On detraction

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

Detraction, or the sin of revealing another person’s faults to other people without an appropriate reason, is grave in deed. On may argue, “I am not accusing anyone falsely! I am saying the truth”. But is there a need to say something which is true when there is no grave reason for doing so?

In the interesting entry of April 16 1903 of Saint John XXIII autobiography, Journal of a soul, we read the following:

“My relations with my neighbours will be really sanctified when I learn to control my tongue. With this in mind I must be more prudent and never allow myself for any reason to be induced to talk of my companions or of others with even theslightest sign of disapproval. During the day there are innumerable occasions for me to discipline myself in this matter. I will use them to raise my mind to God and humble myself profoundly. After all I really must persuade myself that my fellows are always superior to me, and that they are therefore worthy of the greatest respect. O good Jesus, ‘set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips’ (Cf. Psalm 140(141): 3)”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some very down-to-earth teaching concerning detraction. Keeping in mind that “respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury” (nro. 2477), theCatechism says that one is guilty of detraction when “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings topersons who did not know them” (nro. 2477). Then, in the following entry, number 2478, the Catechism give a powerful advice on how to avoid rash judgment in order for one to “be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (nro. 2478):

“Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved” (nro. 2478).

Completely conscious of how detraction can destroy the honour of one’s neighbour the Desert Fathers tradition gives us plenty of stories with the intent of helping us avoid, at all costs, this terrible sin that, above all, destroys the one who performs it!

A brother questioned Abba Hierax saying, “Give me a word. How can I be saved?” The old man said to him, “Sit in your cell, and if you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.” One of the great spiritual concerns of the Desert Fathers has been that of how to attain true peace. Thus, abba Joseph asked abba Nisteros, “What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?” The old man said to him, “When you speak, do you find peace?” He replied, “No.” The old man said to him, “If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather than to talk.” On another occasion, Abba Sisois gave the following advice to a brother who asked the same question regarding the guarding of the heart: “How can we guard the heart if our tongue leaves thedoor of the fortress open?”

The Archimandrite Ephraim of Philotheou (commonly known as Elder Ephraim), the former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, spiritual guide of several monasteries on Mount Athos and Greece, and the founder of several monasteries in the United States, gives the following spiritual counsel about the right use of the tongue: “My child, do not speak unnecessary words, for these chill your souls divine zeal. Love silence, which gives birth to all virtues and fences in the soul so that the evil of the devil does not touch her”.

Lord, help me love my brothers and sisters with holy love, and hold my tongue, not letting out of my mouth any random word of strife that might offend my brother and sister. Amen.

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