Reposted and revised for October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi:
Better than fasting:
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 for oneself, to justify one’s actions or to simply to attack the accuser. To resist the impulse of self-defense is a most pleasing spiritual sacrifice to the Lord. It may seem trivial, but it is a 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 no worse than your critic's, or someone else’s for that matter, it is a virtue indeed to make amends by trying to make things right. 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.”
Turn the heat down:
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 in the past. They, in fact, may be in the wrong. Indeed, 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 to 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 the following: Give a truthful response in short order. To say anything more is pride.
When silence is a sin:
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 another person, then silence, under these circumstances, can indeed be sinful. When speaking out and raising our voice attracts unwanted attention, then there is a temptation to be silent. This too, I believe, is a common weakness and even sin among the best of us. Keep in mind that social conformity is a much stronger human impulse than any humanitarian instinct we may have. History affords us of plenty of examples when seemingly good people stood by and watched others suffer without "getting involved." Under these circumstances we just have to turn off the "discomfort button" and step out into uncharted waters. As followers of Christ, the right thing must be done or said even if you are the only willing person in the room.
Vices and virtues conglomerate:
With that said, keep in mind that virtues and vices 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 within you. 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, 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 place of this man who was both a husband and father. The S.S. guards, surprisingly, took St, Maximilian up on the offer. Indeed, for several years to come, Franciszek Gajowniczek 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 spiritually speaking, he died many times in through 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 very difficult but worth trying. The benefits are many. The best benefit of all is that it is immensely pleasing to God because of the strong impulse we have to defend ourselves, whether we are innocent or guilty. No doubt, you will fail many times. You will be successful to the extent that you try it and start over again. And know that the more you try, the more you will encounter your own weakness. But in doing so, without realizing it, you are building up heroic virtues one act of self-denial at a time.
To be sure, bearing criticism in silence is a priceless virtue!