Humility April 1, 2020

 My son, glorify yourself with humility, and ascribe to yourself honor according to your worth –Sirach 10:28 RSV.

Andrey Mironov: Virtue and Humility / Wikimedia Commons

If pride comes before a fall, then what better way is there to rise back up, or even to prevent a fall, than to embrace the virtue of humility? Sadly, this is easier said than done. We might recognize the truth of this. We might even try to embrace humility, and in some aspects of our lives, do so. But the stain of pride and vainglory still affects us in various different ways. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the irony of so many of us who think ourselves as being humble who take pride in that humility, showing how far we are from the virtue itself.  Pride finds many ways to bring us back to its fold.

Of course, we must acknowledge the conventional word pride does not always entail the vice of pride. Pride can many several different things. When we rejoice, in the right manner, some accomplishment which we have done, we call that pride. As long as we do not let our accomplishment get the best of us and make us feel superior to others from it, indeed, as long as we recognize how we could not and did not accomplish it without the help of others, we probably have not embraced the sin of pride. But it is easy for us to equivocate on pride, and use the conventional meaning to justify the vice. We begin to think it is appropriate to prop ourselves up for what we have done, ignoring how others have helped us, and in doing so, establish an egotistical spirit which turns us away from the truth. When we become haughty because of what we have done, pride begins to take us over and sets us up for our fall.

Sadly, our society does what it can to promote the sin of pride. We are told we can and should do all things by ourselves, to rely upon no one else. The more we try to prop ourselves up over and above others without their help, the more unstable we will become. This is not to say the fall will be instantaneous. Rather, we will be able to accomplish much (often, ignoring how much of it is due to the help of others). Eventually, we will have exhausted ourselves of all the internal and external resources we have, and then the consequences of pride will set in. We will find things falling apart. No one is an island. Eventually, we will trip and fumble and fall down; the greater our pride, the greater our fall can be.

While what has been said above is true in secular affairs, it is especially true in spiritual. We are called to work out our own salvation, but we are to do so with fear and trembling. That is, we are to put an effort into our own spiritual improvement, to put the virtues into practice, but we must realize how little we can do on our own. We need the help of others. We especially need the help of God in our lives. If we are humble, we accept this, so that our weakness does not confuse us nor lead us to despair.  But if we are prideful or vainglorious, we will think we can do more than we can, and so feel greater sense of defeat and despair when we fail to accomplish our desire. Therefore, Julian of Norwich, recognizing this truth, tells us:

And it is this ignorance which most hinders God’s lovers, as I see it: for when we begin to hate sin and amend ourselves according to the laws of the Holy Church, there still persists a fear which hinders us, by looking at ourselves and at our sins committed in the past, and some of us because of our everyday sins, because we do not keep our promise or keep the purity which God has established in us, but often fail into so much wretchedness that it is shameful to say it. And the perception of this makes us so woebegone and so depressed that we can scarcely see any consolation. And sometimes we take this fear for humility, but it is a reprehensible blindness and weakness; and so we do not know how to despite it like any other sin which we recognize, and this comes through lack of true judgment, and it is contrary to truth.[1]

Pride and vainglory make us do too much too quick, and so leads to our own spiritual demise. We want to either think greatly of ourselves or to have others do so. Sometimes, our bad understanding of the saints is to blame. How, it might be asked, is this so? For we see them at the height of their spiritual practice and discipline doing great things, and we, seeing it can be done, think we can and should imitate them when we are not yet at the same level of spiritual progress. In doing so, we will not only fail, but we will often make things worse for ourselves. It as if we see some athlete jump across a chasm, thinking we can do the same, only to find ourselves falling down the chasm because our skill level is not equal to theirs.

Humility allows us to understand ourselves better, indeed, to know ourselves, both our strengths and our weaknesses, while pride and vainglory interferes with such self-knowledge. Once we know who we are, we will be that much more ready for the help which we need, and so capable of advancing in the virtues thanks to that help:

‘Know thyself’: this is true humility, the humility that teaches us to be inwardly humble and makes our heart contrite. Such humility you must cultivate and guard. For if you do not yet know yourself you cannot know what humility is, and have not yet embarked truly on the task of cultivating and guarding. To know oneself is the goal of the path of virtues.[2]

This is why humility leads us to our own salvation. Great sinners who know themselves, who know their faults and weaknesses, who desire to be other than what they are, can humbly ask God for forgiveness and receive it. Even if they have not broken the habit of sin, so long as they contend against what their habits make them do, recognizing it is not who and what they should be, God is willing to forgive them and give them his grace when they ask of it. They might not be free from the slavery of sin, but they are on their way, and their desire, their humble desire for God and his grace, is able to help them and bring in saving grace. Thus, St Peter of Damaskos explains that those who have not yet repented (that is, broken out of the habit of sin and stopped sinning) and yet show humility and desire to overcome whatever sinful habit they have will find themselves receiving blessings from God:

But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (cf. Luke 18 : 13): this is enough to ensure your salvation. For he who sins without repenting, yet does not despair, must of necessity regard himself as the lowest of creatures, and will not dare to judge or censure anyone. Rather, he will marvel at God’s compassion, and will be full of gratitude towards his Benefactor, and so may receive many other blessings as well. [3]

This is one of many reasons why we should not judge the spiritual state of others, because we do not know the circumstances of their spiritual life. They might have various habits of sin which they have not been able to overcome, but in their humility and reliance on God, they are free from the guilt of the sin and are on their way to spiritual recovery. On the other hand, many who think they are superior because they do not have such habits are themselves far from God because they rely upon themselves through their pride.

Indeed, this also explains why St Ilias the Presbyter could say: “Truth without humility is blind. That is why it becomes contentious; it tries to support itself on something, and finds nothing but rancour.”[4] It is possible to know some objective element of truth, and use it to judge all things through pride. This, however, is judging while blind, because such objectivism does not know or see the subjective element and how it relates to a particular person’s spiritual state.

Scripture, likewise, shows us that God grants his mercy to those who are humble, while his grace rejected by those who act out of scorn. “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor” (Prov. 3:34 RSV). This is why humility is tied to charity, because by knowing our own selves properly, we see an understand everyone to be similar to us and in need of the same mercy and grace which we need for ourselves:

But if you have humility perfectly, then you shall have perfect charity, and that is best. We need to have the other if we want to be saved, but this we shall desire. Then if you ask me who is perfectly humble, you shall at this time have no more from me about humility than this: that man is humble who has true knowledge and feeling of himself as he is.[5]

According to Nikitas Stithatos, there are three kinds of humility: humility of speech, humility in action, and an interior humble disposition. Of the three, we can train ourselves to speak and act humbly, even when we are not humble inside, and so appear to embrace the virtue of humility while we do not:

To speak humbly is one thing, to act humbly is another, and to be inwardly humble is something else again. Through all manner of hardship and through the outward labours of virtue those engaged in spiritual warfare can attain the qualities of speaking and acting humbly, for these qualities require no more than bodily effort and discipline. But because the soul of such people often lacks inner stability, when temptation confronts them they are easily shaken. Inward humility, on the other hand, is something exalted and divine, bestowed through the indwelling of the Paraclete only one those who have passed the midpoint of the spiritual way – who have, that is to say, through acting in all humility transcended the rigorous path of virtue.[6]

We can train ourselves, to some degree, to imitate humility through our words and speech. It is important to do so. Nonetheless, we must remember to truly live out the spirit intended by such humble activity, to recognize our training is itself not free from pride if we think we are doing it all ourselves. To help us keep the proper spirit of humility, and not its letter, we must always keep in mind how all that we do is supported by the grace of God. Who we are, and what we can become, are gifts given to us by God; when we fail to recognize this, we easily become distracted by the good which we think we have accomplished and begin to develop false notions of our self which lead to prideful assertions and subsequently, unjust expectations upon others.  For this reason, when we see the good which we do, we must remember the source and foundation of our being, indeed, the source and foundation of every good is God, lest we try to replace God with ourselves, repeating within ourselves  the fall, not only of Adam, but of the devil: “He who humbles himself is illumined all the more, while he who refuses to humble himself remains in darkness, as was the case with him who was the Morning-star and is now the devil.” [7]

Every time we fall, we will be given the opportunity for grace.  We must not despair. We can learn the lesson of pride and, with God’s help, cast it aside. If we do so, we can then begin the path of humility. Evagrius, who from his own sins recognized how he once failed God through pride, was able to see through pride and recognize his need for God. From that experience he is able to tell us the signs of such humility so that we can begin to recognize it in ourselves if we have it:

Humility is a thankful acknowledge of God, a true recognition of one’s nature, a forceful confession of one’s weakness, a fortress for love, a refuge from hatred, an unfallen acropolis, a parting of diabolic waves, flight over the snares of the enemy, a natural overthrowing of Satan, a pleasing life, praise of enemies, a philosophy provided by God, and true friendship with wisdom.[8]

Humility first and foremost is thankful, thankful for all those who help us; spiritually, this means we will be thankful to God, recognizing not only how his grace has saved us, but also how God made us in and with such grace, so that our own nature is itself nothing without God’s grace. We will begin to see what that nature is and recognize both what it can do, but also its limitations. This will allow us to avoid the pitfall of pride which makes us think we can do more than we really can do. When we properly embrace humility, we will move away from all forms of scorn for others, all kinds of judgmentalism, and so share with others the mercy and love which we have received. Thus, with humility, we will become instruments of God’s peace, helping to restore our relationships with others thanks to the restoration of our right relationship with God. And this should not be surprising, for Jesus himself, the great mediator between God and humanity, was able mediate between the two thanks to his own humble spirit.

[1] Julian of Norwich, The Showings. Trans. Edmund College and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 323 [Long text].

[2] Nikitas Stithatos, “On the Inner Nature of Things,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Four. Trans and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 116 [#35].

[3] St. Peter of Damaskos, “That We Should Not Despair Even if We Sin Many Times” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 160.

[4] Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 39 [I #46].

[5] Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection. Trans. John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 139.

[6] Nikitas Stithatos, “On the Inner Nature of Things,” 114 [#25].

[7] St. Peter of Damaskos, “Love and Advice Given in Humility” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 187.

[8] Evagrius, “On the Vices Opposed to Virtues” in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 65 [9. Pride and humility].


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