~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.22
Humility is often praised (perhaps paradoxically) in the most exalted ways by ancient Christians. But rightly so! I’ve heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” I’m not sure whether that is true, but humility, I know, is a “gateway to God.” It is a gateway virtue. I can see the public service announcement now: “Parents, have you talked to your children about humility?” If only, right? Humility, indeed, is so powerful in its apparent weakness that it can even turn suffering into great joy.
I am reminded of a saying of St. Anthony: “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over the world, and I said groaning, ‘What can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humiity.'”
Why might this be? Among other things, humility is an awareness of one’s own smallness. In the midst of trials and temptations, the one who says, “I am nothing; God is everything,” has the right perspective. All that comes he or she takes as God’s will, knowing God to be trustworthy and good beyond measure.
I am also reminded of two Scriptures. The first is from St. James the Just: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3-4). This admonishment is bizarre by modern standards. How can one be joyful in the midst of “various trials”?
The basic misconception is that “joy” is something non-cognitive and involuntary. It is an impression, like the sense of touch. This is not how ancient Christians understood passion. A good passion, like joy, is a proper judgment with regards to a good or evil. Joy, in particular, is a proper judgment regarding a present good, and the only true good is virtue and the things of God.
Thus St. James is asking his readers to take stock of their situation. The suffering of “various trials,” if endured well, manifests humility from within us in the form of the virtue of patience. And humility, the “gateway to God,” can pass through all the snares of this world.
The next Scripture is from the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, commonly known simply as Revelation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven” (4:1).
“These things” refers to seven messages he received to send to the churches of Asia Minor. After recording these letters, he receives a vision of a heavenly liturgy, including Christ shining like precious stones and sitting on a throne, four frightening creatures (traditional representations of the four Gospels), twenty-four mysterious elders, seven lampstands (representing the Holy Spirit), and so on. It’s all the stuff people typically think of when they think of the book, but perhaps little is thought of the effect: could anyone endure such a sight without humility?
Yet we learn that St. John first passes through “a door standing open in heaven.” We do not need to wonder at this open door. In one of the seven letters, he records the words of Christ to Philadelphia: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept my word, and have not denied my name” (3:8). Persistence in faith in the midst of trial brings “an open door.” If we take that persistence itself to be the “open door” to heaven, then this passage makes the same point as St. James.
All this is wonderful: Trials are opportunities for humility, and humility brings true joy. But trials are still trials. Suffering still hurts. How does thinking little of oneself really fix all that?
The basic answer is that it doesn’t. It doesn’t make the nonsensical make sense. It doesn’t make what is evil good. It does, however, give us the right perspective in the midst of unreason and evil.
Thinking little of oneself—being humble—helps one to hold one’s tongue before saying, “This isn’t fair!” I am reminded of Job, who after losing all he had, including his family and his health, still asks, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10) As it turns out, he then goes on to lament the day of his birth and cry out to God for justice. But he has the right attitude despite it all. His confidence is in God. He expects that there is some explanation that could make sense of it all. What he gets, however, is something else entirely.
After nearly forty chapters of Job lamenting his existence and his terrible friends telling him it must just all be his fault, everyone goes silent and we are told that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (38:1). God’s response: I made everything; what’ve you ever done?
It hardly qualifies as an answer to Job’s complaint, but Job’s reaction is quite instructive:
I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees you.
Therefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes. (42:5-6)
What Job received was beyond words (though he received a lot of those too). It is as if his eyes had been opened to God for the first time. Job, though greatly humbled—or rather, because he was so greatly humbled—now beheld God himself. Though he lost everything of the world—truly good things!—he gained the All of heaven. Humility proved the “gateway to God” for him and the key to that saying of Christ from the Gospel: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). And that is reason for great joy.