Category: Humility


The Ladder of Humility: Step 3

The third degree of humility is, when anyone submits himself with obedience to his superior for the sake of the love of God, after the example of the Lord, of whom the apostle says: “He was made obedient even unto death.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Today is the 221st anniversary of the public execution of King Louis XVI of France. How fitting to reflect on obedience to one’s superiors on a day when men of the modern age claimed to have none, God included. Continue reading

The second degree of humility is, if anyone, not wedded to his own will, finds no pleasure in the compassing of his desires; but fulfils with his practice the word of our Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Scripture also says: “Pleasure hath its penalty, but need winneth a crown.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced the logic of humility and then the first step—the fear of God—we now come to the second step: self-denial through spiritual practice. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 1

The first degree, then, of humility is, to have the fear of God ever before our eyes: never to forget what is his due, and always to remember his commands: to revolve in the mind how hell burns those who have contemned God, and how God has prepared eternal life for them that fear him: to preserve ourselves from the sins and vices of thought, of the tongue, the eyes, hands, feet, self-will and fleshly desires.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced St. Benedict’s ladder of humility in my previous post, we come now to this cheery beginning: “the fear of God” and “how hell burns”! I think, however, upon closer examination these will not seem so gloomy. Or, well, they will not be gloomy in the usual way, that is. Continue reading

[B]rethren, if we want to attain true humility, and come quickly to the top of that heavenly ascent to which we can only mount by lowliness in this present life, we must ascend by good works, and erect the mystical ladder of Jacob, where angels ascending and descending appeared to him. That ascent and descent means that we go downward when we exalt ourselves, and rise when we are humbled. The ladder represents our life in this world, which our Lord erects to heaven when our heart is humbled. And the sides of the ladder represent our soul and body, sides between which God has placed several rungs of humility and discipline, whereby we are to ascend if we would answer his call.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

The excerpt above begins St. Benedict of Nursia’s teaching on the ladder of humility, which consists of twelve degrees (or, we might say, steps) as well as the top of the ladder itself. In order to take each degree seriously, I intend this to be the first installment of a running series. We begin at the base of the ladder with the above introduction by St. Benedict to the logic of humility. Continue reading

O Voice of God

In honor of the Feast of the Theophany today and the synaxis of St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) tomorrow, I offer the following.

It is inspired by reflecting on an interesting disparity in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Christ (which we celebrate in the Theophany). In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the voice of the Father booms from the heavens, declaring Jesus his beloved Son. In the Gospel of John, however, no voice is mentioned. That is, no voice is mentioned other than John the Baptist, who responds to the Pharisees that he is neither the Prophet, nor the Christ, but, quoting Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” In the Fourth Gospel, John is the voice of God. This curiosity was confirmed to me by a hymn for the feast of the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist (which is in the summer) that refers to him in just this way: as the voice of God. Thus, the following petitions are addressed to John, through whom the voice of God spoke, witnessing to the central confession of the Gospel: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Continue reading

Teachable Moments

An old man said: “If you fall ill, do not be a weakling. If the Lord God has willed that your body be feeble, who are you to bear it with grief? Does he not look after you in all you need? Surely you do not live without him. Be patient in your illness, and ask him to give you what is right—that is, that you may do his will, and abide in patience, and in charity eat what you have.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.45

It is easy, perhaps even justified, to dismiss a saying like this one as simply one of the less sensitive sayings of the fathers. However, I think a more charitable reading can be quite fruitful. The monk who said this wants those who ponder it to question their perspective on life, particularly suffering. Too often people presume that all suffering is a bad thing. This old man reminds us that even those who suffer have much to be thankful for, that all things happen in accord with God’s will, and that every moment of our lives is thus a teachable moment. Continue reading

Creative Destruction of the Soul

Saint Syncletice also said: “If you are troubled by illness, do not be melancholy, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body; in this they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.17

This is not an easy saying, but it is a very important one. So much so that I have reflected on it once before. The desert fathers (and mothers, as in this case) offer a different perspective on suffering than what the world teaches. St. Syncletice here teases out the implications of the saying of Christ: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24). Sickness and suffering are little tastes of death. We can have a new, resurrected life but not without dying first. If we want new creation, we must first submit to the destruction of the old. Continue reading

Humility: The Gateway Virtue

Abba John the Short said: “The gateway to God is humility. Our fathers endured much suffering and so entered the city of God with joy.”

~ 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.'” Continue reading

Fool! Heretic!

Once a provincial judge heard of Abba Moses and went to Scete to see him. They told the old man that he was on his way, and he rose up to flee into the marsh. The judge and his train met him, and asked: “Tell me, old man, where is the cell of Abba Moses?” And the old man said: “Why do you want to see him? He is a fool and a heretic.”

The judge came to the church, and said to the clergy: “I heard of Abba Moses and came to see him. But an old man on his way to Egypt met me, and I asked him where was the cell of Abba Moses. And he said: ‘Why are you looking for him? He is a fool and a heretic.'” And the clergy were distressed and said: “What sort of person was your old man who told you this about the holy man?” And they said: “He was an old man, tall and dark, wearing the oldest possible clothes.” And the clergy said: “That was Abba Moses. And he told you this about himself because he did not want you to see him.” And the judge went away much edified.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.10

In the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Western tradition), there is an ascetic tradition of the “holy fool” or “fool for Christ’s sake.” The basic concept is that, as a matter of ascetic calling, one may accept an extreme discipline: pretending madness in order to incite scorn and so avoid the praises of others. The goal is the most pure humility, but the practice can look sort of odd. Abba Moses was not, strictly speaking, a holy fool, but he does at times (as in this story) display a little of what that looks like. Indeed, he shows that sometimes what is foolish to the world may actually be a manifestation of true wisdom. Continue reading

Spiritual Utopianism

[Abba Poemen] said: “If a man makes a new heaven and a new earth, he still cannot be safe from temptation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.24A

The Roman Catholic saint Thomas More famously coined the term utopia in his book of the same name. It is actually a play on words: “topos” is Greek for “place,” whereas “ou” is Greek for “no” and “eu” is Greek for “good.” Thus one may understand it either way (“no place” or “good place”), though the likely intention is to say that the perfection of utopian societies is unattainable this side of the parousia, the return of Jesus Christ. It seems that Abba Poemen would agree.

Utopia as a concept is much discussed in the context of political theory and public policy. I do not wish to explore that here, though having found this saying I don’t doubt that I will reflect on it further in that context in a more appropriate forum at some later date. For now, however, I would rather examine the dangers of utopian thinking for our everyday, spiritual life. Continue reading