Fr. Thomas Hopko on the 4th Sunday of the great Lent: stt_lent4_pcby-fr-thomas-hopko
On March 30th , The Holy Orthodox Church calls for example St. John Climacus, the righteous John of the Ladder, and one of the greatest ascetics, who is the author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT. St. John Climacus lived on Mount Sinai, which exist today a monastery dedicated to St. Catherine, one can visit the holy moanstery and feel the spiritual presence of St. John. When the holy monastery was first founded it was dedicated to our Lord’s Holy Transfiguration, later onwards it was dedicated to St. Catherine.
Perhaps all of us have to seem to get to know spiritually who are the great and holy ascetics of the holy Orthodox Church, where we can reflect on how we ourselves can live in God. This immortal work, and spiritually rewarding book of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT, we see how, by means of thirty steps, the Christian gradually ascends from below the heights of supreme spiritual perfection. Finally, we see how one virtue leads to another, as a man rises higher and higher and finally attains to that height where there abides the crown of the virtues, which is called “Christian love.”
It is my most earnest God-loving prayer that all of us gradually ascends, and to be aware spiritually to employ our efforts in correcting ourselves and our lives. At the same however, to be aware we can fall too! Let us ask of our King and our Immortal God for His Great Mercy and Love.
Through the prayers of the Holy Fathers, O’ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and save us.
Father Demetrios Serfes
Who prays for you!
Dismissal Hymn. Third Tone:
Having raised up a sacred ladder by thy words, thou wast shown forth unto all as a teacher of monastics; and thou dost lead us, O John, from the purification that cometh through godly discipline unto the light of Divine vision. O righteous father, do thou entreat Christ that we be granted great mercy.
Kontakion, Fouth Tone:
On the height of abstinence did the Lord establish thee as a true and unerring star, guiding the ends of the world by thy light, O John, our instructor and father.
Like the lofty ladder which Jacob saw reaching to the Heavens, even so, by thy godly works, thou hast raised a ladder that bringeth all the faithful unto the heights of virtue, O blessed Father John.
The ladder metaphor is used to describe how one may ascend into heaven by first renouncing the world and finally ending up in heaven with God. There are thirty chapters; each covers a particular vice or virtue. They were originally called logoi, but in the present day, they are referred to as “steps.” The sayings are not so much rules and regulations, as with the Law that St. Moses received at Sinai, but rather observations about what is being practiced. Metaphorical language is employed frequently to better illustrate the nature of virtue and vice. Overall, the treatise does follow a progression that transitions from start (renunciation of the world) to finish (a life lived in love).
St. John’s basic image, which the book is based on, is that of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, similar to that which the Patriarch Jacob saw. The ladder has thirty steps, each symbolizing a year in the hidden life of Christ before his baptism. It begins with the basic notion of turning or conversion, continuing with a detailed analysis of the virtues and vices, and then ending with union with God.
St. John is emphatic about the necessity of a spiritual father to guide one in “climbing the ladder”. There were many examples of monks who fell after much labor because they relied on their own work. He speak of the need for everyone to have “some Moses” to guide them away from Egypt and Pharaoh to the Promised Land.
The disciple receives guidance from his spiritual father through modeling himself after the life of the spiritual father and through disclosing his thoughts (opening his heart) to him. The spiritual father becomes physician, intercessor, and mediator.
The steps are:
- On renunciation of the world
- On detachment
- On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
- On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)
- On painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the Prison
- On remembrance of death
- On joy-making mourning
- On freedom from anger and on meekness
- On remembrance of wrongs
- On slander or calumny
- On talkativeness and silence
- On lying
- On despondency
- On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
- On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
- On love of money, or avarice
- On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
- On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
- On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
- On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practise it
- On unmanly and puerile cowardice
- On the many forms of vainglory
- On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
- On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile
- On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
- On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
- On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
- On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
- Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
- Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book
Some would hold that vainglory is to be distinguished from pride, and so they give it a special place and chapter. Hence their claim that there are eight deadly sins. But against this is the view of Gregory the Theologian and other teachers that in fact the number is seven. I also hold this view. After all, what pride remains in a man who has conquered vainglory The difference is between a child and a man, between wheat and bread; for the first is a beginning and the second an end. Therefore, as the occasion demands, let us talk about the unholy vice of self-esteem, the beginning and completion of the passions; and let us talk briefly, for to undertake an exhaustive discussion would be to act like someone who inquires into the weight of the winds.
From the point of view of form, vainglory is a change of nature, a perversion of character, a taking note of criticism. As for its quality, it is a waste of work and sweat, a betrayal of treasure, an offspring of unbelief, a harbinger of pride, shipwreck in port, the ant on the threshing floor, small and yet with designs on all the fruit of one’s labor. The ant waits until the wheat is in, vainglory until the riches of excellence are gathered; the one a thief, the other a wastrel.
The spirit of despair rejoices at the sight of increasing vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue. The door for the one is a multitude of wounds, while the gateway for the other is the wealth of hard work done.
Observe vainglory. Notice how, until the very day of the burial it rejoices in clothes, oils, servants, perfumes, and such like.
Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this: I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or I remain silent, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.
A vainglorious man is a believing idolater. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men. To be a showoff is to be vainglorious. The fast of such a man is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise. A vainglorious ascetic doubly cheats himself, wearying his body and getting no reward. Who would not laugh at this vainglorious worker, standing for the psalms and moved by vainglory sometimes to laughter and sometimes to tears for all to see?
The Lord frequently hides from us even the perfections we have obtained. But the man who praises us, or, rather, who misleads us, opens our eyes with his words and once our eyes are opened our treasures vanish.
The flatterer is a servant of the devils, a teacher of pride, the destroyer of contrition, a ruiner of virtues, a perverse guide. The prophet says this, “Those who honor you deceive you” (Isa. 3:12).
Men of high spirit endure offense nobly and willingly. But only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise. And I have seen men in mourning who, on being praised, reared up in anger, one passion giving way to another as at some public meeting.
“No one knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit within him” (1 Cor. 2:11). Hence those who want to praise us to our face should be ashamed and silent.
When you hear that your neighbor or your friend has denounced you behind your back or indeed in your presence, show him love and try to compliment him.
It is a great achievement to shrug the praise of men off one’s soul. Greater still is to reject the praise of demons.
It is not the self-critical who reveals his humility (for does not everyone have somehow to put up with himself?). Rather it is the man who continues to love the person who has criticized him.
I have seen the demon of vainglory suggesting thoughts to one brother, revealing them to another, and getting the second man to tell the first what he is thinking and then praising him for his ability to read minds. And that dreadful demon has even lighted on parts of the body, shaking and stirring them.
Ignore him when he tells you to accept the office of bishop or abbot or teacher. It is hard to drive a dog from a butcher’s counter.
When he notices that someone has achieved a measure of interior calm, he immediately suggests to him the need to return from the desert to the world, in order to save those who are perishing.
Ethiopians have one kind of appearance, statues another. So too is it the case that the vainglory of those living in community is different from that of those living in the desert.
Vainglory anticipates the arrival of guests from the outside world. It prompts the more frivolous Christian to rush out to meet them, to fall at their feet, to give the appearance of humility, when in fact he is full of pride. It makes him look and sound modest and directs his eye to the visitors’ hands in the hope of getting something from them. It induces him to address them as “lords and patrons, graced with godly life.” At table it makes him urge abstinence on someone else and fiercely criticize subordinates. It enables those who are standing in a slovenly manner during the singing of psalms to make an effort, those who have no voice to sing well, and those who are sleepy to wake up. It flatters the presenter, seeks the first place in the choir, and addresses him as father and master while the visitors are still there.
Vainglory induces pride in the favored and resentment in those who are slighted. Often it causes dishonor instead of honor, because it brings great shame to its angry disciples. It makes the quick-tempered look mild before men. It thrives amid talent and frequently brings catastrophe on those enslaved to it.
I have seen a demon harm and chase away its own brother. For just when a brother had lost his temper secular visitors arrived, and the wretched man gave himself over to vainglory. He was unable to serve two passions at the one time.
The servant of vainglory leads a double life. To outward appearance, he lives with Christians; but in his heart of hearts he is in the world.
If we really long for heavenly things, we will surely taste the glory above. And whoever has tasted that will think nothing of earthly glory. For it would surprise me if someone could hold the latter in contempt unless he had tasted the former.
It often happens that having been left naked by vainglory, we turn around and strip it ourselves more cleverly. For I have encountered some who embarked on the spiritual life out of vainglory, making therefore a bad start, and yet they finished up in a most admirable way because they changed their intentions.
A man who takes pride in natural abilities-I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them–this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much. And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a reward from God in return for his labors builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.
When the winnower tells you to show off your virtues for the benefit of an audience, do not yield to him. “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and destroy himself?” (Matt. 16:26).
Our neighbor is moved by nothing so much as by a sincere and humble way of talking and of behaving. It is an example and a spur to others never to become proud. And there is nothing to equal the benefit of this.
A man of insight told me this: “I was once sitting at an assembly,” he said. “The demon of vainglory and the demon of pride came to sit on either side of me. One poked me with the finger of vainglory and encouraged me to talk publicly about some vision or labor of mine in the desert. I shook him off with the words, ‘Let those who wish me harm be driven back and let them be ashamed’ (Ps. 39:15). Then the demon on my left at once said in my ear, ‘Well done! Well done! You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.’ Turning to him I answered appropriately, making use of the rest of the verse, ‘Defeat and shame on all who say, “Well done! Well done!” “And how is it, I asked him, that vainglory is the mother of pride?” His answer was this, “Praise exalts and puffs me up, and when the soul is exalted, pride lifts it up as high as heaven-and then throws it down into the abyss.”
But there is a glory that comes from the Lord, for He says, “I will glorify those who glorify Me” (I Kings [I Sam.] 2:30). And there is a glory that follows it which is contrived by the demons, for it is said, “Woe to you when all men shall speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). You can recognize the first kind of glory when you look on it as dangerous and run from it in every possible way, hiding your life-style wherever you are. And you may be certain of the other sort when you find yourself doing something, however small, with the hope that men may notice you.
Dread vainglory urges us to pretend that we have some virtue which does not belong to us. It encourages us with the text, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good deeds” (Matt. 5:16).
The Lord often humbles the vainglorious by causing some dishonor to befall them. And indeed the first step in overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and to accept dishonor gladly. The middle stage is to restrain every act of vainglory while it is still in thought. The end – insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss – is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it.
Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.
If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of our vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God. If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is if our wish for true prayer is genuine. If this is insufficient let us briefly remember that we must die. Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also.
When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins, and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor.
Some of the prayers of the vainglorious no doubt deserve to win the attention of God, but He regularly anticipates their wishes and petitions so that their pride may not be increased by the success of their prayers.
Simpler people do not usually succumb to the poison of vainglory, which is, after all, a loss of simplicity and a hypocritical way of life.
A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high. Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil.
Anyone free of this sickness is close to salvation. Anyone affected by it is far removed from the glory of the saints.
Such, then, is the twenty-second step. The man untouched by vainglory will not tumble into that senseless pride which is so detestable to God.
Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. It is the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of barrenness. It is a flight from God’s help, the precursor of madness, the cause of downfall. It is the cause of satanic possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the guardian of sins, the source of hardheartedness. It is the denial of compassion, a bitter Pharisee, a cruel judge. It is the foe of God. It is the root of blasphemy.
Pride begins where vainglory leaves off. Its midpoint comes with the humiliation of our neighbor, the shameless parading of our achievements, complacency, and unwillingness to be found out. It ends with the spurning of God’s help, the exalting of one’s own efforts and a devilish disposition.
Listen, therefore, all who wish to avoid this pit. This passion often draws strength initially from the giving of thanks, and at first it does not shamelessly urge us to renounce God. I have seen people who speak aloud their thanks to God but who in their hearts are glorifying themselves, something demonstrated by that Pharisee with his “O God, I thank You” (Luke 18:11).
Pride takes up residence wherever we have lapsed, for a lapse is in fact an indication of pride. And an admirable man said once to me, “Think of a dozen shameful passions. Love one of them, I mean pride, and it will take up the space of all the other eleven.”
A proud Christian argues bitterly with others. The humble Christian is loath to contradict them.
The cypress tree does not bend to the ground to walk, nor does the haughty Christian bend down in order to gain obedience.
The proud man wants to be in charge of things. He would feel lost otherwise.
“God resists the proud” (James 4:6). Who then could have mercy on them? Before God every proud man is unclean. Who then could purify such a person?
For the proud correction is a fall, a thorn (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7) is a devil, and abandonment by God is madness. Whereas in the first two instances there are human cures available, this last cannot be healed by man.
To reject criticism is to show pride, while to accept it is to show oneself free of this fetter.
Pride and nothing else caused an angel to fall from heaven. And so one may reasonably ask whether one may reach heaven by humility alone without the help of any other virtue.
Pride loses the profits of all hard work and sweat. They cried out, but there was none to save them, because they cried out with pride. They cried out to God, but He paid no heed since they were not really trying to root out the faults against which they were praying.
An elder, very experienced in these matters, once spiritually admonished a proud brother who said in his blindness, “Forgive me, father, but I am not proud.” “My son,” said the wise old man, “what better proof of your pride could you have given than to claim that you were not proud?”
A help to the proud is submissiveness, a tougher and humbler way of life, and the reading of the supernatural feats of the Fathers. Even then there will perhaps be little hope of salvation for those who suffer from this disease.
While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.
Do not be self-confident before judgment has been passed on you. Remember the guest at the marriage feast. He got there, and then, tied hand and foot, he was thrown into the dark outside (cf. Matt. 22:13). So do not be stiff-necked, since you are a material being. Many although holy and unencumbered by a body were cast out of Heaven.
When the demon of pride gets a foothold for himself among his own servants, he appears to them, in sleep or awake, and he looks like a holy angel or martyr and he hints at mysteries to be revealed or spiritual gifts to be granted, that the wretches may be deceived and driven utterly out of their minds.
If we were to die ten thousand times for Christ, we would still not have repaid what we owe, for in value rather than physical substance there is no comparison between the blood of God and that of His servants.
We should always be on the lookout to compare ourselves with the Fathers and the lights who have gone before us. If we do, we will discover that we have scarcely begun the ascetic life, that we have hardly kept our vow in a holy manner, and that our thinking is still rooted in the world.
A real Christian is one whose soul’s eye is not haughty and whose bodily senses are unmoved.
A Christian is one who fights his enemies, like the wild beasts that they are, and harries them as he makes his escape from them.
To be a Christian is to know ecstasy without end and to grieve for life.
A Christian is shaped by virtues in the way that others are shaped by pleasures.
A Christian has an unfailing light in the eye of the heart.
A Christian is an abyss of humility in which every evil spirit has been plunged and smothered.
Pride makes us forget our sins, for the remembrance of them leads to humility.
Pride is utter poverty of soul disguised as riches, imaginary light where in fact there is darkness. This abominable vice not only stops our progress but even tosses us down from the heights we have reached.
The proud man is a pomegranate, rotten within, while outwardly radiant.
A proud Christian needs no demon. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself.
Darkness is alien to light. Pride is alien to every virtue.
Blaspheming words rise up in the hearts of the proud, heavenly visions in the hearts of the humble.
A thief hates the sun. A proud man despises the meek.
It happens, I do not know how, that most of the proud never really discover their true selves. They think they have conquered their passions and they find out how poor they really are only after they die.
The man ensnared by pride will need God’s help, since man is of no use to him.
I captured this senseless deceiver once. It was rising up in my heart and on its shoulders was vainglory, its mother. I roped them with the noose of obedience and flailed them with the whip of humility. Then I lashed them and asked how they had managed to gain access to me. “We have no beginning and no birth,” they said, “for we are the source and the begetters of all the passions. The strongest opposition to us comes from the contrition of heart that grows out of obedience. We can endure no authority over us, which is why we fell from heaven though we had authority there. In short, we are the authors and the progenitors of everything opposed to humility, for everything that favors humility brings us low. We prevail everywhere except in heaven. So, then, where will you run to escape us? You will find us often where there is patient endurance of dishonor, where there is obedience and freedom from anger, where there is willingness to bear no grudge, where one’s neighbor is served. And our children are the falls of those who lead the life of the spirit. Their names: Anger, Calumny, Spite, Irritability, Shouting, Blasphemy, Hypocrisy, Hatred, Envy, Argumentativeness, Self-will, Disobedience.
“There is only one thing with which we cannot interfere, and the violence you do us will make us admit what this is. If you can honestly condemn yourself before the Lord, then indeed you will find us as flimsy as a cobweb. For, you see, Vainglory is pride’s saddle-horse on which I am mounted. But holy Humility and Self-accusation will laugh at the horse and its rider and will joyfully sing the song of triumph: ‘Let us sing to the Lord, for He has been truly glorified. Horse and rider He has thrown into the sea’ (Exod. 15:1), into the depths of humility.”
Such is the twenty-third step. Whoever climbs it, if indeed anyone can, will certainly be strong.
As we have already heard, from a troublesome root and mother comes a most troublesome offspring. What I mean is that unspeakable blasphemy is the child of dreadful pride. Hence the need to talk about it, since it is no ordinary foe but is far and away the deadliest enemy of all. Worse still, it is extremely hard to articulate and to confess it and therefore to discuss it with a spiritual healer, and the result has been to cause frustration and despair in many people, for like a worm in a tree this unholy enemy gnaws away all hope.
This atrocious foe has the habit of appearing during the holy services and even at the awesome hour of the Mysteries, and blaspheming the Lord and the consecrated elements, thereby showing that these unspeakable, unacceptable, and unthinkable words are not ours but rather those of the God-hating demon who fled from heaven because, it seems, of the blasphemies he uttered there too against the Lord. It must be so, for if these dreadful and unholy words are my own, how could I offer humble worship after having partaken of the sacred gift? How could I revile and praise at the same time?
This deceiver, this destroyer of souls, has often caused men to go mad. And no other thought is as difficult to admit in confession, which is why so many are dogged by it all their days. In fact nothing gives demons and evil thoughts such power over us as to nourish them and hide them in our hearts unconfessed.
If you have blasphemous thoughts, do not think that you are to blame. God knows what is in our hearts and He knows that ideas of this kind come not from us but from our enemies.
Drunkenness leads to stumbling. Pride leads to unholy thoughts. The drunkard will be punished not for his stumbling but for his drunkenness.
Those unclean and unspeakable thoughts come at us when we are praying, but, if we continue to pray to the end, they will retreat, for they do not struggle against those who resist them.
This unholy demon not only blasphemes God and everything that is divine. It stirs up the dirtiest and most obscene thoughts within us, thereby trying to force us to give up praying or to fall into despair. It stops the prayer of many and turns many away from the holy Mysteries. It has evilly and tyrannously wearied the bodies of some with grief. It has exhausted others with fasting and has given them no rest. It has struck at people living in the world, and also at those leading the monastic life, whispering that there is no salvation in store for them, murmuring that they are more to be pitied than any unbeliever or pagan.
Anyone disturbed by the spirit of blasphemy and wishing to be rid of it should bear in mind that thoughts of this type do not originate in his own soul but are caused by that unclean devil who once said to the Lord, “I will give you all this if only You fall down and adore me” (Matt. 4:9). So let us make light of him and pay no regard whatever to his promptings. Let us say, ‘Get behind me, Satan! I will worship the Lord my God and I will serve only Him’ (Matt. 4:10). May your word and your effort rebound on you, and your blasphemies come down on your own head now and in the world to come.” To fight against the demon of blasphemy in any way other than this is to be like a man trying to hold lightning in his hands. For how can you take a grip on, seize, or grapple with someone who flits into the heart quicker than the wind, talks more rapidly than a flash, and then immediately vanishes? Every other kind of foe stops, struggles a while, lingers and gives one time to struggle with him. But not this one. He hardly appears and is gone again immediately. He barely speaks and then vanishes.
This particular demon likes to take up residence in the minds of simpler and more innocent souls, and these are more upset and disturbed by it than others. To such people we could quite rightly say that what is happening to them is due not to their own undue self-esteem but to the jealousy of the demons.
Let us refrain from passing judgment or condemnation on our neighbor. If we do, then we will not be terrorized by blasphemous thoughts, since the one produces the other.
The situation here is like that of someone shut up in his own house who overhears but does not join in the conversation of passersby. The soul that keeps to itself overhears and is disturbed by the blasphemies of devils who are merely transients.
Hold this foe in contempt and you will be liberated from its torments. Try cleverly to fight it and you will end up by surrendering, for the man who tries to conquer spirits by talk is like someone hoping to lock up the winds.
There was once a zealous monk who was badly troubled by this demon. For twenty years he wore himself out with fasting and vigils, but to no avail, as he realized. So he wrote the temptation on a sheet of paper, went to a certain holy man, handed him the paper, bowed his face to the ground and dared not to look up. The old man read it, smiled, lifted the brother and said to him, “My son, put your hand on my neck.” The brother did so. Then the great man said, “Very well, brother. Now let this sin be on my neck for as many years as it has been or will be active within you. But from now on, ignore it.” And the monk who had been tempted in this fashion assured me that even before he had left the cell of this old man, his infirmity was gone. The man who had actually experienced this told me about it, giving thanks to Christ.
He who has defeated this vice has banished pride.
Do you imagine that plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately or clearly or sincerely describe the love of the Lord, humility, blessed purity, divine enlightenment, fear of God, and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. The same applies in the first instance. A man stands revealed as either having had no experience of what he is talking about or as having fallen into the grip of vainglory.
Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of a quality that eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: “Holy Humi1ity.”
Let all who are led by the Spirit of God come with us into this spiritual and wise assembly. Let them hold in their spiritual hands the tablets of knowledge inscribed by God Himself. We have come together. We have asked our questions. We have searched for the meaning of this precious inscription. “Humility is constant forgetfulness of one’s achievements,” someone says.
“It is the admission that in all the world one is the least important and is also the greatest sinner,” another says.
“It is the mind’s awareness that one is weak and helpless,” a third says.
“It is to forestall one’s neighbor at a contentious moment and to be the first to end a quarrel.”
“It is the acknowledgement of divine grace and divine mercy.”
“It is the disposition of a contrite soul and the abdication of one’s own will.”
I listened to all this and thought it over carefully and soberly, and was not able to grasp the sense of that blessed virtue from what I had heard. I was the last to speak; and, like a dog gathering crumbs from a table, I collected what those learned and blessed fathers had said and went on from there to propose my own definition: “Humility is a grace in the soul and with a name known only to those who have had experience of it. It is indescribable wealth, a name and a gift from God. ‘Learn from Me,’ He said; that is, not from an angel, not from a man, not from a book, but ‘from Me,’ that is, from My dwelling within you, from My illumination and action within you, for ‘I am gentle and meek of heart’ (Matt. 11:9) in thought and in spirit, and your souls will find rest from conflicts and relief from evil thoughts.”
The appearance of this sacred vine is one thing during the winter of passions, another in the springtime of flowering, and still another in the harvest-time of all the virtues. Yet all these appearances have one thing in common, namely, joy and the bearing of fruit, and they all give sure signs and evidence of the harvest to come. As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. We rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome. For every day we somehow imagine that we are adding to our burden by an ignorant scattering, that the very abundance of God’s gifts to us is so much in excess of what we deserve that the punishment due to us becomes thereby all the greater. Hence our minds remain secure, locked up in the purse of modesty, aware of the knocks and the jeers of thieves and yet untroubled by them, because modesty is an unassailable safe.
We have so far risked a few words of a philosophical kind regarding the blossoming and the growth of this everblooming fruit. But those of you who are close to the Lord Himself must find out from Him what the perfect reward is of this holy virtue, since there is no way of measuring the sheer abundance of such blessed wealth, nor could words convey its quality. Nevertheless, we must try to express the thoughts that occur to us about its distinguishing characteristics.
Real repentance, mourning cleansed of all impurity, and holy humility among beginners are as different and distinct from one another as yeast and flour from bread. The soul is ground and refined by visible repentance. The waters of true mourning bring it to a certain unity. I would even go so far as to speak of a mingling with God. Then, kindled by the fire of the Lord, blessed humility is made into bread and made firm without the leaven of pride. The outcome of all this is a three-stranded cord (cf. Eccles. 4:12), a heavenly rainbow coming together as a single power and energy, with its own effects and characteristics. Speak of one and we imply the other two. And I will now briefly try to prove the truth of what I am saying.
The first and principal characteristic of this excellent and admirable triad is the delighted readiness of the soul to accept indignity, to receive it with open arms, to welcome it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and grevious sins. The second characteristic is the wiping out of anger and modesty over the fact that it has subsided. Third and preeminent is the honest distrust of one’s own virtues, together with an unending desire to learn more.
“The end of the law and the prophets is Christ, for the justification of every believer” (Rom. 10:4). And the end of impure passions is vainglory and pride for every man who fails to deal with the problem. But their destroyer is a spiritual stag which keeps the man who lives with it safe from every poison. The deadly bane of hypocrisy and of calumny can surely never appear where there is humility. Where will this snake nestle and hide? Will it not be pulled out from the heart’s earth to be killed and done away with? Where there is humility there will be no sign of hatred, nor any kind of quarrelsomeness, no whiff of disobedience – unless of course some question of faith arises. The man with humility for his bride will be gentle, kind, inclined to compunction, sympathetic, calm in every situation, radiant, easy to get along with, inoffensive, alert and active. In a word, free from passion. “The Lord remembered us in our humility and delivered us from our enemies” (Ps. 135:23-24), that is, from our passions and from our impurities.
A humble Christian will not preoccupy himself with mysteries. A proud Christian busies himself with the hidden judgments of God.
Demons once heaped praise on one of the most discerning of the brothers. They even appeared to him in visible form. But this very wise man spoke to them as follows, “If you cease to praise me by way of the thoughts of my heart, I shall consider myself to be great and outstanding because of the fact that you have left me. But if you continue to praise me, I must deduce from such praise that I am very impure indeed, since every proudhearted man is unclean before the Lord (cf. Prov. 16:5). So leave me, and I shall become great, or else praise me, and with your help I shall earn more humility.” Struck by this dilemma, they vanished.
Let not your soul be a hollow in the stream of life, a hollow sometimes full and sometimes dried up by the heat of vainglory and pride. Instead, may your soul be a well-spring of dispassion that wells up into a river of poverty. Friend, remember that corn and the fruit of the spirit will stand high in the valleys (cf. Ps. 64:14). The valley is a soul made humble among the mountains of labors and virtues. It always remains unproud and steadfast. In Scripture are the words, “I humbled myself, and the Lord hastened to rescue me” (Ps. 114:6); and these words are there instead of “I have fasted,” “I have kept vigil,” “I lay down on the bare earth.”
Repentance lifts a man up. Mourning knocks at heaven’s gate. Holy humility opens it. This I say, and I worship a Trinity in Unity and a Unity in Trinity.
The sun lights up everything visible. Likewise, humility is the source of everything done according to reason. Where there is no light, all is in darkness. Where there is no humility, all is rotten.
In the entire universe there is a unique place that saw the sun just once. And there is a unique thought that has given rise to humility. There was a unique day on which the whole world rejoiced. And there is a unique virtue the demons cannot imitate.
To exalt oneself is one thing, not to do so another, and to humble oneself is something else entirely. A man may always be passing judgment on others, while another man passes judgment neither on others nor on himself. A third, however, though actually guiltless, may always be passing judgment on himself.
There is a difference between being humble, striving for humility, and praising the humble. The first is a mark of the perfect, the second of the obedient, and the third of all the faithful.
A man truly humble within himself will never find his tongue betraying him. What is not in the treasury cannot be brought out through the door.
A solitary horse can often imagine itself to be at full gallop, but when it finds itself in a herd it then discovers how slow it actually is.
A first sign of emerging health is when our thoughts are no longer filled with a proud sense of our aptitudes. As long as the stench of pride lingers in the nose, the fragrance of myrrh will go unnoticed.
Holy humility had this to say, “The one who loves me will not condemn someone, or pass judgment on anyone, or lord it over someone else, or show off his wisdom until he has been united with me. A man truly joined to me is no longer in bondage to the Law” (note 1 Tim. 1:9.).
The unholy demons once began to murmur praise in the heart of an ascetic who was struggling to achieve blessed humility. However, God inspired him to use a holy trick to defeat the cleverness of these spirits. The monk got up and on the wall of his cell he wrote in sequence the names of the major virtues: perfect love, angelic humility, pure prayer, unassailable chastity, and others of a similar kind. The result was that whenever vainglorious thoughts began to puff him up, he would say, “Come! Let us go to be judged.” Going to the wall he would read the names there and would cry out to himself, “When you have every one of these virtues within you, then you will have an accurate sense of how far from God you still are.”
None of us can describe the power and nature of the sun. We can merely deduce its intrinsic nature from its characteristics and effects. So too with humility, which is a God-given protection against seeing our own achievements. It is an abyss of self-abasement to which no thief can gain entry. It is a tower of strength against the enemy. “Against him the enemy will not prevail and the son (or, rather, the thought) of iniquity will do him no harm and he will cut off his enemies before him” (Ps. 88:23-24) and will put to flight those who hate him.
The great possessor of this treasure has other properties in his soul besides those referred to above. These properties, with one exception, are manifest signs of this wealth. You will know that you have this holy gift within you and not be led astray when you experience an abundance of unspeakable light together with an indescribable love of prayer. Even before reaching this stage, you may have it, if in your heart you pass no judgment on the faults of others. And a precursor of what we have described is hatred of all vainglory.
The man who has come to know himself with the full awareness of his soul has sown in good ground. However, anyone who has not sown in this way cannot expect humility to flower within him. And anyone who has acquired knowledge of self has come to understand the fear of the Lord, and walking with the help of this fear, he has arrived at the doorway of love. For humility is the door to the kingdom, opening up to those who come near. It was of that door, I believe, that the Lord spoke when He said, “He shall go in and come out of life” and not be afraid “and he shall find pasture” (John 10:8-9) and the green grass of Paradise. And whoever has entered monastic life by some other door is a thief and a robber of his own life.
Those of us who wish to gain understanding must never stop examining ourselves and if in the perception of your soul you realize that your neighbor is superior to you in all respects, then the mercy of God is surely near at hand.
Snow cannot burst into flames. It is even less possible for humility to abide in a heretic. This achievement belongs only to the pious and the faithful, and then only when they have been purified.
Most of us would describe ourselves as sinners. And perhaps we really think so. But it is indignity that shows up the true state of the heart.
Whoever is eager for the peaceful haven of humility will never cease to do all he possibly can to get there, and with words and thoughts, with considerations and explanations, with questionings and probings, with every device, with prayer and supplication, with meditation and reflection, he will push onward, helped by God, humiliated and despised and toiling mightily, and he will sail the ship of his soul out from the ever-stormy ocean of vainglory. For the man delivered from this sin wins ready pardon for all his other sins, like the publican in Scripture.
Some drive out empty pride by thinking to the end of their lives of their past misdeeds, for which they were forgiven and which now serve as a spur to humility. Others, remembering the passion of Christ, think of themselves as eternally in debt. Others hold themselves in contempt when they think of their daily lapses. Others come to possess this mother of graces by way of their continuous temptations, weaknesses, and sins. There are some–and I cannot say if they are to be found nowadays–who humble themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, a real reward! And you may be sure that it is by this particularly blessed route that anyone has traveled who in a few short years has arrived at the summit of dispassion.
Love and humility make a holy team. The one exalts. The other supports those who have been exalted and never falls.
There is a difference between contrition, self-knowledge, and humility.
Contrition is the outcome of a lapse. A man who has lapsed breaks down and prays without arrogance, though with laudable persistence, shattered and yet clinging to the staff of hope, indeed using it to drive off the dog of despair.
Self-knowledge is a clear-eyed notion of one’s own spiritual advance. It is also an unwavering remembrance of one’s slightest sins.
Humility is a spiritual teaching of Christ led spiritually like a bride into the inner chamber of the soul of those deemed worthy of it, and it somehow eludes all description.
A man says that he is experiencing the full fragrance of this myrrh within him. Someone happens to praise him, and if he feels the slightest stir of the heart or if he grasps the full import of what is being said, then he is certainly mistaken, and let him have no illusion about that fact.
“Not to us, not to us, but to Your name, O Lord, give glory” (Ps. 113:9). I once heard a man say this with total sincerity. He was a man who well understood that human nature is such that it cannot remain unharmed by praise. “My praise shall be from You in the great assembly, Lord” (Ps. 21:26), that is, in the life to come, and I cannot accept it before that without risk to myself.
If the outer limit, the rule, and the characteristic of extreme pride is for a man to make a show of having virtues he does not actually possess for the sake of glory, then surely the sign of extreme humility will be to lower ourselves by claiming weaknesses we do not really have. This was what one man did when he took the bread and cheese in his hands. This too was the way of the man who was free of all fleshly lust but who used to take his clothes off and parade naked through the whole city. Men like these do not worry about giving scandal, for through prayer they have received the power to reassure all men invisibly. Indeed, to be afraid of censure is to show lack of ability in prayer. And when God is ready to hear our prayers we can achieve anything.
It is better to offend man than God. For God is delighted when He sees us courting dishonor for the purpose of crushing, striking, and destroying our empty self-esteem. And virtue of this sort comes only from a complete abandonment of the world and only the really great can endure the derision of their own people. This should not surprise you. The fact is that no one can climb a ladder in a single stride. By this shall all men know that we are God’s disciples, not because devils are subjected to us, but because our names are written in the Heaven of humility (cf. Luke 10:20).
A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning of this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.
Holy humility receives from God the power to yield fruit thirty-fold, sixty-fold and a hundred-fold. The dispassionate attain that last degree, the courageous the middle, and everyone can rise to the first.
The man who has come to know himself is never fooled into reaching for what is beyond him. He keeps his feet henceforth on the blessed path of humility.
Just as birds fear the sight of a hawk, those who practice humility fear the sound of an argument.
Many have attained salvation without the aid of prophecies, illumination, signs and wonders. But without humility no one will enter the marriage chamber, for humility is the guardian of such gifts. Without it, they will bring frivolous people to ruin.
Because of our unwillingness to humble ourselves, God has arranged that no one can see his own faults as clearly as his neighbor does. Hence our obligation to be grateful not to ourselves but to our neighbor and to God for our healing.
A humble man will always hate his own will as a cause of error. In his petitions to the Lord which he makes with unwavering faith he learns what he should do and obeys. He does not spend his time scrutinizing the lifestyle of his superiors. He lays all his burden on God, Who used an ass to teach Balaam what had to be done. All the acts, thoughts, and words of such a man are directed to the will of God, and he never trusts himself. Indeed, to a humble man, self-confidence is as much a thorn and a burden as the orders of someone else are to a proud man.
In my opinion, an angel is characterized by the fact that he is not tricked into sinning. And I hear those words of an earthly angel, “I am aware of nothing against myself and yet I am not thereby justified. It is the Lord Who is my judge” (1 Cor. 4:4). So we must always condemn and criticize ourselves in order that by means of deliberately chosen humiliations we may protect ourselves from unwitting sin. And if we do not do this, our punishment at death will be heavy indeed.
The man who asks God for less than he deserves will certainly receive more, as is shown by the publican who begged forgiveness but obtained salvation (cf. Luke 18:10-14). And the robber asked only to be remembered in the kingdom, yet he inherited all of Paradise (cf. Luke 23:43).
In the created world fire cannot naturally be both small and great at one and the same time. Humility cannot be genuine and at one and the same time have a worldly nature. Genuine humility is not in us if we fall into voluntary sin, and this is the sign that there is some material attraction still within us.
The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does. To one of the angels it was the fact of being a ruler that led to pride, though it was not for this reason that the prerogative was originally granted to him.
A man who sits on a throne acts in one way, and the man who sits on a dunghill acts in another. That, perhaps, is the reason why that great and just man sat on the dunghill outside the city. Totally humbled, he said in all sincerity, “I despise myself, waste away” (Job 42:6), and have regarded myself as dust and ashes.”
I note that Manasseh sinned like no other man. He defiled the temple of God with idols and contaminated the sacred Liturgy (cf. 4  Kings 21:4). A fast by all the world could not have made reparation for his sin, and yet humility could heal his incurable wound. “If You wanted sacrifice I would have given it,” David says to God, “but You will not be satisfied with burnt offerings,” that is, with bodies worn out by fasting. “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit. God will not despise a humble and contrite heart” (Ps. 50:17). Following on adultery and murder, blessed humility once cried out to God, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and the reply was heard: “The Lord has put away your sin” (2 Kings [2 Sam.] 12:13).
The wonderful Fathers proclaimed physical labor to be the way to and the foundation of humility. To this I would add obedience and honesty of heart, since these are by nature opposed to self-aggrandizement.
If pride turned some of the angels into demons, then humility can doubtless make angels out of demons. So take heart, all you sinners.
Let us strive with all our might to reach that summit of humility, or let us at least climb onto her shoulders. And if this is too much for us, let us at least not fall out of her arms, since after such a fall a man will scarcely receive any kind of everlasting gift.
Humility has its signs. It also has its sinews and its ways, and these are as follows-poverty, withdrawal from the world, the concealment of one’s wisdom, simplicity of speech, the seeking of alms, the disguising of one’s nobility, the exclusion of free and easy relationships, the banishment of idle talk.
Nothing can ever so humble the soul as destitution and the subsistence of a beggar. We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of exaltation.
If you wish to fight against some passion, take humility as your ally, for she will tread on the asp and the basilisk of sin and despair, and she will trample under foot the lion and the serpent of physical devilishness and cunning (cf Ps. 90:13).
Humility is a heavenly waterspout which can lift the soul from the abyss up to Heaven’s height.
Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal her parent’s name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene, “Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God for your possession. To Whom be glory forever.” Amen.
The sea is the source of the fountain, and humility is the source of discernment.
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