The Sins That Come From Being a Busybody – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory

122914Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord there’re none in me!

The term “busybody” usually refers to one who is intent on the matters of others but looks little to his own issues. Busybodies also tend to focus especially on the faults, foibles, and troubles of other folks. Seldom are they chattering away about good news related to other people; more often it is the scurrilous and scandalous that occupy their minds.

Merriam-Webster online defines a busybody as  “a person who is too interested in the private lives of other people.” It is a form of sinful curiosity.

Now personally I have never been a busybody, but I have known many of them … 🙂  But more seriously, this is a human problem. Many of us are far too interested in things that are really none of our business. That alone is problem enough. But the problem is compounded in that the busybody is almost always too little concerned about his own ”issues” (we used to call them sins). When our attention to, fascination with, or scorn about sin is directed outward, we lose the proper introspection that properly examines our own need for repentance. The pointed index finger too easily ignores the three folded fingers pointing back at oneself, and those three fingers symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit urging us to look to our own vineyard.

Indeed, Scripture says, They made me keeper of the vineyards; but, my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song 1:6) For we who would be prophets too easily ignore the word of God as directed to our own souls.

Further, it is a common trap of the devil that he keeps us focused on what we cannot change so that we do not focus on what we can change. In other words, it is more difficult to change others and less difficult to change ourselves. Thus the devil would have us focus on others, who are hard to change, so that we will not focus on our very self, whom we can more easily change.

Thus, being a busybody is not only obnoxious, it is a trap the devil enjoys laying for us.

Pope St. Gregory the Great has a meditation near the end of his Pastoral Rule wherein he ponders the problem of the busybody. He uses the story of Dinah from the Bible. He does not use the term “busybody,” but the related concept of “self-flattery.” Let’s review some of his observations.

Frequently the crafty enemy … seduces [the mind] by flattery in a false security that leads to destruction. And this is expressed figuratively in the person of Dinah. For it is written,

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land; and when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her. And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden and spoke tenderly to her (Gen 34:1-3).

For [pertaining to us] Dinah “goes down to see the women of that region” whenever a soul neglects to consider itself and concerns itself with the actions of others and wonders beyond its own proper condition and order. And Shechem “takes the soul by force” inasmuch as the Devil corrupts the mind that is occupied by external matters. “And [Shechem’s] soul was conjoined to her” because the devil considers us conjoined to him through iniquity. And … the devil calls before our minds a false sense of hope and security … Thus it is written that Shechem “spoke tenderly to her” when she was sad [humbled]. For to us the devil speaks to us of the greater offenses committed by others … [Pastoral Rule III.29].

In effect, Gregory uses the story of Dinah as an allegory of the trouble we get into when we focus too much on the lives of others and look not enough to our own souls. For Dinah gets into trouble when she tours the land to see the pagan women (the Hivites) and inquires, with a sort of fascination, into what they do. And one of the men of that land seduces her, taking  advantage of the vulnerability caused by her sinful curiosity. But even after being humbled and sinned against, she still lets him speak tenderly to her. She is far too fascinated with the Hivites. And thus her rapist, Shechem, was able to speak tenderly to her and win her heart, a thing no rapist should be able to do.

But so it is with us. We are far too fascinated with the sins and struggles of others. Like busybodies we go out to consort with the people of the sinful world. And being focused on and fascinated by them, rather than looking to our own selves, we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of by both the devil and a sinful world. We are an easy target when we do not look to our own soul but rather are preoccupied with the scurrilous details of the lives of others.

And then the devil seizes us and has consort with our soul. He speaks “tenderly” to us telling us how, compared to others, we are not really so bad.  Here is a false security indeed. We have been sinfully curious as to the sins and struggles of others, and now we are in the devil’s clutches being reassured by him.

We should be angry with him for raping our vulnerable soul in the first place! But instead, we let him sweet-talk and reassure us.

And thus we are prey two times over. First, we indulged our sinful curiosity into the struggles of others, and then having done so, allowed ourselves to be falsely reassured by the devil of our relative innocence.

The bottom line is that busybodies are easy prey for the devil. By looking not to their own lives, but instead prying with sinful fascination into the lives of others, they wander into sin easily. And all the while, since they look not to themselves, they are easily deluded by the thought that at least they are not as bad as so-and so.

Then only problem is, “being better than so-and-so” is not the standard for eternal life. Jesus is the standard. Only grace and mercy can help us meet that standard.

The busybody is busy about all things except the one thing necessary. As St. Paul says, If we would judge ourselves truly, we would not be judged (1 Cor 11:31).

33 Replies to “The Sins That Come From Being a Busybody – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory”

  1. I remember a time 22 years ago, while sponsoring my wife during RCIA, that our counselor had us write down the answer to this question: “If you knew of a friend who was being unfaithful to their spouse, would you tell the ‘wounded’ party?” For some reason I was chosen to answer, and my response was that I would mind my own business, at which time most of the participants erupted in laughter. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness, feeling that the on-looking laughers could actually feel that they had the right to butt into someone else’s business without asking.

    What I find interesting today is, that after all that time, my wife and I have a merely nodding acquaintance with only a couple of the two dozen or so class participants, who were all initiated Easter morning those many years ago.

    1. It was a “loaded” question and unfair to “choose” you to answer. I have learned with questions like these to throw the question back at the inquisitor (let me ask you a question) and if they can not answer (or rather will not) then “neither will I tell you” is my answer too. Luke 20:2-8

      1. What a ridiculous situation they put you in! It is easy to scoff at you because you took the bait, but I would bet few of those involved in that conversation would have the guts to speak to the wounded party, were the scenario personal to them. People do not like to cause hurt feelings, even if they were not the author of that pain.

        Personally, in such a scenario, admonishing the sinner seems the more appropriate course. Just my two cents.

    2. Doug, did you ever ask any of the laughers why they were laughing? Was there only one interpretation to why each person was laughing? It is not clear to me, at least, from the information you provide, that the others were laughing because they felt they had the “right to butt into someone else’s business without asking.” Beyond that, I don’t think there was a right or wrong answer to the question the group was asked to answer. Would telling the “wounded party” in this situation “without asking” necessarily be wrong? The way you describe the question to that was posed to the group, the group was asked to accept that one spouse was, in fact, being unfaithful to the other spouse. To me anyway, going to the “wounded party” “without asking” would not really seem like the act of a “busybody”.

      1. Andrew, even if one assumes that the unfaithfulness is real, there’s no cut and dried answer as to the right thing to do. But in general, the safest course (for all concerned including offending party, the offended, and their kids, not just yourself) is probably to err on the side of “mind your own business.” Kind of like the first part of the Hippocratic oath “first do no harm.” Refraining from saying anything doesn’t make matters better, but it avoids making them worse, which is a risk.

        We aren’t talking about abuse – beating up on wife or kids. We’re talking unfaithfulness, spouse is secretly committing (or has committed if it was a one-off) adultery. If it were a situation of abuse, there’d be a much stronger obligation to intervene in some way. But if it’s not, then just allowing things to play out on their own is a legitimate – and possibly the best – option.

        1. Marie, hi, yep, just as you said there is not a cut and dried answer, I had said there is no right or wrong answer. Having some more details clearly would be important before deciding what to do in this type of situation. I was just trying to say that I don’t think it necessarily is a bad thing to approach the victim. I am just saying I could imagine, depending on the additional details, that the most Christian choice might well be to talk to the victim. Beyond that, I was just, I suppose, a little confused by the post I was responding to, ie, I was not sure it was evident from the info we were provided why people were laughing or if everyone was laughing for the same reason. Sometimes when a couple of people start laughing in a group, others will laugh just sort of spontaneously. And I also wasn’t clear on why it was interesting that a group that had met for a class 22 years in the past just had a nodding acquaintance with one another all those years later. it wasn’t clear to me that anyone in the group had made an effort to keep the group closer so to me anyway it would not be surprising at all that only a nodding sort of thing would exist more than two decades later.

          1. Yes, I did mean that part as an agreement with you. The rest of it I meant as a support for Doug’s point. He was emphasizing the non-intervention option in the face of what he perceived as ridicule from the rest of the group, but his argument for it seemed weak to me, he just said it was “butting in.” I think there’s a solid prudential reason we can articulate for erring on the side of non-intervention, so I did: if you refrain, you don’t make matters better, but you also don’t make them worse, which believe me is definitely a risk when intervening in such delicate matters.

            You don’t want to push the offender over the edge to where they just totally harden their hearts completely against their family and get a full blown divorce. The thing about somebody who’s secretively pursuing an affair is that he or she does still have a soft place in their heart, a bit of their conscience that’s still alive and saying, “You shouldnt be doing this.” That’s why they’re ashamed and secretive. Suddenly blowing their cover could make them so defensive that they squelch that last bit of their conscience and say “to heck with it all.”

            I also find it interesting that the phrasing of the question that the group leader posed was “would you tell the offended party” kind of taking for granted that that is the best/most Christian way to intervene. I’m not convinced it is. I think if one is going to intervene the first option to look at is to quietly try and get the sinner to repent and go to Confession. If you accomplish that, then great you just saved a soul! The rest is out of your hands. Penitent and priest can work out from there what’s best in terms of apologizing/make restitution to the offended party.

  2. If the innocent party is thus exposed to STD’s, isn’t it a moral obligation to protect the innocent? Now, spreading the news far and wide would obviously be sinful. If it is the friend who is the adulterer, the best recourse is to tell that friend it is wrong, and to threaten to tell the spouse so that spouse can get medical help if needed.

  3. Our whole society is encouraged to be busybodies–closely aligned to gossip. The checkstands and internet and some TV shows are all about who is doing what, especially among ‘celebrities’. Perhaps many are desensitized as to what his form of gossip really is because it seems to be everywhere. It is not necessarily an excuse though. We need to take custody of our eyes and ears and who tells us we should be going that?

  4. Your article is so indicative of shows like TMZ and Divorce Court, and any other show that presents a person’s misfortune or struggle as entertainment. It is shameful and pathetic in my opinion. People often laugh at me because I don’t know one Kardashian from the next, but then those same people don’t attend mass regularly either.

    I think people in general are so afraid of their own woundedness that they are easy prey for this trap. It is so much easier to judge others than to look at ones own faults. Problem is, they are just paving the road to hell with those judgements.

    It is surprisingly easy to present your wretched self to God once you get over trying to be perfect. Perfection is not achieved by knocking others down. Accepting we are incapable of perfection, however, leads us to peace.

  5. Dear “one anonymous” if one is afraid to answer a so-called “loaded question” during a period of instruction, how will anybody be able to learn anything that may actually help them down the road?

    1. Doug, I’m not saying YOU did something wrong. You were not wrong to answer, they were wrong to ask.

  6. As hard as it is to practice the virtue of minding your own business (avoiding gossip and detraction, either by not listening or by not repeating what we know) our world and what comes to us through the T.V., Internet and magazines doesn’t make it any easier. Media makes big bucks exploiting this vice. Think TMZ, Entertainment Tonight and the numerous magazines that exist solely to expose others’ private lives. It has even spread to “news” stations. Think of what and how much we all know about Michael Jackson, or now, Bill Cosby. Scandal sells, just like sex (lust), greed, and anger (violence on shows).

    Once we get into the habit via the media of participating by watching these shows or reading the magazines, we hardly think it is a sin. Once we do see the problem, it takes even more resolve and care not to participate in this kind of sin against those we know.

    Thank you, Msgr. for this article, because we certainly are not hearing about this problem and how we should act as Catholics from the pulpit.

  7. Perhaps better to go to the party who is in error and advise them of the consequences of that which they are doing. I believe the Bible says that if we see a brother in sin we are to go to them privately, and if they do not listen to us, then we are to take a counsel of elders to him. And if he still does not repent, we are to consider him no longer a member of the assembly.

  8. Thank you Monsignor Pope- always loaded with good advice; time for me to make a resolution and try to change, hopefully for the good.

  9. Why you give the figure of a women to represented gossip? Let me tell you, i work with men and women at the same department and the gossip was done by men.

  10. I have noticed that those times when I am paying full attention to doing God’s will in my life, I simply don’t have the time, the energy, or the inclination to poke my nose into others’ business…when I do find myself over-interested in others’ affairs, it’s a pretty sure sign that I am not paying close enough attention to my own struggle for virtue…I then must consider just what it is that I know I should be doing, but am avoiding doing.

  11. I found this on a prayer card several decades ago: Go veil the faults of others and God will hide your own”. Sounds a bit hokey and simplistic, doesn’t it? But I have found, time and time again, that keeping my mouth shut about a character defect in someone else makes life so much more peaceful. I have to honestly say that I don’t always practice the virtue especially within my own family, which is where I should implement this adage, but I still need not give up or fall into hopelessness. I hope that this is not viewed as a sort of child – like naivete, I am just throwing this out as something that has been helpful (but only when I practice it).

    1. I’m going to have to remember that saying. It’s like a positive formulation the Scriptural admonishment “the measure with which you measure will be poured out unto you.” Thanks!

  12. I truly like your article. I have very dysfunctional family who are in my opinion are very much so busybodies. It truly is a sickness for them. When I try to state my opinion to them and suggest to them it is not nice to be so busy in other peoples lives they get truly offended, lash out and will not speak to me for a long time. My sisters will talk on the phone to each other, twist what I have stated and will not talk to me for days, weeks at a time. When I see them in various places they will shun, and smirch at me. It is most difficult to forgive them.

  13. There are no coincidences in the spiritual realm! I had no sooner sent my sister an apology email regarding being too “nosy” about a family matter of hers when your post appeared. I need to name the root of my sin and that name is “busybody!” Quite a humbling epiphany for me but, wow, everything you and St. Gregory pointed out describes the jumble that is my interior life right now. I never realized how insidious it is in pop culture…we’re practically drowning in it.

    Thank you for helping me take a look at my OWN vineyard. My New Year’s resolution is to confront the busybody who lives there! Happy New Year to you, Mnsr. Pope.

  14. Hi Dear All
    May I be permitted to humbly offer what I have always believed to be the best way to keep our noses out of others’ business and to judge ‘ourselves’ far more harshly than others. In Luke 18 Jesus teaches us this:
    9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
    13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
    14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
    This also brings to mind, ‘Taking the huge planks out of our own eyes before attempting to remove the tiny splinter from someone else’s!’
    God give me – and us all – the grace to hold these truths forever before our eyes. This is the key to ceasing to be a ‘busybody’!
    And on that note, I would like to offer to all my prayers for God’s blessings in the new year of Our Lord, 2015!
    Christian love everyone!

  15. Thank you for this very important reminder, Msgr. Pope. So many relationships and groups are ruined by gossip. It reminds me of the story about a penitent who came to Saint Philip Neri to confess the sin of gossiping. For penance, he told the person to take a feather pillow and empty the contents into the street. Then to wait for a certain amount of time, pick up all the feathers and put them back in the pillowcase. Of course the feathers were very soon swirling through the streets of Rome. But it illustrates the insidious mobility of gossip.

  16. So many relationships and groups are ruined by gossip. It reminds me of the story about a penitent who came to Saint Philip Neri to confess the sin of gossiping. For penance, he told the person to take a feather pillow and empty the contents into the street. Then to wait for a certain amount of time, pick up all the feathers and put them back in the pillowcase. Of course the feathers were very soon swirling through the streets of Rome. But it illustrates the insidious mobility of gossip.

  17. I’m not saying that I was “wrong” either. All I did was simply answer the question in the best way I saw fit. I could’ve cared less about what anybody else was thinking.

    P.S. How is asking a question and expecting an honest answer during a period of instruction wrong?

  18. Thank you for writing this articl . It was a great read and it truly made me look at my own faults in this department. I am guilty of checking on one site to read about one actress and told myself it was OK but after reading this, I know it is not. Thank you for giving me insight into this.

  19. In the last eleven years I have progressed, somewhat, from trying to fix everyone whom I encounter to finally looking at the plank in my own eye. Took a lot of pain and nights shivering in a doorway as I tried to sleep while huddled under a stinky blanket so, I’m not one to claim being motivated by courage but – by desperation that saturation in mood altering substances could no longer soften.
    Now, I try to avoid fixing others since I’ve come to see that these efforts were just an excuse to avoid the spiritual sickness within self that I was so terrified to look at. Now, I tell my story by commenting on what positive actions helped me when I hear someone mention a difficulty over which I have risen above. If someone asks about something which is not in my experience then, I advize them to ask someone who has experienced, and risen above, the problem – thereby taking themselves further from the isolating agony of facing their pain alone.
    Now, I see the busybody (I once was) as someone who tried to avoid the things I needed to look and about which I needed help from those who’d experienced it themselves. Self help books were part of my emotional prison of busybody-ing as I sought to use them to do alone what I had repeatedly proved myself unable to do alone. A paradox of denial which brought me to my knees – right where I needed to be.
    Do heavenly hosts rejoice when a “busybody” finally turns from the mote in their neighbours’ eyes and asks for help with the plank in their own? Mystery to me.

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