The Ugliest Rash in the World
There’s a curious story about a middle-aged woman who moved to a new parish. One weekday after Mass, she noticed a couple emptying the St. Vincent de Paul food collection into the back of a shiny red SUV. The new parishioner was alarmed and, since there was no one else left in the church, immediately went to the parish office with her concern.
“I’ve got to talk with Father—and fast!” she exclaimed in deep distress to the secretary at the front desk. ”There’s a 60-something man and woman, slightly overweight, taking all the food from the collection bin. They even own a new SUV, and still have the nerve to be stealing from the poor! They don’t need the food, yet they were taking it anyway. Those greedy pigs, taking what does not belong to them! Who knows, they may even sell the food to buy drugs. What are good people supposed to do when bad people are out in full force like that, scandalizing the faithful? Just what kind of parish have I gotten myself into?”
The secretary, unperturbed, informed the new parishioner that the couple she saw was in charge of the St. Vincent de Paul chapter at their parish. They were taking the contributions from the church to a nearby food bank, since the parish’s own cupboards were filled with items from generous parishioners. After that, the secretary explained, the couple was going to drop off the SUV (which they had purchased as a gift) at the convent adjacent to the school, which had recently witnessed the arrival of four teaching nuns. Once the car had been delivered to its new owners, the couple was going to walk two miles home.
The new parishioner was halted in silence for ten full seconds, yet was unable or unwilling to bring herself to the conclusion that she was in the wrong, not the couple. Awkwardly averting her gaze from the secretary, she looked to the right, then the left, then back to the right, unsure of what to do next. Then she sputtered out, with only half the indignation she had started with: “Well …you know…that’s a fine story they told you, but…who knows where they’re really taking all that food? Stealing is wrong…It is just wrong.” She then departed from the parish office.
Now, what does this story have to do with the title “The Ugliest Rash in the World”? Quite simply, the ugliest rash in the world is not found on skin, it is found in the mind—it’s what we call a rash judgment. The new parishioner’s conclusion was wrong, yet she was unafraid of sharing it with others, implicitly confident in her own ability to make a correct assessment. Even when informed she was wrong, she persisted, albeit with less force, in her error. This persistence made an already ugly situation even less attractive.
Even without persistence, painting the actions of others in such a needlessly negative way is sufficiently grotesque. Taking little or no evidence and jumping to an “indisputable” conclusion of guilt is a hallmark of rash judgment. The person making such a determination believes herself to be witnessing a scandal in others, when in fact, she herself is the scandal.
Father Frederick Faber wrote that “Nothing gives scandal sooner than a quickness to take scandal.” The 19th-century Oratorian also claimed he knew “great numbers of moderately good people who think it fine to take scandal. They regard it as a sort of evidence of their own goodness and their delicacy of conscience, when in reality it is only a proof either of their inordinate conceit or of their extreme stupidity.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori warns us not to assume as true what we merely suspect, saying that “It sometimes happens that things are seen in a wrong light, and acts are taken for grievous faults when they are perhaps not even trivial defects.” Not only was the St. Vincent de Paul couple not sinning, they were in the process of performing many virtuous acts.
There’s another saying about the fragility of our perceptions that goes much further than St. Alphonsus: “Believe half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear.” While this advice obviously can’t be taken at face value, there is some insightful truth to it. None of us has ever seen a motive; we only see actions. Further, when we hear stories form others, we’re even more removed from being able to form an accurate idea of what happened—that is, if anything happened at all.
So what should the new parishioner have done instead of engaging in her ridiculous diatribe at the parish office? It shouldn’t even need mentioning, but, since she was in church, she could have prayed for guidance. She also could have paused to ask herself what reasons, other than theft, could the couple have been taking the food. With her imagination, this should be no problem—unless, of course, her creativity is motivated solely by a negative outlook on others.
If the other reasons were not sufficient to put her mind at ease, she could have asked the couple if they needed any help. This would likely have opened the path to a simple explanation of what they were doing. The woman could have even gone to the parish office, but with a totally different mindset—one of humble inquiry rather than haughty condemnation.
On the receiving end—that is, when we are wrongfully condemned—what should we keep in mind? First, we should not be appalled by our “perfect” reputation being sullied. We can be quite certain there have been plenty of other inaccurate misjudgments of our behavior—it’s just that we were unaware of them. To put it in sporting terms, we were not in the middle of an undefeated season; we actually had plenty of losses already. This makes it much easier to take yet another “loss” in the form of an incorrect perception of our actions.
More importantly, we should remember that what other human beings think of us has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on what God thinks of us. St. Francis of Assisi said, “What I am before God, I am.” Someone condemned by the whole world may in reality be a great saint, while someone praised by the whole world may in reality be a gigantic sinner.
While a negative view cast upon us may cause some annoyance, it should never deeply disturb us. In fact, rash judgments can even be sources of grace, because of their humility-producing possibilities. In this regard, St. Francis de Sales offered humorously helpful advice regarding our reputations, asking, “What harm do they do us who have a bad opinion of us? Should we not have just such an opinion ourselves?” Yes, the specific thing we are being accused of may be false, but haven’t there been other things we were guilty of that were possibly even worse?
The next time we are the target of a rash judgment or are tempted to make one ourselves, let us call to mind the preventative ointment offered by the saints above. Humility, humility, and humility—not to mention humility—should be our foundational balm, while charity should be the invincible top coating, making rash judgments of our own a thing of the past, and those directed against us a thing of great grace and even humor.
St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gerard, and every other saint who has been wrongly accused, pray for us.
Trent Beattie’s latest book is called Fit for Heaven and features numerous interviews he has done with Catholic sports figures for the National Catholic Register. He is also the author of Scruples and Sainthood: Accepting and Overcoming Scrupulosity with the Helps of the Saints, and is the editor of Finding True Happiness and St. Alphonsus Liguori for Every Day.
Art: Tiroler Bäuerin (Tyrolean Peasant Woman), Anita Rée, 1921, PD-US published or registered with the US copyright office before January 1, 1923; Frederick William Faber [1814-1863], engraving by Joseph Brown, undated, author’s life plus 70 years or less; Fragment of a fresco Vergine in Maestà, con Bambino, quattro angeli e san Francesco, Basilica inferiore di San Francesco (Assisi – Italy) [Virgin Enthroned with Child, St. Francis and Four Angels, Lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy], Cimabue (also known as Bencivieni di Pepo, or, in modern Italian, Benvenuto di Giuseppe), 13th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; all Wikimedia Commons.