Ten days of fasting, inspired by the pure motive of Christian love, has considerable merit in the eyes of God. Yet, according to St. Francis of Assisi, being silent when being personally criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. When criticized, the natural impulse- and it is strong one –is to either mount a defense of oneself, to justify one’s actions or simply to attack the accuser. To resist that impulse is a most pleasing spiritual sacrifice to the Lord. It is a mini but great act of self-denial.
Besides, in most cases there is always something that we can apologize for, something that we did wrong or could have done better. Even if your fault is disproportionately less than your critics fault or someone else’s for that matter, it is a virtue indeed to make amends by apologizing. It lends itself to building up relationships; especially marriages and family relationships. And it is a wonderful way to fulfill one of the eight beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.”
There are times, however, when your accuser or critic needs to be corrected, either in what they say, how they say it or what they’ve done. When love bids you to set the record straight or correct the one who criticizes you, then the general rule (even according to the Saints) is to exercise a silence until the emotions subside; or simply wait until the next day to say something. But even then, it is important to keep St. John Vianney’s counsel in mind. He said give a truthful response in short order. To say anything more than that is pride.
When the criticism leveled against us has only to do with us and nobody else, then silence is a virtue. But, whenever such criticism, accusation or slander affects the common good or the good name of others, then silence, under these circumstances, can indeed be sinful. Too often when speaking out attracts unwanted attention to us or when it imposes some sacrifice on us, the temptation is to be silent. This too, I believe, is a common sin among the best of us.
With that said, keep in mind that virtues and sins do not exist in isolation. Rather, they exist in groups. Both tend to reproduce and cling to one another. Therefore, when you exercise the virtue of silence when being criticized for something that is non-life threatening or for something that is not a matter of conscience, then it builds-up other moral muscles. One such moral muscle is the virtue of courage; courage to speak up for God or a just cause when no one else is doing so.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan himself, had witnessed that a fellow prison mate, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who happened to be a married man, was chosen by the S.S. guards for execution at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Someone had escaped. As such, someone needed to pay the price- ten people to be exact. But Franciszek cried out: “My wife! My children!” It was then that St. Maximilian spoke up and then stepped forward. The Saint said he would take the married man’s place. The S.S. guards, surprisingly, took him up on the offer. Franciszek Gajowniczek had lived to tell the world about the St. Maximilian’s heroism.
But how did St. Maximilian Kolbe do it? How did he find the courage to step forward and make the ultimate sacrifice? His love for Christ was the biggest factor, to be sure! But he also died many times in spirit through spiritual sacrifices and acts of self-denial before he offered his body in death. And one of the greatest exercises in self-denial is to bear criticism in silence. It is most difficult but worth trying. You will fail many times but you will also be successful to the extent that you try it and start over again. After all, this kind of virtuous silence is one way in which we come to know that peace only Christ can give.