Tag Archive: humility


Piety and Propriety

When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive. Continue reading

Racism and Asceticism

40a3c679a8a8c232f2bfaf15d6698bdfAt a meeting of monks in Scete, the old men wanted to test Abba Moses. So they poured scorn on him, saying: “Who is this blackamoor that has come among us?” Moses heard them, but said nothing. When the meeting had dispersed, the men who had given the insults, asked him: “Were you not troubled in your heart?” He answered: “I was troubled, and I said nothing.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Today is the feast day of St. Moses the Ethiopian, also known as St. Moses the Black. (I’ll give you three guesses why.)

As this saying shows racism is not new. No doubt it grows naturally (however viciously) from our tribal pasts, when one’s society was also one’s extended family. Not only were customs and culture shared, so was DNA and, thus, common physical characteristics. Continue reading

An Ascetic Epitome

There are a few similar sayings from the desert fathers to the one below, but I think it might be the most expansive. In any case, I think it stands alone just fine—one could consider every post on this blog as commentary on this one saying. It is an epitome of the ascetic life. The part that sits with me the most right now is “in deep humility.” Those three words are profound enough for me. Continue reading

The Top of the Ladder: Love

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 Ladder of Humility: Step 12

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

The Ladder of Humility: Step 11

The eleventh degree of humility is, when a monk discourses with moderation and composure, mixing humility with gravity; speaking few words, but home, and to the purpose; not raising the voice. “The wise man is known because he speaks little.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

This step of the ladder immediately reminds me of a saying from the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.

Indeed, across cultures the saying is true: “The wise man is known because he speaks little.” While it may disturb some that I would immediately think of a text from another religion, it is worth noting that St. Benedict here is quoting the Sentences of Sextus, a compilation of Christianized Pythagorean proverbs. As St. Justin put it, “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us”—for in the Logos, whose humility we are seeking to imitate through St. Benedict’s ladder, is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 9

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk controls his tongue and keeps silence till a question be asked. For the Scripture teaches that “in much talk you will not avoid sinning”; and “the talkative man shall live out his life haphazardly.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

“In much talk you will not avoid sinning.” This reminds me of Adam Smith’s take on justice. As it was told to me, to Smith justice is the only duty a man can perform by not doing anything. That is, to him, justice amounts to “do no harm,” and doing nothing harms no one. Personally, I would take a broader understanding of justice—and perhaps he does as well, I’m no expert in his ethics. But it does call to mind a true corollary: say nothing and you will be much less likely to sin with your tongue. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 8

The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk does nothing but what is countenanced by the constitutions of the monastery, or the example of the elders.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Once again, this step of the ladder needs a bit of translation for it to fit the context of those, like myself, who are not monks and live “in the world.” Regular, non-monastic folks do not have any “constitutions of the monastery.” Regular people, nevertheless, can still learn from this portion of St. Benedict’s regula. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 7

The seventh degree of humility is, when one does not merely call oneself the least and most abject of all mankind, but believes it, with sincerity of heart: humbling oneself and saying with the prophet: “I am a worm and no man: a scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.” “I have been exalted, humbled, and confounded.” And again: “It is good for me that thou hast humbled me, that I may learn to keep thy commandments.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

After the last step, I thought I had passed by the most difficult to explain, but this one is probably harder. How can a person honestly believe themselves to be “the least and most abject of all mankind”? Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 6

The sixth degree of humility is, if a monk be content with anything though never so vile and contemptible; and to think himself inadequate, and unworthy to succeed in whatever he is commanded to do; saying with the prophet: “I was brought to nothing and knew nothing. I am become like a brute beast before thee, yet I am always with thee.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

“Glory to God for all things!” These are the famous last words of St. John Chrysostom, whose memory, along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, we Orthodox celebrate today. This “sixth degree of humility” of St. Benedict’s ladder has the same spirit behind it. It is a difficult saying and a difficult step to embrace, but like all steps along the way of life, once traveled it seems much easier in hindsight. Continue reading