A good friend of mine had just died and I was deeply and appropriately saddened. I was singing his character, personality, goodness and achievements when someone said "Yeah, but did you
know the scandal he was involved in years ago?"
His disclosure which I
wish I had
never heard, upset,
angered and disoriented me. I have wondered all these years why the informant felt the need to upend my personal perception of a fellow human being—and a deceased one at that! Why tell me that juicy morsel?
of dynamic is it that depresses a person to hear another
lauded? What kind of
is it that urges one to tear another down? Whatever it is, it is loaded with smallness of heart and
personal cowardice. The maligned one is rarely present to utter a word of self defense. Such gleeful eagerness
one of the more lovely of human characteristics. It is despicable
behavior and generally
the inner human soul --and apparently disapproved, also, by the Lord. He speaks bluntly of it through the Psalmist when He says in Psalm 101…."He who slanders another in secret, I will reduce to silence…."
The basis of the universal distaste for backbiting, I think, is deep in the very fiber of human nature since even the Mosiac Code itself, so probably intrinsic to the human being, thunders the right of all to a fundamental good name or reputation. '' Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." In Catholic thinking, by penumbra and emanation processing, back biting (or detraction as it is technically called) which might involve the ugly truth about a person's history, is forbidden as is calumny which involves untruth or lies about a person's history.
There are obviously times in human affairs when such revelations are necessary and appropriate such as law enforcement and government/ business clearances for sensitive posts. Perhaps, in spiritual direction it can be helpful to encourage discouraged penitents by revealing the early weaknesses of persons who went on to achieve outstanding holiness.
Generally, In Catholic thinking, our dominant factor is the understanding of what has been called The Constant Resurrection." All human
beings are broken and vulnerable and, as such, are vulnerable to error and sin. Of course one can push this "envelope too far."
An example of this envelope pushing is the unfair categorization of religious people as hypocrites. There are those who are profuse in their criticism, for example, of devout Catholics who sincerely attend Mass and strive to keep the Commandments. They are called silly as well as broken. Yet, their calling simple Catholics "hypocrites" sounds more like a projection of the critics own guilt onto others. Of course, there are hypocrites in the Catholic Church on every level which should not be surprising in the light of the sin called Original. But the inductive leap from the particular, here, to the universal is truly uber Olympian. Rationalization is a sport as old as human functioning. But this appraisal is not about any specific group, only about the mercy of the Lord Who puts our sins behind His back and lovingly forgives those who are repentant and Who calls us to "now" living. How far do you go in making allowances for brokenness?
But about human weakness. Even the great committed Apostle Paul reminded himself to be careful lest he who had preached to others, might also fall. It was Paul, himself, as young Saul who had been guilty of infamous treatment of the new sect which followed Jesus of Nazareth. Do we focus on his early still plastic spiritual life or do we marvel at his work when he matured?
Then there was the Big Fisherman, Peter or Cephas who, somewhat boastfully, stated that though others might desert the Lord, he never would. But because of his panic and overwhelming terror he avowed publicly that he didn't even know Jesus. Yet he repented of cowardly denial, atoned and went on to become a prodigious saint and the first Vicar of Jesus on earth.
And Mary Magdalene who has become the great model of repentance and a saint after a "spotty" past is a case in point. Augustine of Hippo, likewise, after a very sinful early life (sinful according to his own words) became the great lover of God, great Christian intellectual and a spiritual model over the centuries for literally millions of people. Even the universally loved Francis of Assisi, the little poor man, had a wild and irreligious youth before he reformed and became a truly holy man.
There is a plethora of examples for every level of human experience. Ignatius of Loyola was a soldier who lived the usual wild life of the military of that historical period with little thought of God or the Godly life. He became the founder of the monumental Society of Jesus and a canonized saint. Blessed Raymund Lull of Majorca who was a notorious womanizer, reformed, repented sought absolution and atonement and subsequently became the patron saint for those who lust. There even is a saint from 7th century England, St. Caedmon (or Caedwilla), a former murderer, who repented when Jesus appeared to him. He is the patron of killers who seek repentance. St. Pelagia was a harlot. St. Margaret of Cortona lived with her boyfriend and became a single mother. In more recent times, the murderer of St. Maria Goretti, profoundly repented and spent the rest of his life atoning until he became amazingly saintly.
Even in our own 21st century we have the touching example of a prominent politician who was guilty of truly loathsome behavior in his earlier life but who repented, sought absolution and atonement with a subsequently admirable life. He has been ruthlessly criticized by some who ignore God's grace and who demean human nature by refusing to admit the possibility of human improvement. The insistence of focusing on past mistakes while Ignoring sincere and real growth in goodness smacks of not only pettiness but even more of denial the power of God.
The list of repentant lives is endless. And the moral is hope. The spiritual practice is "Where is he now spiritually, this person with the spotty past? How does he live now? Can I meet him as he is, not as he was?" Nothing sinful one has done in the past disqualifies the call to sainthood
One might, of course, have thoughts about the reverse situation, one in which the early life is admirable but the final years are filled with illness, dementia, impairment even pathos. Even the great blessed John Paul II, the Great, the majority of whose years were filled with glory and impact but whose final years were tragic and pitiful, is, indeed, also a case in point. But the focus is different. Here the respect and admiration of the past is clear. One understands the present because of the inevitable ravages of time itself. There is no attack on the personhood while in the previous instance, smallness of heart and touches of malice rule the ungenerous soul.
Perhaps, the past can never truly be forgotten but with the help of God's powerful help one can see the past in perspective. Repentance can be real. Holiness is possible for everyone, no matter what the past. If only we could be generous of heart and trusting,, wouldn't life be more meaningful and encouraging for everyone with all of us being winners ?