Most of us fail to look and see – the failure to see what is truly there in front of us – because our own vision is clouded by self-obsession or self-satisfaction.
There are several variants of a story in which some young monk goes in despair to one of the great ‘old men’ to say that he has consulted an elder about his temptations and been told to do severe and intolerable penance, then the old man tells the younger one to return to his first counsellor and tell him that he has not paid proper attention to the need of the novice.
If we don’t really know how to attend to the reality that is our own inner turmoil, we shall fail in responding to the needs of someone else. And the desert literature suggests pretty consistently that excessive harshness – readiness to judge and prescribe – normally has its roots in that kind of inattention to ourselves.
Abba Joseph responds to the invitation to join in condemning someone by saying, ‘Who am I?’ And the phrase might suggest not just ‘Who am I to be judging?’ but ‘How can I pass judgment when I don’t know the full truth about myself?