Lent with the Desert Fathers: Detaching From Another’s Scorn or Praise

A Word from the Desert

“A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse [insult] the dead.’ The brother went there, abused [insulted] them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’”1
"Dust to Dust (7151084157)" by Wayne Wilkinson - Dust to DustUploaded by AlbertHerring. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dust_to_Dust_(7151084157).jpg#/media/File:Dust_to_Dust_(7151084157).jpg

“Dust to Dust (7151084157)” by Wayne Wilkinson – Dust to Dust Uploaded by Albert Herring. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Reflection

The Abba’s wisdom reminds us that our ultimate identity is neither enhanced by another’s praise nor diminished by their scorn or insults. The dead in the story did not respond to the brother’s insults or praises. They neither sought his praises nor avoided his scorn. Their lives and the value of their lives were to be found elsewhere, not in the brother’s words and opinions.

Until we know and trust that we are not determined by another’s evaluation of us we will continue seeking approval, recognition, and reassurance from others that we are enough and we usually never get enough of being told we are enough. Part of our spiritual work then is to detach from another’s praises and insults, seeking our life, identity, and value in God alone. This detachment does not mean we tune out or ignore what others might say whether it be praise or insult. Rather, it allows us the freedom to hear and consider what is said, to be with others in a more transparent and authentic way, and to live a humble life, neither making ourselves more nor less than we really are. And when we can do that we have a new freedom to be with God.

For Consideration and Practice

Abba Macarius is pushing us to look deep within ourselves. He offers no concrete answers or practices. Rather, the practice is awareness and the letting go that comes with each new awareness. Consider the following:

  • There is nothing wrong with positive affirmation or constructive criticism. We need both. The issue, as we heard from Abba Zosimos a couple of weeks ago, is attachment. Through attachment to another’s words and judgments of us we give that other person power over our lives and allow her or him to create us in and by their image of us. We receive and take their assessment of us as the final truth of who we are. If we give them the power to make us we also give them power to unmake us. “Take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises,” Abba Macarius tells the brother, “and you can be saved.”
  • Do you wonder and worry about what others are saying about you? Do you spend time thinking about what others are thinking of you? Do you replay in your head their voices of praise or insult? Has their image of you taken on more power and meaning than the image of God within you?
  • How do you respond when praised? Do you avoid it? Do you want more? Do you believe it? Deny it? At a deeper level, what is going on behind your response to another’s praise? The next time you are praised try this. Say thank you and leave it at that or simply reflect back what is said to you. “I am glad you think my work is good.” “I am glad you really like my singing.” Acknowledge it but “take no account” of it.
  • How do you respond when insulted or criticized? With fear, anger, resentment? Do you become defensive? Retaliate in some way? Do you shrink and hide? Do you assume it’s correct? This will be difficult but the next time you receive an insult or criticism don’t enter it on the ledger. “Like the dead, take no account.” When we don’t keep score we give ourselves the opportunity to hear the kernel of truth that might be in the other’s words.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, in his earthly life your Son heard praise and scorn from others and he took no account. Let me take no account of the praises and insults I receive. Rather, let me die to the opinions and judgments of others that I may be saved and raised to new life in your image and likeness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Other Posts in this Series

February 22 – A Series on Fasting and Simplicity
February 27 – How Should One Fast?
March 6 – Detachment and Simplicity
March 13 – Is It Yours?
March 20 – Detaching From Another’s Scorn or Praise
March 27 – Fasting From Words

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1. Macarius 23 in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedict Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 132.

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