Tag Archive: humility


The Joy of Thy Salvation

Lesson after the Presanctified Liturgy

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Grand Rapids, Michigan

March 30, 2022

Introduction

A story from the desert Fathers provides a fitting image for our topic tonight:

The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”

In chapters 14 through 18 of Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander focuses on the topics of humility, watchfulness, resolution, and prayer. Without humility, we cannot be watchful. Without watchfulness or “vigilance,” we cannot be resolute. Without resolution—“the will to resist” temptation—we cannot truly pray. Then, no matter how holy we may seem to our brothers and sisters, their praise only amounts to window dressing, while inside the houses of our hearts, nothing of value remains. We have allowed burglars—our temptations—to steal away our virtue while we weren’t looking, too self-absorbed to notice.

Colliander connects these four elements in the second paragraph of chapter 14:

Humility is a prerequisite, for the proud man is once and for all shut out. Vigilance is necessary in order immediately to recognize the enemies and to keep the heart free from vice. The will to resist must be established at the very instant the enemy is recognized. But since without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5), prayer is the basis on which the whole battle depends.

My intention in this talk tonight is to augment Colliander’s discussion of these four elements by fleshing out some of the Fathers’ teachings that he sometimes leaves implicit in these chapters. With greater nuance, then, I hope we’ll be able to have a deeper discussion of these essential spiritual tools as they relate to our own lives.

Continue reading

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