[L]et us acquire the pure and guileless tears that come with the remembrance that we must die. There is nothing false in these, no sop to self-esteem. Rather do they purify us, lead us on in love of God, wash away our sins and drain away our passions.
~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7
Given the morbid nature of the practice, it is refreshing to see St. John Climacus connect tears and sadness with meditation on one’s mortality. To assert that we ought not grieve for death, pace the Stoics, would be inhuman indeed.
Said Abba Elias: “I fear three things: the first, the time just before my soul goes out from my body: the second, the time just before I meet God face to face: the third, the time just before he pronounces his sentence upon me.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.4
For a long, but relevant, read with regards to the subject at hand, see Richard John Neuhaus’s “Born Toward Dying,” which I just read today with the thought of death especially on my mind. Continue reading
After he has climbed all these degrees of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the top, the charity that is perfect and casts out all fear. And then, the virtues which first he practised with anxiety, shall begin to be easy for him, almost natural, being grown habitual. He will no more be afraid of hell, but will advance by the love of Christ, by good habits, and by taking pleasure in goodness. Our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, will deign to show this in the servant who has been cleansed from sin.
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Here we see the end for which humility strives, what makes it all worthwhile: charity, the highest form of love. St. Benedict here demonstrates how fully humility encapsulates so many themes of the fathers, reminding us that true love is hard work but well worth the effort. Continue reading
The twelfth degree of humility is, when the monk’s inward humility appears outwardly in his comportment. And wherever he be, in the divine office, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on a journey, in the fields wherever he is sitting, walking or standing, he is to look down with bowed head conscious of his guilt, imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement: repeating in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with eyes downcast: “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven”; and with the prophet “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Is there a way to separate humility from low self-esteem? On the one hand, the fathers are not a fan of self-esteem in the first place. Evagrios even refers to it as a demon. So perhaps not. And perhaps we are overly positive about the idea in our time in the first place. On the other hand, if low self-esteem means a defeatist mentality, the answer is definitely yes: they can be separated and are, in fact, distinct. Continue reading