Moralism is a typical example of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy taints even virtuous actions and Saint John of the Ladder uses a playful incident in order to analyze this specious side of the spiritual life, one which we the faithful often cultivate. Sometimes, he says, when we’ve drawn water from a well, we’ve also drawn a frog with it, without realizing. In the same way, while we’re cultivating the virtues, we also serve the wickednesses which are intertwined with them, though they’re not apparent. It’s precisely this ‘arrogance of virtue’ which is to be found in so many religious-minded people. But when the acquisition of the virtues is undertaken with awareness and in accordance with God’s will, distinct from hypocrisy and any effort to please other people, it leads us to a furtherance of humility and dispassion (Saint John the Damascan).
If we decide to learn the truth about ourselves and others, if we decide to stop constructing an imagined ‘ego’ to project onto our social surroundings, then we have to realize that we must be candid and sincere. Sincerity is abhorrence of pretense. Posturing destroys the unity of the personality since it makes us appear outwardly different from what we really are. It distorts the essence of the spiritual life because it promotes love of the self, ambition and love of pleasure.
The more people love themselves, the more they become dependent on the opinions of those around them. But Christ teaches us to repudiate lies, egotism and all those outward forms of good, self-justifying behavior. And though omissions and weakness can be forgiven, hypocrisy can’t be. So, if you decide to live honorably and candidly, then you must examine your inconsistencies and face them sincerely and without excuses. The cure for hypocrisy arises from self-knowledge, which leads to repentance, which is the equivalent of an existential change.
You’re called upon to embark on a course of self-knowledge, that is, to understand in your heart the true nature of your spiritual ailment, because those who haven’t seen their inner darkness aren’t seeking the light.
We’re called upon to divest ourselves of our supposed achievements so that, on our path of repentance we can internalize the effort to cultivate the inner person. Make sure that kindness and politeness are internal states in your spiritual world, not artificial masks to wear in order to make a good impression on others.
We’re called upon to rip off the mask of virtue and to put on our genuine self, because ‘God monitors our heart and checks its contents’, as Saint Païsios the Athonite teaches us. In order to achieve this, you must first realize that the value of your life depends not on the various opinions that others have of you, but on the internal testimony of your conscience. Free yourself of all the short-lived bonds and illusions of the present world, so that you can understand that you have no need to accommodate them, no need to gain public acceptance and praise.
Embrace the splendor of utter simplicity. Be sincere and direct in all aspects of your life. This assumes effort, struggle and spiritual exercise because, even if, occasionally, something genuine springs forth from within us, our true self comes to the surface only through the pains of spiritual and bodily ascetic practice. This is precisely the merciless, continuous struggle which is fought in our inner soul: the struggle between a sincere personality and a false and hypocritical attitude.
So you must aim at cultivating your inner self, rather than pretending that you like those who pretend to like you. Because spiritual people aren’t ‘prim and proper’, but are as God wants them to be. Liberated from selfishness and the obsessive compulsions of conventionality, we’re called upon to cultivate the virtues; not to become well-liked by those around us, but to minister only to the love of God and to the love of other people.
So let us avoid the slide into hypocrisy and affected behavior. Let us allow God to engulf, to inundate, our being. Let us cure ourselves of our self-absorption with ascetic practices and observance of the commandments, in order that we may progress towards love for our brothers and sisters and from there towards love for God, so that we become pleasing not to other people but to God.
If we become pleasing to God, it’s certain that we’ll become pleasing to other people, too, because the virtuous are likened to a city built on a hill, as our Lord himself confirms: ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden’ (Matth. 5, 14).