Humility Allows Us To Learn From Others

He also said, “Nine monks fell away after many labors and were obsessed with spiritual pride, for they put their trust in their own works and being deceived they did not give due heed to the commandment that says, ‘Ask your father and he will tell you.'” (Deut. 32.7)[1]

Monastery of the Temptation by Dmitrij Rodionov, DR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsMonasticism is often confused as a works-based spirituality because of the way various ascetic struggles of famous saintly monks have been portrayed. Extraordinary feats of strength and endurance are put forth as demonstration of their holiness. The confusion lies in the belief that those endeavors are what made them holy. While, at times, they might have been a part of their journey to holiness, where they had to hold out against some temptation, the mere performance of them was not what made them holy. Someone could be a great, holy monk without a single great feat to their name, just as one could be a great sinner and still perform extraordinary marvels. The acts themselves without the proper intention and grace can easily lead to great pride, and the belief that one needs to perform such acts without being able to can lead to despair.

Saint Anthony, the great spiritual director whose life and teachings helped establish the basic foundations of the Christian monastic tradition, knew that humility was key to the spiritual life. Salvation and glory is to be found in those who willingly lower themselves so that they can learn from and follow the sage advice of others. Great ascetic feats come and go, but without humility, they will likely take someone on the side-path of the self-made monk, whose glory might burn bright while they are alive, but will fall short when they reach eternal life. It is better to live a simple life without pride than it is to do great things in the world, get noticed, achieve notoriety and fame, and find oneself stuck by one’s pride, for pride is a great evil which leads those attached to it astray. It prevents someone from actually looking at themselves and seeing themselves for who and what they are: they only see the illusion of greatness, and so hide from themselves their faults and weaknesses, making it nearly impossible for them to grow and become in reality what they think they are in their minds.

Spiritual deception destroys lives. As it is easier for others to see our own faults than we are ourselves, we need their help if we want to see through our own self-deception. We need humility if we want to learn from each other, especially by those who have gone before us, seen the trials and temptations which are before us, and know how to overcome them. They can warn us through their own experience and study as to the pitfalls which lie ahead of us; if we think we are strong enough to jump over them and so try to show off by doing so, it is far more likely we fail, causing great harm to ourselves.

Monks, living together in a community, have before them spiritual fathers and mothers who they should heed; it is one of the benefits of being in such a community. For a monk to ignore their elders without just cause demonstrates great hubris. Likewise, for those of us who are not monks, we still form a community, we are living in the world together, and we should be helping each other, working with each other the best we can, listening to those who have come before us who have demonstrated great wisdom and understanding. If we think we are superior to everyone else, and so separate ourselves from the rest of the world, we are only going to lead to our own self-destruction, and because the way of the world does not have the benefits of a monastic community to help build us back up, the ruin which we face can be much greater than it is for a monk who comes to such a bad end. For we, thinking we can perfect ourselves, will only find ourselves spiritually dead; we will cut off the Spirit which vivifies our lives. St. Symeon the New Theologian suggested it is as if we were collecting the parts of a dead body and putting them together:

Just as someone is not profited at all by putting dead bones together with dead bones, and joints to joints (you might take this image and apply it to works and the possession of virtue), since he lacks the ability to complete the project by weaving them together with flesh and nerves. And, even if you were able to complete the work, and the join the joints to the nerves and clothe those dead bones with flesh, and assemble the whole into a body, still there will be no profit. It lacks the spirit which gives life and animates it; that is, it is deprived of a soul. Please understand that the same applies regarding the soul which is dead. Turn your mind to what is within the soul’s members, and consider that all its actions taken together – I mean fasting and vigil, sleeping on the ground and a hard bed, non-possession and abstinence from bathing, and everything which follows from these – are like dead bones fastened to one another and all consequent one upon the other, and that, assembled together, they compromise as it were the complete body of the soul. So where is the profit if it lies unsouled and breathless, the Holy Spirit not being within? [2]

Pride closes us in on ourselves, so we keep out the power of grace, the other-Power of the Holy Spirit which vivifies us, and so through it we will find ourselves completely dead. We will find the actions we have done, even if they have some good intentions in them, leaving us feeling empty because we have not let the power which transcends us enter into us and make us truly alive. As long as we think we can do all things by ourselves, we cut off all other power from us. We must learn we cannot live in this world completely alone; we must open up to what others are willing to offer us. When we humbly acknowledge them and what they do for us, when we find ourselves joining in with them and becoming something greater than if we try to do all things by ourselves, we find our pride slowly is broken apartn, and through it, the Spirit of Truth is once again welcomed by us, able to heal us from our self-inflicted wounds, so that we find what true freedom and glory is in that same Spirit.

St. Anthony saw many who followed after him into the desert; some wanted to be just like him, trying follow his extreme way of life unprepared for it. Before he had become a hermit, he was trained and disciplined by others himself. In this way, many who looked at him and his achievements misunderstood his hermitage and its meaning, thinking it served as a basis of individualistic engagement of the path of salvation; but as Anthony was not self-taught, so he was never alone. He practiced silence so that he could be open to God, reaching out to God in and with love, a love which then connected him to the monks and nuns who followed after him into the desert and led him to be their teacher. He was not fasting solely for himself, though to the outsider, it could appear to be just like that. And so we hear how nine monks, misunderstanding Anthony, tried to be like him and let their pride in their works take them over, turning them inward as they held on to themselves through pride, seeking to appear better than all others through extraordinary ascetic feats; they lacked wisdom, they lacked the proper sense of community, indeed, they lacked love, for pride cuts off and destroys love. Good spiritual directors will be able to warn those growing in pride, seeing what it is which has made for their pride, so that those who humbly heed some spiritual director will be able to prevent the strangulation of the spirit which comes from pride. If it is not halted, it will lead spiritual death.

Never trust oneself. Never lean on one’s own understanding. Extreme asceticism comes from such outrageous trust in oneself, showing how foolish they are, for no one who is wise would be so foolish as to lean on their own understanding. The more one knows, the more they know that they do not know; the wiser one is, the less self-assured they will be, and so the more foolish they will feel if people look up to them as wise. The more they recognize their ignorance, the more open they will be to true wisdom, and the more they will be able to seize upon the truth and join its goodness to themselves. The ability to listen and learn from others is the true mark of wisdom, while thinking there is nothing more to learn is truly the mark of grave ignorance. Thus, if we want to learn, if we want to understand, we must ask, and find out what people have to offer us – and through them and their wisdom, we will be able to see past our ignorance and the delusion of wisdom and so not be deceived by our own limited understanding of the truth.

[Image=Monastery of the Temptation by Dmitrij Rodionov, DR [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8-9.

[2] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Seventh Ethical Discourses” in On The Mystical Life: Volume 2. On Virtue And The Christian Life. trans. Alexander Golitzin (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press,1996), 92.

 

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