weighed," (9) says the son of Sirach. The wise man's lips are like the two platters of a scale on which he weighs that fire. But how hard it is to weigh even sparks and wisps of straw! I call sparks the infinity of evils that spring from a single word of detraction. For backbiting harms not only one person, but many: the servants, children and friends of the person it denigrates.

(9) Sir 21:28.

A word spoken thoughtlessly or maliciously is often deadly not only to the one it strikes, but also to his wife, children and entire family. A single spark burns them all and puts them at a disadvantage. Who can say he weighs all his words properly? In the story of Tobias we read that Asmodeus, the prince of sensuality, thought he could weigh the flames of impurity. But where is the hand so refined that it can weigh all the sparks that escape from the backbiter's mouth?

Then what is a wise man to do? He listens and holds words in his mouth when they try to fly out. As long as he keeps them in his throat, he can subject them to reason and good sense; but once they slip out, there is no way to make them return: they run, they fly, they go on an endless journey. "Fools' thoughts are in their mouths, wise men's words are in their hearts," (10) says the Holy Spirit. A prudent man passes all he wants to say in his heart and he weighs it all before speaking it. This counsel of prudence was religiously observed by the Mother of the Saviour. As the Gospel tells us, "Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in Her heart." (11)

(10) Sir 21:29
(11) Lk 2:51

III.

Sad to say, many people dislike this business of weighing words and deeds; so much so that Suidas rightly observes, "It is a weakness of righteous men that they cannot discern praiseworthy things in a vice-ridden man." One day the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out thy staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may be turned into gnats throughout the land of Egypt And gnats came upon man and beast The dust of the earth was turned into gnats throughout the land of Egypt." (12) Concerning this, a certain author remarks that gnats are tiny but nervous creatures whose sting is very severe.

(12) Ex 8:16-17

Like gnats, backbiters' words have spread throughout the land and infested every class of society, both sexes, every age and condition, rich and poor, servants and masters alike. Many men are not blasphemers, but few -- hardly any -- do not backbite. Behold: two righteous men meet and strike up a conversation; you can be sure that even absent individuals will get mixed into their discussion. Then our fine talkers will be obliged to turn their backs -- despite themselves, it is true -- and receive the blows lying in store for them.

There is practically no society or gathering in which people do not denigrate others who are absent, discharging their critical zeal upon them. Backbiting is a common, vulgar evil, and a horrible, deadly one. Our Lord is so kind that He made a promise saying, "Where two or three are gathered together for My sake, there am I in the midst of them." (13) Understand this well, however: for His sake, and not for the devil's sake. The devil is also in the midst of every company where two or three people backbite their neighbor. Saint Antiochus declares, "Backbiting is a devil that never rests." (14) Therefore, let us follow Solomon's advice: "Put away from you dishonest talk, deceitful speech put far from you." (15) Backbiting offers immense dangers; it inflicts great harm and is very hard to heal.

(13) Mt 18:20
(14) Saint Antiochus, Homily 29, De detract
(15) Prov 4:24

It offers immense dangers, for the backbiter inflicts rash judgment on every comer. Intention is what makes for good actions; thus, a work may be excellent even though it might appear despicable. Intentions are not visible, and it is easy to think that something is wrong when it possesses all the qualities of virtue.

Look at the Pharisees. They were scandalized when they saw Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath, frequenting the company of publicans and going out of His way for unvirtuous men. His holiest actions were turned into a subject for backbiting.

Backbiting is eminently destructive, for it robs a man of what is most precious to him: his reputation. That is why theologians are in unanimous agreement to say that it is more serious than stealing; for a sin is all the greater in that it deprives someone of a greater good. Robbing someone of his reputation is worse than stealing his money, according to the words of Solomon: "A good name is more desirable than great riches." (16) Backbiting inflicts great harm for it shoots three arrows in a single round and deals a triple death. Saint Bernard assures us of this: "Is this tongue not that of a viper? It is surely very fierce, for it kills three victims with a single sting. Is it not a sharp spear, for it pierces three men in a single throw. The backbiter's tongue is a sharp sword, a double and even a triple sword, like General Joab's lance that pierced Absalom as he hung in the oak tree."

(16) Prov 22:1

Yes, that's what backbiting is. It pierces its author, his listener and their denigrated neighbor all at once. With one difference, however: the denigrated person is the least wounded of all. The only thing he can lose is his reputation, whereas the backbiter and his listener are wounded -- and gravely wounded -- even unto their soul.

The backbiter does the most harm to himself, for the stone he casts at another will almost always fall back upon his head. He does harm to his listener by pouring deadly poison into his ears, as Saint Bernard puts it and by infecting him not only with deadly opinions, but also with the poison of envy. Artabanus says, "Only one receives the insult but there are two who commit it." (17) Finally, the backbiter does harm to those who are absent, delivering them up and betraying them with his insolent tongue.

(17) Artabanus, Apud Herod, Book 7.

Claude Paradin relates a fabulous tale contained in the chronicles of Lorraine, a tale thrice fabulous: (18)

(18) Claude Paradin, In symb. Hero. Number 39.

The virtues and fortune of the House of Lorraine are still documented today in the family's ancient heralds, three birds pierced with a single arrow. Here is the story of their origin:

The famous hero Godefroy de Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, was besieging the city of Jerusalem. He shot an arrow against the Tower of David and pierced three birds in a single shot:

Either because God willed it so, or as a result of chance.

Whatever the case, this event proved to be a forecast of the royal dignity reserved for his family. An examination of the coins and insignia of the House of Lorraine will convince anyone of its authenticity.

Whoever backbites someone shoots a flaming arrow and wounds three people at once: himself, his listener and his adversary. Rather, he commits a triple murder, for we all have three lives: the life of the soul, which is the fruit of grace; the life of the body, which we hold in common with animals; and our social life, which depends upon our good name. Now, the backbiter attacks these three lives. He attacks the life of soul and body in himself and in his listener, and he attacks the social life of the person he backbites. Such are the evils that backbiting breeds.

IV.

We mentioned in the above section that backbiting is an evil that is hard to heal. The Holy Spirit declares, "A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives." (19) When we are in the act of backbiting others, would we want to admit we are backbiting? A sick person who thinks he is well refuses to believe anyone who tells him he is sick and he scorns every remedy. So it is with wounds caused by backbiting. They are healed only with great difficulty; and though they may have been bandaged, they always leave a dreadful scar. Alexander the Great's laudator used to say, "If you have an enemy, attack him vigorously with insults. He may be able to bandage his wounds, but a scar will always remain." Thieves speak the same language: "Steal boldly. If you are obliged to pay it back it will never be everything."

(19) Sir 23:20.

It is remarkable how hard it is for someone to rid himself of an error once it has lodged in his mind. A few words murmured in lowered tones pierce it like a nail driven into a piece of wood; try and pull it out, all your strength will hardly suffice. Once you penetrate someone's mind with a false opinion, you will have a hard time changing it. In vain will you repeat a hundred times, "I was angry when I said that. I spoke thoughtlessly. Jealousy made me talk that way." No matter what you say, the first opinion is imbedded too deeply for you to be able to pull it out in one try.

Serpents provide serum against snakebite; scorpions provide oil against the scorpion's sting; dog hair acts against dogbite. But people wounded by a backbiter's tongue can heal only with great difficulty, and always imperfectly, even though it be the very tongue which caused the wounds that tries to repair them, as Achilles' lance healed Telephos, whom he had wounded.

Saint John Chrysostom paints an eloquent picture of the evils of backbiting. "What is the use of sparing birds and fishes if we eat our own brothers?" he says. Indeed, the backbiter rips his brother's flesh with his teeth and tears his neighbor's body to shreds. That is what Saint Paul wants to frighten us from when he says, "If you bite and devour one another, take heed or you will be consumed by one another." (20)

(20) Gal 5:15

And to keep us from sidestepping this admonition, Saint John Chrysostom adds, "Do not tell me, 'I would be a slanderer only if I lied. I am committing no slander if I tell the truth.' Error! Speaking evil of others, even if the evil be true, is always a crime. Surely the publican was really a publican and a sinner; but he left cleansed of all his defilements because he was scorned by the Pharisee. You want to correct your brother? Weep, pray to God, warn him by speaking to his heart, advise and exhort him. That is how Saint Paul acted. 'But backbiting is so sweet!' you say. Yes, but not backbiting is sweeter still. The backbiter creates deadly anxiety for himself, he is constantly besieged by suspicion and fear. He repents, but too late; he bites his tongue, but in vain; he trembles, for as his words spread, they may cause him grave danger and expose those who repeat them to enmities which so easily could have been avoided." (21)

(21) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, Ad pop Antioch.

Therefore, let us eliminate every sort of backbiting, knowing full well that were we to eat ashes, all our austerities would be useless to us if we linger in this vice.

V.

Rufinus of Aquilea relates the following incident: Some brothers had been sent by their monastery to visit hermits living here and there in the desert. They came first to an elderly anchorite who gave them sincere and cordial hospitality. To relieve his road-weary visitors, he resolved to treat them as well as he could and openheartedly offer them all he had. Poverty can be generous in its way, not in what it gives but in the dispositions with which it gives. The old man wanted to show this religious magnificence so that his guests, seeing his liberality, would be at ease and freely receive what his charity was not embarrassed to give them. They said evening prayers after a very congenial supper, and then the old man bedded down his guests while he went to rest in another room.

To bring on drowsiness, our travelers began to talk. And one of them said, "What do you think? These hermits eat better than we do in our monastery... "The old man heard all these remarks. He was hurt because his guests were returning his kindness with calumny, but he kept silence. At dawn the next morning, the brothers said they were going to go and visit another hermit As he bid them goodbye, the old man said to them, "Give my greetings to the hermit who is my dear friend, and tell him simply this: 'Take care not to sprinkle the oil.'"

The brothers repeated his message faithfully. The other hermit understood the recommendation at once, and he served his guests an extremely frugal table, the main meal consisting in dry bread, salt and a little vinegar: that was the substance of the banquet. Soon tiring of such cold hospitality, our travelers moved out that very night with as little fanfare as possible. (22)

(22) Rufinus of Aquilea, Pelagius, Book 10, No. 5.

My friends, stop slandering those who treat you with kindness. Learn to stop backbiting their generosity. The first hermit treated you as guests, but the second treated you as you deserved… as slanderers.

Let us confirm the above with these remarks from Saint Bernard: The backbiter proves, first, that he has no charity. And then, what is his purpose, if not to get others to detest and hate their neighbor? Therefore, the backbiting tongue wounds charity in everyone who listens to it. It kills and stifles charity as much as it can.

Ah, how rare those who order their life in such a way as not to take pleasure in denigrating the lives of others!

 

2. The terrible evils that backbiting breeds. Reparation of the damage it causes.

The thoughts of God are so very different from the thoughts of men. In the Old Testament, God says, "You shall not curse the deaf." (1) Would it not have been better for Him to say, "You shall not curse those who hear well"? Why bother to take such precautions for the deaf? But the wisdom of the Lord has nothing in common with our boldness. "You shall not curse the deaf," He says. Here is how Saint Gregory explains these words: "Backbiting someone who is deaf means backbiting one who is absent and cannot hear you. Just as a deaf man cannot hear or understand what is said, so it is with an absent person someone backbites. He cannot reply or rectify the errors of which he is the object." (2)

(1) Lev 19:14
(2) Saint Gregory the Great. In prolog. III Past, Chapter 1, Ad Monit.

Therefore, one must not backbite the deaf. Not recognizing this rule, backbiters rashly shoot down the reputation of those who are absent. This is something they would never dare to do in the presence of the people they backbite.

We have already spoken at length about backbiting. We have treated its various species and its gravity. Now let us take a look at the importance of avoiding this defect even in small things, due to its unfortunate consequences, and above all at the necessity of repairing the reputation of other people: a very difficult thing as we shall see.

I.

A master too short on words with his servant, or a man with his neighbor, obviously proves that he feels little friendship or kindness towards him A religious once said, "If we do not cultivate them, two kinds of thoughts will stop bothering us by themselves: thoughts of fornication and thoughts of backbiting. When they call, do not answer them; whatever they say, pay them no heed. If you act otherwise, you may try to resist but you will not escape their clutches."

And one must not only avoid backbiting when it attacks charity and justice directly, but even when it turns on light defects and weaknesses of little importance.

Even the worthiest of men are not always exempt from this sort of backbiting. Perhaps it is a lack of prudence or reflection, but even they take pleasure in relating the defects and faults of others to willing listeners. It would seem that we have taken this verse from La Fontaine as a motto:

I attempt to turn vice to ridicule,
Since I cannot attack it with the arms of Hercules.

And why be surprised? The human race has an instinctive propensity for criticizing other people's behavior. We all carry the scarlet with which we paint everyone. Everything that seems blameworthy in our sight turns into vice at once, and it is all the greater in the proportion that we want to appear wiser and more religious. Saint Jerome says, "The passion of this evil has so infested the world that people who have totally renounced other vices still fall into this one. One might say it is the last trap the devil sets for them." This rashness of judgment is often accompanied by envy, the sworn enemy of the happiness of others. The envious person tries to calm his bad temper by disparaging another man's merits in every way imaginable; he suffers less when he sees others damaged by some defect.

Envy is often preceded by a secret pride, which spurs us to wish to be preferred above others, or at least to be their equal. For fear that our neighbor may rise too high and eclipse us, we craftily clip his wings.

We see that conversations which reveal good men's imperfections often result in countless evils. Upon hearing his neighbor's weaknesses related, more than one listener will be tempted to tell his friends, "Look at what he did, and everyone mistakes him for a little saint! If he committed that fault, he will certainly commit a lot more. I thought he was so virtuous, but I see him now; he has his faults too."

Many people's consciences are disturbed by such talk. If the slandered person's reputation is not totally lost it is seriously damaged. Bonds of friendship and kindness are broken; the absent person who is spoken about will certainly be held in contempt.

And how can the accused defend himself when usually he is not even aware of the blows being struck against him, or at least of who their author is? That is how a man can be murdered and not even know it.

The sin is all the more serious when someone backbites people in honored positions, even in light matters, and even if they are guilty. "Even in your thoughts do not make light of the king, nor in the privacy of your bedroom revile him, because the birds of the air may carry your voice, a winged creature may tell what you say. (3)

(3) Eccl 10:20

You see, Holy Scripture tells us not only to avoid backbiting, it even commands us to banish it from our thoughts. You who backbite, do not think it suffices to tell your listeners, "Don't reveal what I say, I beg of you, I confide this secret to your discretion." You are no less guilty, and this behavior proves how simple you are. Pray tell, why do you ask him to keep silence? You are the one who should have kept silence first. If you do not want your words to leak out then keep them to yourself! You have not remained silent and you would shut other people's mouths!

If you are in such a rush to pull the stopper out of the spigot, then what can you expect of others?

Saint Francis of Assisi had an extreme aversion to backbiting and slanderous accusations. His biographer Saint Bonaventure relates that one of his brothers said evil about another and leveled several accusations against him. The Saint told his assistant, "Father, go and examine this affair. If the accused is innocent punish his accuser so severely that it will give others an example, and he will remember it." Saint Francis even wanted to remove the religious habit from a brother who had not been afraid to remove the cloak of another's reputation, so that it would be done to him as he had done to others, and in this way he would be obliged to restore the reputation he had stolen.

II.

Backbiting drags a whole host of evils in its wake: it depraves anyone who listens to it, causes the backbiter to be considered a slanderer and incurs the hatred of his neighbor.

God has attached an enormous ball to this chain: the obligation of restoring the neighbor's reputation. Saint Augustine's words here are as true for backbiting as for money: "Non dimittitur peccatum nisi restituatur ablatum: No restoration, no pardon." (4) It is a common principle among theologians (5) that restoring their neighbor's reputation is obligatory not only for those who have revealed an imaginary crime of his, but also those who have revealed a true but secret crime. They are held to giving him at least an equivalent compensation: and they owe this compensation to the detriment not only of their own reputation, but also their life. Along with their neighbor's reputation, they must repair all the harm he has incurred; and they must do so even if what they revealed is true. Since the thing is true, they are held to tell everyone who heard them not that they were lying, but that they were backbiting.

(4) Saint Augustine, Epistle 65, Ad Macedoniae

(5) Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II, Section II, Question 62, Article 2.

Even if it were only for the inconvenience of being obliged to repair your neighbor's reputation, backbiting should be avoided like the plague. How painful to have to retract what you said and undergo the shame of such a restoration! It is easy to return an item of clothing, a sum of money or personal property unjustly acquired; there are a thousand ways of doing it. But restoring a reputation, what a burden!

Now, the gravity of this sin lies precisely in the difficulty of repairing it. When an opinion has been revealed, it soon spreads all over, going through cities and empires, and a hitherto unknown person soon acquires a sad celebrity. But if you try and praise someone you have previously denigrated, you are wasting your time. What you said has taken root too strongly, and too many people know about it.

People believe evil first;
But when it comes to the good,
Then seeing is believing. (La Fontaine)

But you will say, "Backbiting flourishes everywhere, and no one ever makes restoration." Ah that is precisely the evil I deplore! Do you think our worst habits can excuse our vices? Just because "everyone does it", does that give you the right to do something? The vast number of fools is no praise for folly. Besides, it is false to say that reputations are never repaired. I would prefer to think it occurs only rarely. But I will admit that when there is any reparation, it is so slow, so late, so imperfect!

How rare it is for someone to return as much as he has stolen. Blind as we are, we prefer postponing everything to the supreme tribunal and awaiting the vengeance of the Lord, He who insists on justice with such severity that He prefers to remit what is due to Himself rather than what is due to others. Many people are obliged to restore after death all that they did not restore during their lifetime.

Saint Vincent Ferrer, a Spaniard, was one of the most remarkable brothers in Saint Dominic's spiritual family. He spoke so eloquently that thousands of people flocked to hear him preach and Pope Calixtus III insured that his memory would ever remain. One day Saint Vincent was preaching on the duty of repairing our neighbor's reputation. The respect due to such a great man obliges me to quote his words textually:

"The person who maliciously robs his neighbor's reputation is held to restoring it on the same level as someone who steals. If what you said is secret even though it be true, you are obliged to restore his reputation. Otherwise you will not go to heaven.

"But how can I restore it? you may ask. You must tell everyone present when you spoke ill not to believe you, that you spoke out of wickedness. If the person you defamed knows about it you are duty bound to ask his forgiveness, etc. Many have been damned for such defamations because words pass and we forget having said them; they make no scruples over them and never think of confessing them."

Thus spoke Saint Vincent, adding, "If someone neglects to do so while alive, after his death he will be obliged, despite himself, to make satisfaction to those who survive him." He confirms this teaching with the following story:

"Two men had seriously outraged their neighbor's reputation. One passed away and the other was still alive, along with the person who had been attacked. The dead man remained in the flames of purgatory for some time. After his deliverance, but before being admitted into heaven, he was commanded to completely repair the reputation of the person he had denigrated while alive. I know it is true that this soul returned to this world, for I am the man he defamed, and it is to me that he came to ask forgiveness."

O God, if a reputation is such a fragile and delicate thing, why do we not fear to contract obligations we must fulfill even after death? "Thy word, O Lord, endureth forever; it is firm as the heavens... According to Thy ordinances they still stand firm: all things serve Thee", (6) goods of both body and soul. Therefore, a good reputation is not to be scorned, for it is especially needed in fulfilling public duties. Thus it is also necessary to restore someone's reputation if we rob it in bad faith even more necessary than restoring money.

(6) Ps 118:9

III.

Raphael Maffei relates that when Chinese warriors prepared for combat they entered with splendid apparel and elegant arms, carrying four swords on their harness and manipulating two at once with great skill.

But the backbiter's tongue surpasses them by far. It carries not four swords, nor a hundred, nor six hundred, but thousands, for fear it will run out once it enters into combat. The backbiting tongue often lights such a conflagration that four thousand soldiers -- what am I saying, four thousand? -- forty thousand, even a hundred thousand will not suffice to put it out. A two-edged sword, a keen knife, a piercing arrow, a cane-stiletto, a sharp razor, and a quick biting tongue all bear a striking resemblance. Listen to the Psalmist: "They have bent their bow to shoot arrows." As the bow strikes from far off and wounds a person unawares, the backbiting tongue attacks those who are absent and wreaks its havoc from a distance of many miles. Bending its bow in Germany, it strikes and wounds a Frenchman or a Spaniard in his own land. Its arrows fly across the sea, or rather they pierce all the way to heaven, for they attack God Himself and His Saints. "They set their mouthings in place of heaven," (7) says David. It also penetrates the very bowels of the earth and rends the dead in their tombs, for David adds, "Their pronouncements pierce the earth." It buries the living, and it digs the dead out of their tombs.

(7) Ps 72:9

The Psalmist goes on to say, "They scoff and speak evil; outrage from on high they threaten." (8) When its fury is roused, a raging bull lifts its head and casts terrible eyes at its prey, aiming at him and rampaging against him with all its might. Thus does the backbiter move in with head held high; stifling the voice of his conscience, the things he has meditated in his heart spew from his mouth in contempt of every law of Christian charity.

(8) Ps 72:8

The backbiting tongue has chosen the very motto of Death as its own: "I spare no one!" Priest or judge, known or unknown, religious or worldling, friend or foe, none of that matters to him. The backbiter spares nothing and no one, not even his father and mother. Why is this so? Because he enjoys talking, so speaking evil gratifies him. He considers it a pleasure when he finds something to criticize in others. He is filled with joy when he can invent and relate things that do not even exist.

"O Lord," cries David, "rescue my soul from the sword, my only one from the grip of the dog!" (9) Cassiodorus says that Saint Augustine declares, "The sword is the backbiter's tongue, and the dog is the backbiter himself." Why does David ask to be rescued from the grip of the dog? We could understand if he had said a bear or a lion, but why be so afraid of a dog?

(9) Ps 21:21

He is right after a fashion, however. The bear and the lion are naturally fierce, but a dog may often sidle peacefully up to you and suddenly bite your leg. If it is a bulldog, it will square off against you and attack your head. David knew this type of dog from experience. He knew Saul, Semeias, Absalom, Seba, Achitophel and Doeg; they were purebred dogs, which are the most troublesome by far.

IV.

Pliny relates the fact that the camel will drink only after disturbing the water with its hooves." (10) That proud beast does not want to look at its deformed face and see it mirrored in the water. Men without credit, virtue or reputation often act like the camel. They attempt to blacken others' reputation with backbiting so that they will not be the only ones called deformed. They have adopted this maxim of the Ephesians: "Let there be no superiority among us!" A servant's laziness is never more visible than when a more active servant is working by his side. A virtuous man's piety is never more evident than when he is next to a vain and godless man.

(10) Pliny, Historica naturalia, Book 8, Chapter 18.

Therefore, in order to avoid embarrassment over their corruption, men of vice try to sully others with their backbiting tongues. They think they look better when others are ugly and wrinkled. "Say whatever you like," they declare, "the man you praise so highly is no holier than anyone else; the person you exonerate is no angel!" And when they have nothing to say, they state, "We could say lots of things about him, but we won't stir up that swamp, please God! We will say nothing instead."

Wretch, speaking that way is not keeping silence; it is a subtle form of backbiting! You murmur like this because that person's behavior has nothing in common with yours. Why did the Pharisees pursue Jesus with their hatred? Because His life bore no resemblance to theirs. (11) Because of this they called Him a drinker, a violater of the Sabbath, loving people of evil life. David prophesied well of them when he said, "Those who repay evil for good harass Me for pursuing good... In return for My love they slandered Me, but I prayed." (12) And Saint John Chrysostom cries, "You are a man, and you would spit an asp's venom? You are a man, and you would become a raging beast? You have been given a mouth not to wound, but to heal." Saint Augustine declares, "Since you get angry with others when they speak evil against you, get angry with yourself when you speak evil against someone else." (13)

(11) Wis 12:15
(12) Ps 37:21; 108:4
(13) Saint Augustine, Homily 89, Ad Pop.

In olden times, the Lord commanded the prophet Isaias to announce, "Every knee shall be bowed to Me, and every tongue shall swear by My name." (14) Backbiters, place your tongues beneath the sway of reason once again, that they may no longer wound people's reputations, that they may refrain from the least detraction, that they may be silent over even the slightest defects. Follow Saint John Chrysostom's advice: "Such is the nature of vipers that, as soon as they bite a man, they enter water at once. If they find no water, they die." (15) Do likewise if you have poured the venom of detraction into someone's ears and have spoken a thoughtless word that may wound your neighbor's reputation. Cast yourself at once into the waters of penance; repent, and promise that you will be more watchful in the future. And if you are able to repair the damage your tongue has caused, then repair it. This is hard, no doubt but it is necessary. It is better to restore something you have taken than to perish with it.

(14) Is 45:24
(15) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, In Matt

 

3. Appropriate names for backbiters. Usual chastisements to which they expose themselves.

Plutarch says that nature has thought of everything: it has given man two ears and only one tongue, since he should listen more than speak. Such was the opinion of a sage formed in the school of Christ: Saint James says, "Let every man be swift to hear and slow to speak." (1) The tongue is a member hard to govern; it rarely moves without harming itself or others. Anarcharsis the philosopher states, "It is better to trespass with your feet than with your tongue." We are rarely sorry for keeping silence and often sorry for speaking. The poet Ausonius declares, "You harm no one by your silence, but by your words."

(1) Jas 1:19

Xenocrates confirmed this truth by his example. As he listened without a word to a conversation in which his neighbor incurred detraction, someone asked him why he alone maintained a stubborn silence. He answered, "I have often regretted speaking in public, but never not speaking." This quiet reply closed the mouth over those evil tongues.

We have treated the vice of backbiting, its various species and its gravity. We have demonstrated how difficult it is, though necessary, to restore our neighbor's reputation. Let us now draw the true portrait of a backbiter.

I.

We do no one harm in saying that a spade is a spade, and a cat is a cat. We should call all things by their name.

Now, backbiters have as many names as species. They attack first this person and then that one, putting on a fox skin today and a lion skin tomorrow. Among all the splendid names that apply to flatterers, only one applies to backbiters:

1. Backbiters are dogs. Scripture tells us, "Like an arrow lodged in a dog's thigh is gossip in the heart of a fool." (2) A dog will have no rest till he is rid of something lodged in his flank. So it is with a backbiter: as soon as he sees anything with his curious eyes or hears anything with his long ears, he broadcasts it everywhere.

(2) Sir 19:12

The food most suited to dogs is dry bread and bones. But dogs with faces of men eat not only bones; like famished wolves, they need flesh... human flesh. When Job was struck down he said, "Why do you hound me as though you were God, and insatiably prey upon me?" (3) I see you gnashing your teeth like dogs. You insult me; and you bite, devour and swallow my reputation and good name.

(3) Job 19:22

Saint Gregory declares, "There is no doubt that those who indulge in backbiting others, feed on their flesh." (4) Making himself equal to God, the backbiter pretends to examine hearts and discern the most secret things in man, even his intentions. He would wrest God's sword from His hand if he could. The backbiter is so fond of human flesh he often spares not even his own relatives.

(4) Saint Gregory, Moral, Book 14, Chapter 14.

After Actaeon had been turned into a deer by the goddess Artemis, his dogs attacked him. He fought like a madman and cried out in vain:

My name is Actaeon, recognize your master! (5)

(5) Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book 3.

But none of the dogs would recognize him as Actaeon. Such are backbiters. They know neither father nor mother; they tear into everyone. Their main activity consists in biting the first comer. The prophet Ezechiel predicted, "Fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of thee, and sons shall eat their fathers." (6) And Jeremias adds, "Everyone shall eat the flesh of his friend." (7) With a single bite, the backbiter tears into bishop, archbishop or pope, king or emperor. Though he should be satisfied with beef or mutton on fast days, he must absolutely have human flesh. With his bloody mouth, the backbiter streaks through the public square like a dog. Beware of the dog! Run from him when he barks, "Come along with us! Let us lie in wait for the honest man; let us, unprovoked, set a trap for the innocent; let us swallow them up like hell, alive and in the prime of life, like those who go down into the pit!" (8)

(6) Ez 5:10
(7) Jer 19:9
(8) Prov 1:11-12

2. The sea urchin, armed with points which it uses as feet, is the terror of every fish. Likewise, the backbiter is armed with thorny spines inside and out. No matter where you touch him, beware! Beware of his traps, or you will get caught by his hook! There's the sea urchin: the backbiter is coming! If you ask him "What's new?" he will answer you at once, "So-and-so got drunk yesterday. Someone else was gambling with infernal passion. I saw this man entering a house of ill-repute; that one is always fighting; and that other one cheated a salesman out of twenty dollars." These are the barbs of that sea urchin, these are his words. Therefore, he is the terror of every man. For the Holy Spirit says, "A man full of tongue is terrible in his city, and he that is rash in his word shall be hateful." (9)

(9) Sir 9:25

3. The backbiter is a beetle and a leech. Saint John Chrysostom remarks, "Everyone flees a backbiter like unhealthy mud, like a leech that feeds on blood, a beetle that feeds in the mire -- that is, on others' defects." As for you, act like bees: gather flowers from thorns and use them to make your honey.

Guillaume Perald says, "The mouth of the backbiter and slanderer is the basin the devil uses to wash his hands." That basin contains not holy water, but the impure water of detraction. The devil pours this filthy water onto many; not on their face, true, but on their back. For the backbiter harms people who are absent, not present, just as the leech draws blood from behind. Now, let all who are in the habit of backbiting others learn that oftentimes those who reveal the crimes of others are more sinful than those who commit them.

4. The backbiter resembles a hog. When it enters a garden, a hog does not run into the flowers, but into the manure. The backbiter does not seek to edify, but scandalize; he feeds off forbidden objects.

When Balaam refused to curse Israel, King Balac told him angrily, "Come with me to another place from which you can see only some and not all of Israel, and from there curse it for me." (10) The king thought the great throng of people was preventing Balaam from cursing it. It is characteristic of backbiters to criticize only a part of what others have done. If they said what their neighbor did before or afterwards, they would be giving their listeners a very different opinion of him.

(10) Num 23:13

Besides, is anything in this world free from all imperfection, safe from all criticism?

The moon is a magnificent heavenly body, but it does have its craters. The sun is far nobler and brighter than the moon, yet it is not perfect in every point. (11) In order to be mistaken as little as possible, look at something on the whole, and its collective symmetry will justify its less perfect parts.

(11) Christopher Scheiner, De macul sol

5. The backbiter resembles the lion and the hyena. Someone once asked Theocritus, "What is the most ferocious animal of all?" and he replied, "In the mountains and forests, I think it is lions and bears. In the cities and towns, it is money-lenders and backbiters." (12) And since they do not spare even the dead, it is only fitting to compare them to the hyena. Like the wolf, the hyena is so avid for human flesh that it digs into graves and unburies corpses in order to eat their flesh.

(12) Aristotle, De animal, Book 7, Chapter 4

The discreet and prudent man must take great care to safeguard his reputation from the tongues of others. If he knows something blameworthy about others, he should bury it in silence as in good ground. But the backbiter drags the nauseating, rotten flesh of corpses out of their tombs, bringing hidden vices to light and reminding us of crimes that should be forgotten. He resembles the lion and the hyena.

6. The backbiter is a counterfeiter and a thief. He wears down coins so that no one wants them any more. "Lets get rid of this coin," people say. "It is eaten away, it is no longer any good." This is how backbiting tongues, with the traps they set, prevent so many from emerging from their tombs; or if they do come out they force them back into their former darkness as soon as they spy an occasion to attack their reputation or fortune.

Many who would behave like honest men and Christians have been bitten so hard by backbiters and so blackened by wicked words that people always find something wrong with them. Emperor Vespasian ordered backbiters and gossipers flogged with rods and then sent into exile. Augustus wanted them burned alive. Antoninus wanted them put to death. For, according to Solomon, it is backbiting "that men find abominable." (13)

(13) Prov 24:9

True, it is not the worst of evils to be loathed by all, since Christ told His Apostles they would be hated by all men, adding that it would be for His name's sake." (14) The backbiter, however, is hated not only by all men, but by God Himself. Saint Paul says, "Detractors are hateful to God." (15) Follow the advice of Solomon: "Have nothing to do with backbiters, for their destruction arises suddenly, and who can measure their ruin?" (16)

(14) Mt 10:22
(15) Rom 1:30
(16) Prov 24:21-22

II.

Finally -- and this is the most appropriate name, more appropriate than any other -- the backbiter is a serpent.

The Book of Ecclesiastes says, "If a serpent bites in silence, the hidden backbiter is no less loathsome." (17) This expression, "bites in silence", illustrates the genius of backbiting perfectly. Theologians recognize a difference between backbiting and insult: an insult wounds and outrages one who is present; backbiting attacks those who are absent and seeks to weaken their reputation.

(17) Eccl 10:11

Of all the animals, the serpent is the only one the Lord cursed. And among the great multitude of men, if there be any that God especially loathes and detests, it is the backbiter. There are serpents that kill their own mother in order to live; before harming others, the backbiter is of serious detriment to himself and his loved ones. And just as a single snakebite is so infectious that it poisons the entire body, the backbiter uses few words to rob others of their reputation and sometimes their life. The backbiter makes himself the equal of the devil, who justly received the name of serpent. The backbiter poses as a denunciator of his brothers; and when he cannot accuse them, he slanders them. Here is how the poet of Venusia depicts the varicolored skin of the backbiter, similar to the serpents:

"To tear apart an absent friend; to not defend him when he is attacked; to work at inciting indiscreet laughter and to build your reputation on an attitude of mockery; to invent happenings; to betray confidential secrets: such is the behavior of a despicable person. Romans, beware of such a man!" (18)

(18) Horace, Satires, Book 1, Satire 4

Saint Bernard says, "Run from a backbiter as you would run from a serpent." (19) Serpents do not store venom in their tail. They reserve it in a little sac beneath the tongue or in the hollow of their teeth. Most snakes inject their venom with their bite. Others eject it by spitting; for this reason, Avicenna refers to them as spitting serpents. Like these serpents, backbiters conceal deadly venom beneath their tongues, spitting it out as they speak. Although the deceptively small mouth of this species of viper leaves barely a trace of its bite, it deals out death.

(19) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Sermon 17

Cleopatra had a horror of swords and wounds. When she requested a quick and easy death, she was killed by a snakebite. The backbiter often delivers great blows while making little noise. The wounds he leaves are scarcely visible, but he inflicts mortal damage to the reputation of others.

Beware of him! Run from him! The backbiter is deadlier than a snake in the grass, and there is practically no remedy for his venom. Such was the chastisement with which the Lord once threatened the Hebrews. "For behold, I will send among you serpents against which there is no charm: and they shall bite you." (20) According to the Roman philosopher Seneca, a snake is easier to handle when it is very cold. (21) Its poison is still potent, no doubt, but the snake is too numb. If we lend credence to Elianus and Pliny, serpents at the mouth of the Euphrates River are very dangerous to foreigners but not to natives of the region; the serpents of Syria, especially those by the Euphrates, will not harm Syrians in their sleep. Syrians, the Psyllae in Africa, the Ophites of Cyprus and Hellespont, and the Marsi in Italy are all anguigenous, and they have no fear of any serpent. The Egyptians even tame asps.

(20) Jer 8:17

(21) Seneca, Epistle 42

It is not so with the backbiter's tongue. Nothing can temper it and everyone fears it, natives and foreigners alike. It attacks, bites and kills everyone, friend or foe, good or evil, asleep or awake. Saint John Chrysostom states, "A person who backbites performs the devil's work. Backbiting is an unruly demon."

III.

"God is all feet all hands, all eyes," says Saint Augustine. And I would add that He is also all ears; for nothing escapes Him, and "detractors are hateful to God". Do not attempt to excuse yourself by hedging, "That's what people are saying, and they are convinced. I'm just telling you what I heard." My friend, it is illegal to resell adulterated or stolen merchandise. You heard something? Well, act as though you had not. This is advice of the son of Sirach: "Let anything you hear die within you; rest assured, it will not make you burst." (22)

(22) Sir 19:10

IV.

Do not excuse yourself by saying, "But these are only petty sins," for a little spark is often enough to produce a conflagration. This is always true with the backbiting tongue. You say they are petty sins. So if you knew more serious things, wouldn't you say them? No, wounding your neighbor's reputation, even lightly, is no little thing. Killing someone with the pen is no less a homicide than killing him with the sword.

Cassian was killed by the hand of a child and pierced with little wounds, but he was no less dead than if he had fallen beneath the hand of Hector or Achilles. The weaker the hand that strikes, the slower the death and the more painful the torment. The smaller the pinpricks of backbiting may seem, the more dangerous the wounds they make. God never lets them go unpunished. Scripture tells us, "He who speaks against his brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law." (23)

(23) Jas 4:11

Thomas of Cantimpre, the coadjutor of the Bishop of Cambrai, declares that with his own eyes he saw how horrible and surprising was the vengeance reserved for this vice: "I once knew a religious man (sacerdotem), more religious in name than in deed, whose tongue reached such a point of shamelessness that his only pleasure lay in covering others with infamy and in relating every lie one can imagine. Finding himself at death's door, he was whipped into such a frenzy that he began beating himself and tearing his tongue with his teeth, thus showing everyone that his tongue was the real cause of his torment." The Book of Ecclesiastes says, "Be not hasty in your utterance. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few." (24) You have not yet gone to that land beyond the blue. Nor shall you enter it if you do not amend your vicious ways; you will fall into the pit of fire. Do you want to save your soul? Then hold your tongue and swear off the passion of backbiting.

(24) Eccl 5:1

There was another religious in England, a monk more by his habit than by his habits, rather like the one we just mentioned. His backbiting tongue had such a hard bite that he slashed everyone he met. He was about to die, and his brothers implored him to think seriously about the journey he was about to make, since it was a matter of eternity. "Spare your exhortations," he said, "they are totally useless!" They spoke to him of divine mercy, trying to get him to trust in God, using every possible means to lift his thoughts to the things of heaven. The dying man stuck his tongue out and tapped it with his hand, saying, "This evil tongue is what has damned me!" Scarcely had he spoken these words when his tongue suddenly swelled so greatly that it was impossible for him to return it into his mouth. Thus, while breathing his last, this unfortunate man taught us with his dreadful example to learn from others' mistakes and watch what we say. (25)

(25) Fr. John Major, S. J., Theologia Specul exempl. P. 265

"He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from trouble." (26)

(26) Prov 21:23

 

4. Listening to backbiters is a great sin.

Certain experiments prove that magnets possess a mysterious and wonderful power. According to Jerome Cardan, if you rub a dagger with a magnet, those it pierces afterwards will not feel it: "In the home of Dr. Lawrence Guascus I saw a needle or a metal point rubbed with a magnet; one could then stick the needle or point into any part of the body without causing any pain. This seemed incredible to me, and I wanted to make sure it was true. So I took a needle, rubbed it with a magnet and stuck it into my arm. I felt the needle's presence when it had penetrated completely, but I felt no pain whatsoever. In order to be really sure I turned the needle, still stuck in my arm, in every direction. But I felt nothing and shed not a drop of blood. Afterwards, only the point where the needle had entered could be seen." Cardan adds that Alexander of Verona was the first to perform this experiment, in Milan: he rubbed a sword with oil in order to be able to wound and heal whoever he wished without any pain.

Backbiting resembles that dagger perfectly. You thrust it in, it enters and causes a wound to three people at once: the backbiter, his listener and the person he backbites. The most seriously wounded one of all, the backbiter, feels absolutely nothing.

But we have already talked about him in the preceding chapter. Let us now take a look at his listener.

We will show what an enormous sin is committed, not only by backbiters, but by those who listen to them willingly, and we will enlighten the backbiter and his listeners at the same time.

I.

Homer, the prince of poets, relates how Ulysses acted with his seafaring companions. That prudent fellow knew that the sweet, languorous siren's song usually softened men and then lured them into the depths of the sea. To safeguard himself and his friends on their way through this hazardous zone, he had them stop their ears with wax and bind him to the ship's mast until the moment of danger had passed. Thus there are dangers for the ears as well as for the eyes, and one must make sure that they are hermetically sealed.

It is nothing new to encircle fields and gardens with hedges, but it may seem strange to do so for our ears. Yet the Holy Spirit judges it necessary. "Hedge in your ears with thorns," He says, "listen not to the wicked tongue, and make doors and bars to thy mouth." (1) The Holy Spirit does not want this hedge protecting our ears to be a flower hedge, but a spiny thorn hedge, to keep the backbiter away.

(1) Sir 28:28

Hedges protect fields against animals and gardens against thieves. So must we have thorns to guard our ears against backbiters. When they come near, they run into brambles when you show absolute disapproval of what they say. Take heed not to lend an ear and listen willingly to them. On the contrary, let them see that you do not care for this sort of conversation. For if you listen willingly to everything others whisper in your ear, what sort of people will you be compared to?

Two dogs gnawing on the same bone is a rare sight, practically a phenomenon. Now, if you see a backbiter and his listener in perfect agreement, the one to speak and the other to give ear, would you not say that they look exactly like two dogs gnawing on the same bone? Two evil people who analyze the behavior of a good man weigh him, sift him and grind him with their words. This is truly the equivalent of chewing bones and cracking them between one's teeth.

Saint Bernard discusses the gravity of the sin that both the backbiter and his listener commit. "I would have difficulty deciding which of them is more damnable," he says, "he who backbites or he who listens to the backbiter. Even if we excuse it as wit or banter, every jesting word must be banished not only from our mouth, but also from our ears." (2) Another man has cleverly remarked, "The devil dances in the backbiter's mouth and in his listener's ear." If you lend a favorable ear to a gossiper and spur him on to speak, you incite him to proceed with still greater freedom, boldness and excess. "The burglar who holds the bag and the thief who slips in the spoils are equally guilty," says the proverb. The perpetrator and the consenter are both deserving of the same punishment; the same is true of the backbiter and his listener. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, "He who hears someone backbiting and does not oppose him appears to approve the author, thus participating in his sin." (3) Saint Jerome speaks in the same vein: "Beware that your restless ears and tongue do not listen to or engage in backbiting." (4)

(2) Saint Bernard, De consideratione, Book 2, Chapter 13
(3) Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II, Section II, Question 83, Article 2.
(4) Saint Jerome, Epistolora ad Nepotium, ad Rustic

"I don't backbite," you may say, "but how can I stop others from talking?" Look at what sort of pretexts we invent to excuse our sins! Tell me then: If you were passing in front of someone's house, and his dog came running after you barking and ready to bite you, would you be pleased if his master's servant did not prevent him? And if he even encouraged the dog to press on after you, would you be able to contain your indignation? Now let's change the circumstances: When you listen quietly to a backbiter, you are not only letting this dog attack passers-by and bite them, but you are urging him on, for you lend credence to what he says.

II.

"Well, who would ever dare to interrupt someone who is speaking?" you may ask. Listen, and Saint John Chrysostom will answer your question: "I must not limit myself to addressing backbiters, but also implore their listeners to stop their ears and walk in the footsteps of the holy king, who said, 'Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, his enemy will I become.’ (5) Tell the person who comes to you and speaks about others, 'Are you here to praise someone and raise him in my esteem? Then gladly will I give ear and savor all your sweet conversation. But if you intend to speak ill, let me stop you right now; I cannot stand filth and stench. What have I to gain by knowing that someone is evil? Would I not be losing something instead? Talk to him yourself, and let us mind our own business.' " (6)

(5) Ps 100:5
(6) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, Ad pop. Antioch.

If you follow Saint John Chrysostom's advice and shut the backbiter's mouth in this manner, he will either keep silence or praise the person he came to denigrate. If, on the contrary, you pretend not to notice, and if you do not have the courage to reproach him, you are acting with modesty, I admit; but this is inopportune, and both you and your neighbor will suffer as a consequence.

Saint Augustine, an exemplary bishop, detested backbiters so strongly that he posted the following words on the wall of his dining room as a warning to his guests:

Quisquis amat dictis absentum rodere famam,
Hanc mensam vetitam noverit esse sibi

That is, "People who take pleasure in defaming the reputation of absentees are not welcome at this table." An excellent maxim for your dining room! This bishop castigated the perverse habit which prevails in meetings, circles and banquets, of gathering information about those who are absent. How often have you heard people say, "He's got his weak points, you know!... He's certainly a remarkable person, but his behavior is anything but moral... That preacher speaks divinely; too bad he doesn't practice what he preaches... That man had every opportunity, but he never learned how to take advantage of them... That person is a veritable paragon of justice, but all he ever thinks about is his pocketbook -- money is his only god." Unfortunately...

Those who have the most laughable behavior
Are always the first to backbite others.

Thus they amuse themselves by making a sport out of detraction and biting their neighbor. That is why, wishing to banish it from his house, Saint Augustine always had someone read at his table, thereby feeding the soul while feeding the body.

One day, however, relates Possadius in an eyewitness account, Saint Augustine had at his table several illustrious guests who forgot the holy bishop's maxim. Since they were talking too freely about their neighbor, he told them outright "My lords and brothers, stop your conversation or leave this table. Otherwise, I shall have to retire to my room."

Saint John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, so remarkable for his charity, provides us with a similar example. As soon as he heard anyone backbiting, he would warn him or artfully turn the conversation in another direction. If the backbiter carried on, the patriarch would fall silent and jot down his name. After the person had left, he would give his chamberlain orders to deny that man entry in the future. Saint Jerome rightly observes, "Where there are no listeners, there are no backbiters: the combat will close for want of combatants." (7)

(7) Saint Jerome, Ad Celant.

King Edmund of England held Bishop Dunstan in high esteem, admiring his virtue and learning alike, and he habitually consulted him in important matters. The king loved the vigor with which he defended justice.

The devil waxed exceedingly jealous over this state of affairs. Hoping to sunder the harmony of these two souls, he conspired with certain men who despised Dunstan, although they feigned friendship and deference. First they assailed the ears of the king, striving to blacken the bishop's reputation by crafty insinuation. Soon they began backbiting Dunstan openly and moving the king to hatred with sweet flattery, then denigrating the bishop without mercy. They succeeded so well with the credulous king that Dunstan's entry was forbidden in the royal court.

Several days later, the king went hunting in the forest. The wildwood was situated on a mountain rimmed with dreadful bluffs. From the very start of the hunt, the first sizeable prey was a handsome stag, worthy of the king's skill. As the king and his sons pursued it, the animal fled towards the cliff and leaped off, followed by the baying hounds. The king and his mount came upon the fatal precipice at full tilt.

Faced with sudden death, Edmund thought of Saint Dunstan and implored God to save his life in consideration of the holy bishop's innocence. Imminent danger often wakens lightning inspirations, and frequently the Lord answers with equally blinding speed. At that very moment, the king's horse was brought to an astonishing halt. The king returned to his castle at once. Speaking to the royal household with mingled joy and dread, he related the wonder that had just been wrought in his favor. "I am twice beholden for my life," he declared. "I owe it both to God and to His friend Dunstan."

King Edmund called for the bishop immediately and received him with great honor, asking his forgiveness for having believed the backbiters' words, and swearing faithful friendship to the end of his days.

This illustrious example shows us how those who lend an ear to backbiting must repair the reputation of others. You can find thousands and hundreds of thousands of backbiters, but where can you find a single person who will restore a reputation unjustly stolen?

III.

People who listen to backbiting can be classified in two different groups. First there are those who hear it reluctantly, and not without certain pangs of conscience. These people are guilty of nothing; they even deserve a reward from God, especially if they express their disapproval with unmistakable hints.

Others remain silent, however, letting no one see whether they agree or not with what is said. When they are blamed for this not very praiseworthy silence, they usually excuse themselves by saying, "I won't shut anyone's mouth. Let others say what they like, I wash my hands. I'm not responsible for criticizing everything people say."

These pacifists are just cleverly fooling themselves. Do they mean that it does not displease them to hear someone outraging their neighbor's reputation and offending God? Let them know this: they commit a serious sin when they remain silent on hearing such words, especially if they have some authority over the offender. Not resisting error is approving it; not defending the truth when one is able, is oppressing it. If you are content to say nothing when you hear ill spoken of others, people will hardly believe you do not keep bad company yourself.

Other people do not only listen to backbiters, they spur them on to continue their stories by their eagerness in hearing them. They say, "Finish relating the details of what you started saying about that person; I'm anxious to hear the truth. I had already heard something about it, but it was still a bit vague. Tell me everything!"

Still others softly entice and incite backbiters, saying, "People are saying such things about you, and you remain silent? How strange!" This provides a perfect occasion for the backbiter to freely give vent to all the bile that is in his heart. Those people are the guiltiest of all, for they take delight in the evil they hear spoken about others.

Thus, both the backbiter and his listener have got the devil in them, one in his mouth and the other in his ear.

Normally, people who are so credulous as to believe all they hear spoken in this manner will quickly manifest anger and impatience, heaping word upon word, insult upon insult, outrage upon outrage. From this stem unending arguments and enmities: the bonds that hold men together are broken, charity is snuffed out, sincere affection and mutual trust vanish. From this also stems an unbridled desire to do harm, urging us to reveal the weaknesses of others. Hidden beneath a cloak of kindness, we disguise vice with a semblance of honesty and start thinking that it is no longer vice.

Such is not the case, and these words of Saint Bernard will always be true: "Backbiters and their listeners are guilty of the same sin." (8) When you speak ill of others, or even when you listen to someone backbiting, you should get just as angry with yourself as when someone else backbites you. The man who drinks poison counselled by an evil tongue will die. Therefore, let us teach backbiters these three lessons:

(8) Saint Bernard, De inter. Dom, Chapter 42, and Serm. De tripl. Custod.

IV.

Lesson I: Look at yourself and discover your own wretchedness.

Why waste your time with the affairs of others? Take care of your own instead. Who ever named you a reporter of the lives and deeds of others? Curious and absurd man, why do you set foot in other people's gardens? Find out what is going on in your own house instead, and say with La Fontaine:

Happy the man who stays at home,
Occupied with governing his own desires.

You may have heard about the porbeagle, or white shark. When safe inside its nest, it draws its eyes into a sac; when it leaves, they reappear on its forehead. It is blind at home and clear-eyed outside. As Socrates once stated concerning an aged man:

He knows everything from afar,
But he sees nothing nigh.

This occurs with many elderly people: show them an object close up, and they cannot see any details; draw it back and they see it better. Thus are many people shocked by the petty sins of others, whereas they are perfectly indulgent regarding their own serious faults. One might say:

The sovereign Maker
Created us all beggars in the same way,
Those of times past and those of today.
For our own faults He made the pocket in the back,
And the one in the front for others who slack.

So then, move the back pocket round in front And if you examine it well, no doubt you will find the defect you are complaining about. All of life's woes stem from the fact that each person flatters himself, and makes himself as much an enemy of others as a selfish friend of himself. We pluck out the straw from our neighbor's eye, and we do not see the beam in our own. Like the eye, which does not see the defects of the cheek because it is so close, we are perfectly blind regarding our own weaknesses. Very clever in discerning the slightest imperfections in others, we walk right by our own like blind people, although they are so close we could touch them. And the more sensitive we are when someone speaks ill of us, the bolder we are and the more pleasure we take in glutting ourselves on our neighbor's vices. We take delight in plunging our eyes and teeth into others' moral behavior. "They devise a wicked scheme, and conceal the scheme they have devised." (9) The back pocket is for our own defects, and the front pocket for the defects of others. We do not see the pocket that lies behind our back.

(9) Ps 63:6

Solomon speaks well of men of this caliber. "There is a group that is pure in its own eyes, yet is not purged of its filth," (10) he says. If an earthen pot were blackened with soot and looked in the mirror, it would not say to the smoked-up kettle, "Woe to you, you are all black!"

(10) Prov 30:12

Christian law speaks in the same manner. When Jesus Christ said, "Let those who believe they are without sin cast the first stone against this woman accused of adultery," (11) no one dared to be the first. Christians, let us do likewise. If we look at what is going on inside ourself and take care of our own business, we will find no one who better deserves to have stones cast at him than ourself. But the crafty devil catches us one way or the other: either we commit sin ourself, or we accuse those who do. Saint John of the Ladder explains it thus: "The devil tempts us to commit sin; and when he does not succeed, he points scornfully at those who have fallen." We do not understand our task very well when we neglect our own nettle-choked garden and go to pull up weeds in someone else's flower bed. Look my friend, stay in your own garden! There are enough burdocks, tares and nettles to weed out right there. Take a hard look at yourself and you will no longer see defects in others. Saint Bernard says, "If you examine yourself well, you will never backbite others." (12)

(11) Jn 8:7
(12) Saint Bernard, De inter. Dom, Chapter 42

Lesson II: Change the subject.

If you are being chased by a mad bull, throw a coat over his head; while he is wrestling with the coat, run away as fast as you can. When you hear someone backbiting, the best thing you can do is throw a coat in his face -- that is, confront his language by changing the subject. And it is not always necessary to take great precautions and act with circumspection, either. Sometimes you can put a sudden halt to a conversation.

Thomas More, the glory of England, renowned for his holiness and learning alike, gave the finest example in everything. No matter where he was, as soon as he heard someone speaking rashly about his neighbor and insulting people who were absent, he would strive to change the conversation. "No matter what one may think," he would say, "that house is exceedingly well built. Certainly, the one who constructed it has proven that he knew what he was doing." Thus would he punish or disconcert backbiters.

Plutarch relates that Alcibiades, one of the wisest and greatest men of Ancient Greece, once learned that people were spreading unkind stories about him. He had the idea of replacing them with other stories which, if not better, were at least more innocent. Having recently purchased a magnificent dog, he cut off its tail and let it run rampant through the streets of the city. Some of his friends got upset over this and reproached this great man for doing such a ridiculous thing. "Don't get angry," said Alcibiades in his sweetest voice. "The only reason I did it was so that people could aim their malicious zeal at a petty brute. Let them talk about Alcibiades' dog as much as they like, as long as Alcibiades himself can escape their teeth." If a tiger kidnaps a little dog, just give it a mirror and it will quickly forget all about the dog.

Shrewd enough to realize how hard it is for a man in the public eye to escape evil tongues, Alcibiades offered the people of Athens an insignificant creature on which to exercise their petulance in a more harmless manner.

Men with sober tongues should imitate Alcibiades' example in order to silence hissing backbiters. If you cannot interrupt the conversation, at least try and temper it. Presume the good intentions of those who are absent by saying, "We never really know all the extenuating circumstances. Rumor always swells things way out of proportion." Thus you will dash cold water on an intemperate tongue and moderate the backbiter's passion, and possibly even change the course of the conversation.

Lesson III: Withdraw from backbiters' deadly conversations.

Freeze their tongue with a sudden departure, so at least they know that you disapprove of such language. That is Saint Jerome's advice: "If you hear someone speaking ill of another, cast him far from you like a serpent; so that, overcome by shame, he will learn to be silent regarding the actions of others." (13) He learned this from Saint Paul, who says, "I write to you not to associate with one who is called a brother, if he is immoral, or covetous, or an idolater or evil-tongued." (14)

(13) Saint Jerome, In Reg. Mon, Chapter 22
(14) I Cor 5:11

Cassian relates having seen an elder called Machetus who had obtained a very singular grace from God: as long as people were talking about the things of God he would not feel sleepy, even if the conversation lasted night and day; but if, on the contrary, people were speaking useless words or beginning to backbite their neighbor, he would fall asleep at once.

Those who do not want to imitate this elder, who cannot fall asleep or do not want to, should at least show that they are Christians by indicating their displeasure with some sign. They should do this right at the start of the conversation, when a bucket of water will suffice to put the fire out. For you will have a hard time mastering the fire once it has become a conflagration. "The north wind drives away rain, as does a sad countenance a backbiting tongue." (15) And Saint Jerome adds, "if you listen to a backbiter with a happy look you encourage him to continue backbiting; he shakes the coals, and then you add the wood. If, on the contrary, you listen to him with a sad, unhappy look he will learn to spare his words when he sees that you are not listening to him willingly. If you do not do this, you show that you are a false brother of the one who is backbiting, or that you are a cowardly friend."

(15) Prov 25:23

V.

My friends, by acting otherwise -- by showing less care for others' reputation than for our own -- we violate the law of Our Lord, who tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. The person who sets fire to his neighbor's house is sinful, but so is the man who warms himself by the heat of the burning house. If he is not an enemy, then let him carry some water to put out the fire. In the same way, we do harm not only by backbiting others, but also by not stopping those who backbite, encouraging them with praise and applause. A sincere friend not only avoids backbiting, but also does everything he can to bring it to a halt. A devoted brother hides his brother's dishonorable vices from others, revealing them only to those who are able to remedy them.

Apelles depicted King Antigone as a person with only one eye. However, he also disposed the king's portrait at an angle whereby his physical defects might be attributed to the painting, showing only that part of his face which could not be seen to disadvantage. (16)

(16) Phil., Hist. Nat. lib, Book 35, Chapter 10

Such are the portraits drawn by a truly Christian hand. It neglects anything vicious in the face of another and shows only whatever is worthy of being seen.

Plato imitated Apelles perfectly, not by hand or brush, but by his care in hiding the vices of others. Someone came to inform him that his disciple Xenocrates had been telling all sorts of malicious stories about him. Plato, careful to avoid believing this badly motivated report, replied, "It is highly improbable." Since the accuser insisted with every appearance of truth, Plato added, "I cannot believe that I am not loved by someone I love so much." It availed nothing for the accuser to swear that what he said was true. Not wanting to test whether the man was lying, Plato simply said, "Xenocrates would not have spoken thus unless he thought he were doing me a favor." (17)

(17) Valer., Book 4, Chapter 1.

That is how we should attenuate and cover the vices of others, instead of exaggerating and proclaiming them everywhere. Solomon advises us, "Do not give heed to every word that is spoken." (18) And Saint Bernard confirms what he wrote on this subject by saying, "Backbiters pour poison into the ears of those who listen to them." (19) Both the backbiter and his complacent listener commit sin. If a man with a perfidious tongue advises someone to swallow poison, that person will die. The backbiter furtively robs you of the virtue of charity, and he makes your fraternal love grow cold without your even being aware of it.

(18) Eccl 7:22
(19) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Chapters 17 and 37; Serm. De Tripl.

In order to arm himself against this trap, Emperor Constantine said that even if he saw the Head of Christianity commit an atrocious act, not only would he not reveal it, but he would cover it with his cloak. Let us do likewise. Let us keep a mutual watch over our reputations and flee even the shadow of backbiting like the plague, according to the formal exhortation of the great Apostle Saint James, "Brethren, do not speak against one another," (20) for God will treat us as rigorously as we have treated others. The person who refuses to cover the weaknesses of others will see his own crimes come to the light of day. Do you want others to keep silence regarding your miseries? Then keep silence regarding theirs; put a lock over your mouth and a brake on your tongue. Praise everyone as much as you can. If you cannot, then abstain from condemning them. If you encounter only enormous vices and no virtues, say not a word. If others mention them, change the subject. If you consider it impolite to sharply interrupt the conversation of people older than you, then keep silence. If they ask you what you think about it, be indulgent and temper any excess in their actions by the mildness of your words. Mildness is never lacking to those who seek it.

(20) Jas 4:11

If someone relates certain things you have witnessed, limit yourself to talking about human weakness, and celebrate the virtues of the man whose vices they expose. Say, "Even the greatest men have done things that need to be forgiven." If they continue condemning your neighbor, see if there is not something praiseworthy in him; and instead of his defects, bring out his virtues, even if he is an enemy. It is surprising how such praise can help to calm hatred and heal wounded friendships. Even those who condemn you for it will secretly approve you and begin loving you for praising their enemy.

Before concluding this treatise on backbiting, which is a vice we can never sufficiently detest let us relate a memorable story:

Two people attached to religion by special bonds were close friends. Unfortunately, one of them had such a venomous tongue that he spared no one in his attacks. When this man was laid low by a serious illness, his friend advised him to think about his salvation and do penance to expiate the sins of his life. But it was as if he were preaching to a deaf man. "Well then," said the friend, "at least let us make a pact, a pact that will endure beyond the grave. If you die before I do, you will appear to me within a month unless God opposes the idea, and you will teach me the mysteries of the other life."

To reward the constancy of his friend, the sick person promised he would do it; and God was not opposed. Some time after his death the backbiter emerged from hell all covered with flames and came to see his friend. Recognizing his deceased friend at once, the man was seized with such trembling that he was unable to speak a word or even look upon the flaming ghost.

But the spirit spoke and said, "it is I, your friend, condemned to eternal hellfire. I was brought to the tribunal of the Sovereign Judge at the very moment of my death, and my accusers were all the people I had dishonored by my tongue. Since I could neither deny nor excuse what they accused me of, the Judge -- alas! thrice alas! --sentenced me to eternal damnation!" (21)

(21) Fr. John Major. S. J., Theologia Specul. exempl, p. 264.

If such torments are reserved for backbiters, Saint Augustine is certainly not wrong in saying, "When the devil cannot devour someone by leading him into evil, he attempts to defile his reputation in order to weigh him down beneath the outrages of men and the backbiting of evil tongues, and thus draw him into his clutches." (22)

(22) Saint Augustine, Epistle 137

"Guard against profitless grumbling, and from calumny withhold your tongues; for a stealthy utterance does not go unpunished." (23)

(23) Wis 1:11

"Which of you desires life, and takes delight in prosperous ways? Keep your tongue from evil," (24) and especially from backbiting. As much as you will have spared the reputation of others, so much will you spare both your own reputation and your own life.

(24) Ps 33:13-14

 

Blessed be St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles!
The Papal Restoration Staff

Latest comments

19.02 | 16:21

I would love to meet Fr. UK. I hope to attend the next meeting.

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05.02 | 21:20

The Blessed Virgin Mary again assures us of her protective rights: “I was granted by my Divine Son a great protection on behalf of all my children.” (Source: pp. 112-3, Prophecies of La Fraudais) Read more on this prophecy at: tinyurl.com/Britt-MJJ

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02.02 | 09:39

“Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us .” —300 days' indulgence each time (Pope Pius XI).

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01.02 | 12:55

This painting is just gorgeous! Blessed be the Most Holy Trinity, now and forever!

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