One of the curious characteristics of my spiritual life is that when I’m not judging others – from my family members to my friends, not to mention the occupants of the White House and Congress – I’m judging myself. And my self-judgments are just as harsh, if not harsher.
That, I suppose, is one of the unfortunate results of growing up in an alcoholic home where constant criticism was a daily fact of life that often left one feeling helpless if not worthless.
However, one never fully realizes how those early formative years can affect a person throughout life. As they say, a child who grows up with criticism learns to be critical, and it’s a sad lesson that’s not easily overcome, if it can be overcome at all. Sometimes, as much as I try to be tolerant of the flaws of others and myself, it’s just not possible.
A few weeks ago when I went to the rectory at St. Agnes Church in Manhattan, I began talking to the woman who schedules the Masses, and on this particular day, I scheduled a few of them for friends with cancer, for friends who’d passed away, for a young woman who’d broken up with her fiancé, and for a couple that was contemplating divorce. All of them had reached that stage where prayer was the best and only option to help them.
As I was making my donation, the woman looked up at me with kindly eyes and smiled and said, "Jesus is going to remember all the good things you did for these people." It seemed like such a gracious and compassionate thing to say that I was at a loss for words because I never even thought that Jesus might be pleased by what I was doing.
And, as usual, when I can’t take a compliment, I make a flip comment.
"I hope he does," I said, "because I’m going to need all the help I can get."
"He won’t forget. He knows what’s in your heart."
As often as I hear about the love and mercy and compassion of Jesus, it never really registers in my heart, and I’m still saddled with an interpretation of God, who, while he may not condemn me to fire and brimstone, nevertheless keeps a detailed ledger of all my wrongs and rights. Sad to say, I’m convinced the wrongs far outnumber the rights and that sooner or later, I’ll hear about it.
I guess the closest approximation to Jesus and judgment I can come to is the annual performance evaluation when the boss sits you down with his multipage report of how well you did. As he’s reading through this mini-dissertation about your job skills, your people skills, your ability to work with others, your level of responsibility and all the rest, you’re waiting for him to deliver the knockout punch and say something like, "You’re a good employee, but you really fall down in the area of blah, blah, blah."
So Jesus, to my bizarre thinking, is sort of like the director of the celestial human resources department. Do well and you’ll get a raise and be rewarded, but you’ll never quite do well enough.
Somehow, the woman in the rectory must have sensed I’m one of those people who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and she said, "You’re too hard on yourself. Be happy that Jesus is doing the judging."
What an insane thought, but then it made perfect sense. He knows who I am, he accepts me as I am and he’s willing to lead me along the path to greater holiness without constant criticism, but with understanding, compassion and mercy.
Yes, we should be happy that Jesus is doing the judging because he sees what’s in the heart, and he understands our human imperfections.
I usually find it a lot easier to offer compassion to others than to myself, and I’m always ready for self-condemnation. But that’s wrong, because if Jesus asks us to forgive and love each other, shouldn’t we be able to forgive and love ourselves? And that is often the hardest thing to do when we can’t accept our imperfections.
Every so often, Jesus sends someone like that woman in the rectory to remind me to keep on trying but not to be too hard on myself – to remind me that if I can show compassion and mercy to others, I should remember that Jesus will show it to me because in the end, he’s doing the judging, not us. And that’s a darn good thing.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.