Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Psychotherapy and Philosophy

 

Self-esteem, or Humility? The course from tragedy to catharsis

Transcript of a sermon by Protopresbyter fr. Constantine Strategopoulos, which took place in the Sacred Temple of Saint Panteleimon of the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada on the 14-3-2010.

Fr. Constantine Strategopoulos was for decades the Head of the Department for Overseas Mission of the Church of Greece. He is now a parish priest, at the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Athens Greece. 

 

Let me make a small introduction - historical, I would call it; it is just a couple of lines long - which may help you to understand the meaning... make a correlation that will be familiar to you... penetrate a little into the social mentality of Ancient Greece where - as you know - according to Aristotle's definition, "man is a social being".  This is a basic definition which - given the measures of Ancient Greece's philosophy - is something very essential and quite advanced, because a "social being" negates egotism and exclusion.

This was of course a good thing for Ancient Greece where Christianity was absent; but in the sphere of Christianity, to be a social being is not enough.  And, even though I could quote numerous terminologies, I will present the passing from Ancient Greece onwards, from that sociability that precludes all forms of egotism, of fenced-off people. I could describe that theological passage - and essentially the anthropological one - within the space of the New Testament, and the very familiar phrase by the Fathers, who say that man is not simply a social being; he is a "deifiable animal" (Pan. Nellas, Grk.:"Zwon Theoumenon").  This comparison alone gives you a definition that will help you understand that even if we are "social" (where the social element surpasses individualism, you make friends, you become acquainted, you converse, you have the courage to stand by someone else), the element of deification is not there, and these things are only half of the whole...

So, during the evolution of the history of sociology of mankind, we have the social being - the Aristotelian and Ancient Greek one - and then we have the surpassing of it, which is the deifiable animal. While the term "being" is a very abstract one: a being, an animal.... The term "animal" I would say is even a detrimental one, for the balance of man's egotism.  (Just imagine being called an animal right this moment - it will make you very angry!)  But yes, man is an animal, except he is an animal that can become deified. Therefore, this course - this association - has to do with God. It has nothing to do with society, because society is not the absolute merit system: What are the standards of "society"? What are the definitions of "society"? How can I cure myself with a standard called "society", and exactly what society would that be?  Because, in order to ensure a cure, you must have good medicine and good medical practice.

Thus, the passing over to Orthodoxy from within that "deifiable animal" is an amazing thing, for the therapy of man's dangerous element whereby (as mentioned at the beginning) he does not want to be social, or, he wants to be only social, per the standards of sociability. Neither of these are enough in the Church.  We can be one society and yet be at each others' throats; we can simply tolerate each other because we have to survive, work, or stay at home because we can't do otherwise, but again, we are also at each others' throats... Ergo, the social element is not enough. The element of deification however, is enough. 

I will linger somewhat more today on the matter of egotism, and give you some examples. However, because I have mentioned the word "self-esteem" in this terminology of mine, I need to make a contradistinction because this word nowadays is extremely opportune and dangerous - especially in contemporary education. The word "self-respect" (self esteem) as far as I can remember was inserted in official educational structures and in educational texts - some four or five years now - and it is not only about an educational balance; it also touches many other carriers: schools of psychology, psychotherapy, etc...  In fact there are several schools here, in the Glyfada suburb of Athens, which have as their motto - their personal quote - the person's self esteem. Should they see a child at school that appears somewhat reserved or intimidated, they assert that it lacks self esteem.  What is self esteem? First of all, self esteem disregards society, it forgets about the deifiable animal and society, and instead, tells you to measure up against your own self - whereas Aristotle at least measured up against society, whatever kind that may be.... Whatever kind.... To merely tolerate someone who is next to you, even if it means forcing yourself, naturally is not a good thing. The Church measures Herself up with God.  With self esteem - which is the infrastructure of our contemporary education and extremely dangerous - you only measure up against your own self.  So, we have here a first exclusion which - instead of healing - brings on a tragedy.  Whenever I studied the texts of those schools of self esteem (and I'm telling you, we have quite a few here in Glyfada; in fact one of these schools is extremely dangerous, catastrophic in its operation), this is precisely what is being done: they see a person who is afraid or can't tolerate others and has that egotism which is detrimental to our lives, they claim that he lacks self esteem...etc...etc...  Thus, instead of heading for a course towards the deifiable animal and cultivate theology and therapeutics for man who is an animal (because without God, he is just an animal) and become deified, we disregard even ancient Greece and Aristotle and go much further back - to self esteem. Which means, the measure is Me.

Now, as I begin to analyze this topic, I will first of all remind you of several passages from the New Testament, where they regard this notion of self esteem to be truly dangerous; they do not exactly mention it with the term "self esteem", but the passages that are described in the Scripture are very clearly defined and specific and obviously refer to this element of self esteem.  Remember that awesome phrase in the 8th chapter of Mark's Gospel, which we don't understand very well?  It is such a familiar phrase, and we all know it. It says:  "For, whoever wants to save his life, loses it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel's, shall save it" (Matthew 16:25).  Notice what it says?  Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. You may ask:  what does that mean?  I want to save my life but I will lose it?  Ah, but it specifies: "for My sake and the Gospel's". So, what does "saving his life" imply then? It means to collect himself, to analyze himself, to psychoanalyze himself, to think about what he is...it means self-respect, placing a circle around himself...

"Whoever wants to save his life..." AND be confined to himself....   Unfortunately, there are very many groups or schools, the so-called "therapeutic" ones in the area of the soul (who cannot heal it and yet that's how they refer to it) who are based on that model. You see, the element of psychoanalysis is the continuation of the analysis of one's self - of who you are...  In classic Freudian psychoanalysis, in the practice by Freud, you needed "psychoanalysis" three times a week for five years; talking on your own, discovering yourself on your own. The therapist remains silent, even after his role had evolved and taken on tens of forms.  But the point is "Whoever wants to save his life...". Who am I? What am I and why am I?  The Church says quite simply:  "a deifiable animal" - with the weighing up, the comparison, the course, the stance before God - THAT is where you will compete and not with the Aristotelian measure, where you compare yourself to a society that has certain theories. This is about "Whoever wants to save his life..." and "Whoever wants to save his life, loses it..."  Which means you should simply take this statement and apply it in your daily problems, i.e.: Why is this so? Why is it otherwise? Why is this happening to me? Why am I encountering this?  This is the catalytic thing that Christ speaks of - it is catalytic, and (forgive me for pointing this out), you are aware of it from your personal experience, you do it every day: "Why me?" "Why is this happening to me?" "Why is he/she treating me like that?".  This is the catalytic element that Christ was referring to. This is the first quote that I am submitting in my rebuttal of self-esteem, in order to proceed to its therapy, which is humility.

Of course I can bring to mind other quotes....you surely remember that passage where some people were invited to a feast but other things preoccupied them:  God invited them, but one of them said "I purchased a field, and I need to go out and see it" (Luke 14:18) - see the focus on his own affairs? Then the other man said "I purchased five pairs of oxen, and I am going there to check them" (Luke 14:19) - again, focusing on himself and his own interests. And the other man: "I have taken me a wife" (Luke 14:20).  These passages - especially in Patristic theology and in spite of the fact that we are aware of them and resort to them - have a deeply therapeutic beauty and they even have something to say to such suspicions of theories which assert: "Behold, we now possess the manner to heal the one who lacks self-esteem".  All such individuals turn towards their self, their things, their oxen, their wife, their fields...  Well, here is another exemplar of a turnabout; notice the contradistinction that the Apostle Paul makes. When speaking of fornication, he says: "..or did you not know that he who clings to a harlot is one body (with her) ? for it is said that the two become one flesh; but the one who clings to the Lord is one spirit (with Him).." (1 Cor.6:16-17). He contradistinguishes - you will notice -  between the clinging to another person and refers to it as unchaste, as compared to the clinging to God. 

Under this theology, every other clinging - and not only the sexual one that you may imagine here (which is where the Apostle Paul commences from) - that clinging is a kind of fornication.  In the Church, fornication is what we know in physical magnitudes; however in the theology of the Fathers, it can be overcome. Notice how "The one who clings to a whore is one flesh with her....the one who clings to the Lord....". The same word in both examples.  Notice the phrase in the second chapter of Genesis: "...and he shall cling to his woman, and they shall be as one flesh..." (Genesis 2:24). But this is a clinging seen through the eye of God - in God's sight... it is the same word... in other words, it is once again a revolving around one's self: What I am clinging to, what my problems are, how do I settle my problems...

Remember that passage with the foolish rich man, who thought only of himself, "on his own"? Notice how he speaks to no-one; he is there, "on his own"; he turns towards himself and says I have this, and I shall build that, and I shall demolish that, I shall build that...  He talks to himself. He makes a peculiar self-analysis, one that contains an element of self-esteem: I can do this and this and this.... See? These are passages that come before us today and confront such so-called newfound theories in a catalytic way, thus precisely highlighting the beauty of the Gospel texts.  See? We read that the Pharisee "stood alone" (Luke 18:11) - pay close attention to the words used. When you read the Gospel, you should get its general meaning; you already know the story (and who doesn't?) of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee, but you must observe the words according to the methodology of the Fathers.  Notice that although the hermeneutic methodology of the Fathers may be for us to perceive the meaning, however, for the meaning to be perceived, you must analyze the material that constructs that meaning.  I look at a creation here, before me, and what material it is made of.  The Fathers begin with the material, so observe once again in the parable of the Pharisee, who "standing alone, prayed thus...".  He prayed, as you can see, but not to God. His was a stance of self-esteem. You could envisage the Pharisee as the absolute model of self-esteem, because he "stands alone" - and in fact while praying.  Let me say it like this - if the expression can be called a proven one (which it isn't) - he is uttering a... psychoanalytical prayer. But, he is analyzing himself and thus showing self-esteem. We have many such passages - I am only quoting a few of them - merely to prove the point I am making.

You can also see in the healing of the ten lepers, where only one of them turned back. "Were not the ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Were they not found, to return to give glory to God?" (Luke 17:17-18)  See, it is not an independent therapeutic matter. Yes, they were healed, but they also weren't healed, because they didn't attribute their therapy to God or divert it towards Him.  How many times have we heard Christ telling (the paralytic man) that "your sins are forgiven" (Luke 17:17-18)?   And you hear people around you ask "what does sin have to do with walking?"  Well, if you are powerful enough to heal him, then you tell him to "walk".  Why does He first say "your sins are forgiven" and afterwards, "pick up your bed and walk"? Well, it is because that turn towards healing is attributed to one's turn towards God.

And, naturally, the most important detail in these matters is the well-known verse that is quoted in Gospel texts - and not only once. I am reading this text from Luke: regarding what the structure of man's soul is.  You all know this text, but you should hold on to it - not as an exemplary text - but as a textual guide on man's soul.  What is the first commandment? "You shall love the Lord your God, with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind and all of your might." (Mark 12:30). You see? it says "with ALL", and it sets out all the magnitudes of the soul, the intellect, everything... That is the first one.  Then comes the second commandment:  "you shall love your neighbour as your self"  (Mark 12:31).  This means that  if the first commandment doesn't exist - or any other kind of social concern - then it is both an Aristotelian view and an abstract one, and not at all therapeutic, because you aren't orientating yourself in the direction that you were made to orientate.  You see, in the Church (the Church being the only one that heals souls), the basic therapeutic move is to take the sinner, the repentant one, the one who struggles, and turn him towards God.  We do not sit there and analyze his problems; we move on. But we must turn our mind towards God. 

So, we hear one say: "I have sinned... what should I do?"

"Pray", I tell him.

"What does that have to do with it?" he asks me.

Well, even if I impose penance, penance isn't a form of punishment that will balance out the sin you have committed. That is forgiven by God.  Penance is a therapeutic means, nothing more.  You must make a turn towards God.

Notice how God works these therapeutic means: I will give you one example only.  When God says to the Hebrews (just a few days before the Exodus from Egypt, in view of their journey to the Promised Land):  "Come and enter the Promised Land" and they send out a few scouts ahead of the others and discover that the territory there is extremely harsh - that it has fortifications, it has walls, it has an army etc., the scouts return and inform Moses that "this cannot be done; how are we to enter this land? They have horses, they have weapons, they have tanks (that's how I'd say it) and we have nothing."  Only two of the scouts that were sent out resisted - Joshua and Caleb, who said "No, no, if God said so, we shall enter". But the Hebrews are opposed. Notice what God says immediately after this:  "Didn't you want to go into the land now?" (and - pay attention here - they would have entered, without the need for weapons)... and remember here the words of Psalm 19:8, which says "they be with chariots and they be with horses, but we shall be magnified, in the name of the Lord God", which is what we recite and chant during Easter Week and constitutes the substructure of our lives....if we don't remember details like this, then what do we remember?  Anyway, God says to them "ok, you didn't want to enter the Promised Land now, without the need for weapons; then you shall wander in the desert for forty years". That wasn't punishment, it was a therapy.  God forgives, there and then, and in fact the people there and then begged His forgiveness, saying to Him "My God, forgive me".  The people didn't know, so God says "I forgive them".  He may have forgiven them, but, He imposed forty years of wandering in the desert for therapeutic reasons....

Thus, for example, you may have contracted cancer because you ate something harmful... I don't know... maybe because you smoked... well, along comes the surgeon and removes the cancer.  And the Church will say "alright, if you have quit the habit, you're forgiven". But, in order to restore a wounded organism, it requires time, and a therapeutic methodology.

And that was a forty year-long therapeutic method. See? Scriptural texts in which everyone turns towards God.  Even Moses buckled for a moment.  Forty years go by, and they are on the outskirts of the Promised Land. And it was said, that "all those who disbelieved shall not enter, except for Caleb and Joshua, who shall enter".  It says nothing about Moses.  Moses did not disbelieve. It was a mere few days before entering the Promised Land and they had no water; the people began to complain and moan, over and over again... and they absolutely wore out Moses. Even though he had performed so many miracles....  And yet, even Moses had a small moment - if I may be allowed to use the expression - a small moment of weakness, when he said "well, shall water spring from this rock?"  - read the Book of Numbers - and so God tells Moses "Strike that rock, and water shall spring forth from it".  He was tired. He struck the rock the first time but no water came out of it. The second time, he struck it and water gushed out.  What did that signify?  He had a minor moment of disbelief, and God tells him that "for this disbelief, neither shall you enter the Promised Land".  What did that mean?  It meant that an absolute turn to God is that which solidifies the ability to transcend Aristotle's "social being", so that we don't fall into the trap and the tragedy of self-esteem and self-analysis, but instead, turn to God... which is what the Church does continuously.

Let me recall one or two more such verses - which you may be familiar with, but they are usually just quoted and used in catechism lessons. What was that expression by Apostle Paul? "I live no longer, but Christ lives within me"  (Gal.2:20).. This is a phrase that seems ever so nice, very romantic... a very powerful statement...  Did you understand, did you sense what this implies? "I live no longer, but Christ lives within  me"?   It is that precise turn by man towards God. With his all. If you happen to cave somewhere, or if tomorrow you become desperate about the so-called financial crisis, or about a certain sickness or a certain difficulty, or because someone spoke to you in a harsh manner, then that continuity - that perpetual turn towards God - will be broken.  Can you see how your heart never stops beating?  If it stops for even a few seconds, you will die.  Well, man is made for that perpetual, uninterrupted turn towards God, in everything. Be careful - don't ever say that it can't be done, for it is the only way things should be done, otherwise everything else is just a sickly situation, and, when living in the Church - where you may often be offended by another person, when they say something ugly and you can't handle it - you lose that course towards God.  You repent afterwards, but the continuity is lost, the heart will lose its rhythm, the interruption of regular breathing for a few minutes will create other problems: to the lungs, to the respiratory system and further problems are created, which we do not comprehend.  And then we wonder "But why? Why? We struggle within the Church!" Well, it is because we lack that continuity: "with all of our heart, with all of our mind" and that other scriptural quote of "revert continuously".  And then there's the other familiar phrase: "whosoever denies me before people, I shall deny him also, before my Father in the heavens" (Matth.10:33).  What does "deny" mean?  Is it when we have a moment of weakness and deny Christ and then repent?  To "deny" is -precisely- to interrupt that continuity; I no longer have that full and absolute trust in the Lord and thus fall into the trap, forgetting that "they be with chariots and they be with horses, but we shall be magnified, in the name of the Lord God". And yet, that is the general framework, wherein lies the building material that will edify humility inside us, because now I shall proceed to analyze Patristic texts and you will see that humility has this basic element hidden beneath it.

Humility is not that which we often imagine.  It is a most profound virtue, but it contains inside it that nucleus which I just pointed out - in a very elementary form, albeit with very few scriptural quotes to confirm it, so that it will always remain in your mind. I had a few other verses in mind also, but I won't read them, so that I can proceed to the patristic thoughts which are absolutely amazing and which introduce us to how that humility can become a practice by us - and not let us think that because we do certain deeds in a humble manner, it automatically implies that we are actually humble.

It is about that uninterrupted continuity - that absolute quality, which is "with all of our heart".  You see, nowadays, if a hundred people insult you and you don't become angry with the ninety-nine of them but you become slightly offended by one, then you have no humility, say the Fathers. "But....." you will say "it was only one time!"  But then, where is that "uninterrupted" element?  If we don't breathe for one minute, we die.  The Fathers in fact say the following, in a very quaint manner:  When, in a monastery they hang out the laundry that they have washed, they need an expanse; they have several poles and ropes - every ten metres there is a pole and rope. It is essential to have poles. But, if there are no ropes to join them, they will have nowhere to hang their laundry.  I say the same thing, using another example:  If you notice, the Electricity Company's pylons transfer electricity; every 100 metres there is a pylon and there are wires.  The pylons are very essential, but there also needs to be that continuity, right?  So, if I now embark on humility and after one hundred metres exercise some more humility, but in between I don't, then the power flow will cease.  That's what the Fathers say, using their own examples of course, since they didn't know of the technology of electricity in their day.  I'm only telling it to you in a more contemporary version.

It is stressed even more emphatically and very beautifully, by Saint Gregory Palamas. He persevered on the topic, because he involved himself extensively with the Prayer of the Heart, (which has that perpetual element of incessant prayer) and wanted to make it a lifelong practice, and not just a theory where one merely repeats the words "Lord have mercy"... You can actually be in a state of incessant prayer, without even uttering "Lord have mercy"... that is, if you are turned towards God, if you are fully trusting in Him - to not be swayed this morning by insults, by accusations, by the present crisis, by the perversion, by whatever is going on in society. No, we must not be indifferent; we intervene therapeutically, but unperturbed.  Do you see a doctor becoming upset by a patient? No.  If he isn't completely balanced, if he doesn't have balanced nerves and logic, he will not be able to do his job properly.  So, you should hold on to this element.  Of course we are living in a world of turbulence: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep among wolves" (Matth.10:16), but: "let not your heart be disturbed; believe in God and believe in Me." (John 14:1).  I am saying this on account of our own weaknesses.

Having now analyzed as much as we could this notion of self-esteem (which is a catastrophic thing - a tragedy), it should be noted that every tragedy, along the lines of Ancient Hellenic tragedy, always includes a catharsis. Of course, what we in Orthodox Theology refer to as "catharsis" is a profound magnitude - a most essential magnitude, which essentially pertains to the first steps of our spiritual life: catharsis (cleansing)...  The Church similarly moves within this sphere of catharsis, so I will mention a few Patristic excerpts, in order to confirm as much as possible the practicing of humility. However, because today it is the day we commemorate Saint John of the Ladder (a truly challenging day), I couldn't omit to commence with - and pause emphatically on - at least one of the "rungs" of Saint John's Ladder - the one that refers to his words on humility.  So, we have a rung.... in fact, it is the 25th one (a very advanced step) - the step of humility.  Some of the texts that he analyzes are an amazing piece of work - a work that is a guide, where, by collecting all preceding theology (that is, prior to Saint John of the Ladder) and patristic theology, neptic theology which he is familiar with - he collects it all in a unique manner and thus opens up paths that lead to humility.  I will now read a few excerpts from Saint John of the Ladder, so that we can observe humility as critically as we can:

He makes an assumption when beginning his essay on humility, and envisages that there is a conference. And at that gathering - just like we are gathered here - they have to decide on something and discuss something.  So, the conference begins (you will note that Saint John has a very practical mind - he has a viewpoint in mind and he cleverly envisages a conference that begins to convene).

"We have convened here to discuss and to examine in depth the significance of an inscription that we found".

They had discovered an inscription on a sign and were wondering "What could this inscription mean? What is the meaning of this inscription? What is this thing?"  The sign that they had discovered in the ruins of an archaeological site bore the title "Holy Humility".  Well, they were familiar with the word "humility", but they were stumped: "What is this sign? And where had it been placed?"  Was there a shop somewhere that sold humility? And why does it say "holy humility"?  Is there a humility that isn't holy?  So, those people had convened a conference - let's say a monastic conference.  I'm not exactly sure how the story came to light - because John of the Ladder was an ascetic for many years and communicated with other ascetics - so there may have been a like incident, because these were the kinds of stories that they exchanged.  Even nowadays, the fathers on the Holy Mountain - the elderly fathers - when they exchange visits to each others' cells, these are the kinds of topics that they discuss... Don't imagine that they discuss other matters, the way we do and waste our time; they analyze such topics and they expend themselves in lovely discussions such as these.  Anyway, they discovered this sign and it became a topic for discussion there - that is, for the community at Sinai: what could the meaning of that sign be?  Some would have probably commented: "it's about humility, but why Holy Humility? We need to analyze this thing."  So they got together in an attempt to find the meaning of that inscription and were each giving their various thoughts on the matter. Let's see some of those thoughts, as recorded here by Saint John:

One of them said:

"Humility is to immediately forget your achievements". 

This is a lovely expression - what we are looking at here are essential points of course, but they aren't unique.  Everyone had something to say, and, as is normal in a conciliar situation, everyone added something to the overall beauty of the enterprise. But you however should hold on to the individual aspects: for instance, I already mentioned the first one: to immediately forget your achievements - that is, everything that you regard as an achievement. Well, a first question here would be: what does "achievement" imply?  Because even if you do regard something as an achievement, don't mention it. I could go into the practical implementation here; for example, let's go to the edification of a child, where your sixteen-year-old child has done something to upset you very much with his/her behaviour; well, if you say to that child:

"....when I have worked hard to raise you, I have cried for you, I have wept at your bedside when you were sick, I was the one who fed you....", then Saint John will comment that "you are wrong".  You have recalled your achievements here; you have no humility.  Another saint will say to you - a neptic father, Saint Nilus:

"So, you have done all these things for your child?  Well, that means you are seeking something in return; you probably expect the child to say 'Well done, thank you very much'..."

Then all those pains - which are admirable pains (the mother hurting for her child) - all go to waste and are lost, for two reasons:  because that person is expecting something in return when he/she says something like "I did this for you"... That person has forgotten what the first commenter of the conference said: that he/she has recalled his/her achievements.  This was just one example here, to present the matter in a more practical manner....

Or, we could envisage a teacher entering a classroom and saying:

"...I have worked so hard all year, I have gone crazy in here, and now you throw paper airplanes at me during lessons?  I have done this and this and this for you, I even brought videos and computers for you, and took you on excursions..."

By just saying these words to the students means a failed cause, because he too is recalling his achievements. And you should know that a child that has its own sins, its own (often disturbed) balance of the mind, its own ego, can discern an egotist easily, in which case, that teacher won't be worth anything any more...or, that mother also won't be worth anything any more...   And then you ask "What should I do in this case?"   We hear things like that during confession, so we say "well, what's done is done; you should now change the existing balance, but you have already said those things..."  And that will require a great deal of work.  Moses was in the desert for forty years... I don't know how much, but it definitely requires a great deal of work, and we forget things like this.

This was the first suggestion - an amazing and a deciding one....

Someone else suggested that one should regard himself as the last and most sinful of all the others... well, this is a familiar expression, but how do you achieve it?  Just a minute here:  it is one thing to simply state "I am very sinful" - that's quite easy - but it is a totally different thing to live it - it should not be "felt" either, because to "feel" is a psychological state.  The Fathers here are suggesting to actually live it ("I no longer live, for Christ lives within me"). So, be careful, "feeling" is entirely different, because it is just an expression: I imagine it, I even impose it on myself and strive to deflect everything else away from me, whereas therapy is to actually live what you state.  But how can that be done?  By regarding yourself a sinner.  NOT in regard to those near you only, because most certainly other people are also sinners (anyway, who can measure the degrees of sinfulness?), but in regard to the sinlessness of God. Note carefully here, that we sin "before God", which is the key to that Patristic balance on this matter; otherwise, what would the measure be, if we merely state that we are more sinful than "others" in general?  God is the measure.  Therefore, given that we sin more or less than other people, we tend to say "look, I only did this thing once, whereas the other guy did the same thing ten times".  Well, that is a mathematical approach to the issue; before God however, both the "once" and the "half" and the "one second only" are the same thing...  Moses faltered for just one second, and water didn't gush from the rock the first time he struck it... for just one second...  Well, God's mathematics are different.  We may indulge in our kind of math - that I am more sinful than the others - but is that how things are? No - it is whether I have sinned before God.  Remember the catalytic comparison in the parable with the prodigal son, where the prodigal checks himself versus the benevolence of the father: "I have sinned, unto the heaven and before you" (Luke 15:21), whereas the other son compares himself against the sinfulness of his brother. Can you see the paradigm here?  See what treasures the Holy Bible contains? The Bible that we all know, with all its narrations that are otherwise so familiar to us.  Who do the comparisons refer to?  "I have sinned, unto the heaven and before you".... Isn't that also the case, as with the tax-collector? ... "Have mercy on me, the sinner..." (Luke 18:13) he had said, whereas the Pharisee was saying: "...I am not like the tax-collector...".  Exactly the same as the previous example.

With the things that are being said here - all so familiar - I am merely codifying familiar things for your lives. However, you should never state: "I am more sinful than the others..." because the moment you say "Who, me?" you will go on to say: "The other guy from the terrorist group shot so many people, but I didn't kill, therefore there are other, worse sinners than myself."  A certain woman steals, another one gossips, another one has deserted her husband.... you will find thousands of sinners, but you must always say: "I am far more sinful than all of them" and you will actually feel so, but it won't be the issue, because our sins will stand before God; so, as the Fathers ask, what do we do about our sin?  We have tampered with God's creative balance which was perfect - we did everything the wrong way around.  Hold on to that thought, so that your humility doesn't become a redundant statement or a theorizing of humility.  The Fathers have told us so:  Humility is one thing, and theorizing about humility is another.

There are many other thoughts - amazing thoughts - if you like, just open up the Ladder by Saint John at home, and enjoy that text on your own.... I will only read a few excerpts from it...  Anyway, another person in that conference said that humility is to familiarize yourself with your weaknesses and failings thoroughly, in your own mind. Now, you may notice that this person is making a shift here - he is turning towards himself, but NOT in line with the measures of self-esteem; rather, it is what the Fathers (and Basil the Great and saint Gregory the Theologian) had said, and had written homilies titled "To the self".  This had nothing to do with self-esteem however. In self-esteem, you discover how important you are and how many powers you have - when in fact everything we have is from God:  "Thine own, from Thine own...".  But here, you turn inwards to your self, in order to perceive your weakness...  There is a turning towards the self here; it is the term "to the self" coined by the Fathers... You know, I have observed that in these psychotherapy schools (which I have studied as much as I can, because they are so very dangerous and they entangle our people), there are some who quite arbitrarily or in a superficial manner also use such texts, and they say "This is what the Father ..... says, and it says so in the Gospel also...".  Be careful - they utilize whatever they want, they way they want. They don't utilize it in a general therapeutic sense. Anyway, this was just a parenthesis in our discussion.  So, we have here the "towards the self", but it must be for identifying our weakness before God, that we are nothing, and that He is the One Who ushers us towards becoming something...

A fourth participant of the conference said that humility is to be the first to disperse the anger during quarrels.  If an altercation should be taking place, you should be the first who does NOT become enraged, but also who does not become enraged deep within his soul.  Here, we enter the much deeper, key factors, but not only in regard to a conflict or quarrels - or to those everyday matters; for example, perhaps now that the Liturgy is over, someone may have said something to someone else - about the antidoron, about the coffee served, about something that happened here (something always happens, in every parish, everywhere - I'm sure of that)... and somewhere along the line, you were offended; someone said something that upset you - either that the sacristan was doing more than necessary and the other one not enough, and that may have upset you and you aren't supposed to feel any anger.... well, that's how things are: I don't know why the sacristan did that - there may be a thousand reasons for that behaviour... I don't know why, nor do I analyze why:  perhaps the sacristan is an egotist, or perhaps the sacristan had received a blessing to do more work than me??  But you don't actually know what lies beneath it all: what if that sacristan had indeed received a penance to do more work - maybe that extra labour was imposed by their spiritual father because of a natural laziness that needed to be healed... I don't know why... so how can we analyze this matter?  And what is even more catastrophic, is that instead of turning to God to examine our own sinfulness and why we felt that anger inside us, we analyze each other....  Sometimes they come and tell me "I have this and that issue with that woman - what should I tell her?"  And I reply "What can you tell her, my child? You won't work anything out; you must turn to God first, repent, show love, show humility, and one day, after a long time, you will get together and even be able to have a cup of coffee together very amicably, without getting angry."  Do not let anything become lodged inside the folds of our soul...  The words of that speaker are remarkable....

A fifth participant of that conference said that it (humility) is to be fully aware of God's grace and His mercy. There you are: beyond all the above, humility is also to be aware of God's mercifulness - that He forgives you - in which case, where is the need to analyze your neighbour? Do you even need to analyze yourself?  the devil's basic methodology is when we sin, to bring us to the point of despair, telling us that what we did was a grave sin, and that "you as a Christian should definitely not have committed it".  In such a case, you should not engage in any discussion - according to the Fathers; the basic procedure is to never discuss things with the devil - only with God. This is a fundamental neptic method: no thoughts that contain the devil - no analyses.  You will say "yes, what is done is done, and God forgives me" (remember: 'have mercy upon me, the sinner' and 'I have sinned to the heavens and before you' and 'have mercy on me, o Lord, according to Your infinite mercy'....).  Do not get into a conversation with temptation; instead, bring to mind God's mercifulness.  The Devil may even say to you: "but how could such a huge sin have been committed? A sin like that, after so many years of being in the Church, how could you do such a thing?"  There should be no further pondering, as it will mean the beginning of a destructive stage, which brings people who live within the Church to a state of despair and -I will dare to say this- to neurological problems.  We of course have Christians with serious neurological problems, even though they have repented and confessed; except that they have also engaged in conversing with the devil.... We do not converse with the devil. He may want us to, very much, but we do not embark on discussions with him - this is about our spiritual course... So, just keep in mind God's mercy and address Him only.

Then another participant said: It (humility) is to feel spiritually crushed and to forsake your own will. (Each of those participants added a truly awesome "building-block"...... just get hold of the texts and take a look at the words of those participants - they are really sublime words; they are a mosaic of humility - the foundations...)   Forsake your own will? You may well ask, "what does that mean - to forsake my own will?"  Need you ask? Forsake my own will?  We have the 5th and the 6th Ecumenical Councils which had dealt with the matter of will, with Monotheletism: they had opined that it is a heresy, to not have a will etc.. It is not a matter of denying the will that represents one's personality; we are referring to the will that does not involve repentance, but it judges others.  The will is the building material of our soul.  God made it that way. The will is a blessing, but what kind of blessing? That will should be turned towards God: my will is what God wills.  What did Christ say in the garden of Gethsemane? He was giving us an example: "...may this cup be removed from me..." (Matth.26:39). In other words, He was saying "I do not want to be crucified".  The human will did not want it... and why should He be crucified? Why should others sin, by crucifying God?  Anyway, He then said "Father, let it be done according to Your will".  His personal will is not retracted here; what is retracted, is the non-turn towards God and doing what He wants.  A sickness comes your way, and you have the right to say to God: "I don't want this sickness my Lord; do something to make it go away" - it is not a sin to do so. You aren't going to say "how wonderful that I will fall sick" - you won't say anything like that - we don't have such a peculiar spiritual masochism... You will of course ask God to restore your health, and you will seek the Benedictions of the Holy Unction and you will beseech God and you will give your name in the Liturgy for the sake of your health.  If the sickness persists, then you should say "Glory be to God" because you will now know that the mystery of God's love will surely lead you -through that sickness- to a much loftier level of holiness: to Holy Humility. See how the material that constitutes Holy Humility gradually comes together? What our conference participants have added were not just definitions of humility; they are leading us towards Holy Humility and not just a theorizing about humility.

So... the author of this text (who is Saint John of the Ladder) heard what was said at that conference and was truly delighted with the discussion.. now just imagine if you could find yourselves in such a meeting, where, instead of listening to gossip and other irrelevant things, you would hear noteworthy and very profound ideas on these important topics.  Saint John then goes on to say that after hearing all the ideas, he thought about them on his own, with much deliberation and care, but didn't succeed in understanding the meaning of humility. This doesn't mean he wasn't intelligent enough; he of course knew that humility is a huge mystery. And why is it a mystery? Because it approaches God.  God is primarily humble, "by default" so to speak, and we can understand the things of God only relatively.  You should read the two amazing homilies by Saint John the Chrysostom, On the incomprehensible. In that homily, there are several chapters pertaining to God's humility, which he says he cannot analyze. (That is why we refer to the "extreme humility" in the case of Christ). From a certain point on, Saint John says "I was unable to comprehend it, which is why, as the least of all men and after collecting -like a dog- the crumbs that fall from the table, I have reached the following definition" (Notice here how he feels much like a dog collecting crumbs; he has paid attention to all that was spoken, as each speaker submitted his own little crumb - but such beautiful crumbs! -and has collected all those crumbs in order to reach that definition.......)

So he gives us here (also relatively speaking) a definition - not to mention it is more like a "limitation" or an "approximation". In meanings like these there really cannot be any limitation... he is just giving us an approximation, an outline... he attempts to somehow describe boundaries...  Note well here: humility is an anonymous and mystical endowment of the soul.  You cannot set it down to analyze it. You are trying to approach God. Those who enter the realm of humility by means of those steps (of the Ladder) is in fact entering into God.  And note also that he calls it (humility) an anonymous thing - it can be named, only by those who have had the experience of tasting it.  It is ineffable.  Let's say for example, if I had here before me a dish unknown to me, from an exotic land; I may eat it, but no matter what I'd say to describe it, you wouldn't understand anything unless you too had the same experience as me. In other words, deep down, because humility is proper to God it remains a mystery; it the end, it cannot be defined. You need to do the things that we said earlier, and you will experience it. Which means, no-one can just state "I am humble". It is a matter of experience - of tasting - a joy-inspiring state... it is an inexpressible wealth, God's name, God's gift... it is what the Patristic text says: "Learn, not from an Angel, not from a man, nor from a document, but from Me" - from Me, from that which I am - "for I am meek and humble at heart, and you shall find respite from warfare and relief to your thoughts in your souls." (Matth.11:29)  He is quoting a variation on Matthew - the words that Christ had said: "come to Me, and you shall find respite"...  Anyway, this is a mystery that cannot be described but has a profound course, according to the measures of that building material that I analyzed for you.

I will quote a few more things from John of the Ladder, and then, during the remaining time that we have, I will quote from the other Fathers as well... you see, this wealth is so immense, and it (humility) remains a mystery and I won't be able to outline it or define it; because it is a savoring, which, when tasted will be yours, if you take the building material that I mentioned earlier:  hold on to that building material by the aforementioned participants of the conference, with the following as a terminative guide: do not be mad at anything; do not be enraged with anything; do not analyze the other person.... I have just compiled the essence of the matter... When the fruit of this blessed vine - humility - begins to ripen inside us, we immediately feel a weariness and a loathing towards every human glory and praise.  Take care to keep this advice: a hatred for glory and every form of human praise... Unfortunately, we all have this fault: we anticipate praise for the slightest thing; an awarding - an extreme form of praise but a practical one... it is a reverting to the practical aspect of the matter.  The actual savoring of humility remains a mystery, but now we are given more material that will reinforce us; the lecture on humility is one of the biggest lectures in the Ladder: no demand whatsoever for awarding, or glory, or praise....

In his educative texts, Saint John the Chrysostom has some amazing references as to how, without ignoring our children, to NOT turn our children into egotists through unnecessary praises.  You see, our child begins to grow, and his first word is "mama", so they say: "wow, my child said mama!" and everyone is ecstatic.... There is a difference between an appropriate stance, a polite one, and an awarding... but we have come to embrace it and we constantly seek it.  Even in the model of education - deep down, in its destructive aspect, its tragic extension - an awarding is involved; an awarding of the student.  The most tragic of all instances is when a student gives his all, to be the top student and be the rightful flag-bearer in school. It is a nice thing to hold the national symbol, but is it really an educative measure? Could it be, that the flag should be given to the student with the lowest grades? To honour him as well? I mean, the one child gets top grades, and the other gets the flag (I am suggesting a different model here)...  We have become stuck on educative models like these which are essentially catastrophic and we often implement them in our homes as well... glory and praise... this problem needs to be fought off.  You must be polite with others, be amiable with others, but (and forgive me for what I'm going to say now - a colloquial term) do not "suck up" to others: "oh, how nice you are, my dear" or "that coffee was superb!"... OK, I can say that the coffee was good, but I'm not going to say: "I simply must congratulate the ladies who make the coffee - they are absolutely amazing, the best in the city!" etc., because that might actually generate a feeling of self-importance in them and I will be to blame for it.  I can make an honorary statement, and nothing beyond that.  After all, have you ever noticed Christ going into such a routine? No. He makes only simple, loving contributions in the lives of people. Just study Christ's stance with His disciples.....

Meantime, as a person's spiritual maturity progresses more and more and we move towards humility more and more, then no matter what we do, we don't count anything; we don't seek any award. We do what we do for the love of God - not for any award - and we chiefly focus on the fact that with every day that passes, the load of our sins increases... everything is for the love of God....  Imagine performing the Liturgy today and then saying "Bravo to us! We performed this Liturgy so well!" when the fact is that everything is "Thine own, of Thine own..."  You can encourage the cantor by saying "Well done; you chanted very well today" (especially if he seems somewhat tired) or "that was nice, beautiful", but say nothing more than that.  Be very careful about this stance - do not be vulgar, do not be excessive; be amiable, but do not inflame the other person...  This precise stance can also take on other forms.

Now let us see what impact humility has on us.  As the saying goes, whoever has married humility is mild-mannered, amiable, respectful, merciful, peaceful, cheerful, easy to govern, without unnecessary sorrows and worries in his psychology; he is alert, vigilant - his eyes wide open - tireless and unimpassioned. "In our humility has the Lord remembered us [...] and has redeemed us from our enemies..."  (Psalm 136:23-24)

Let us go a little further down now, to one of the most profound Fathers, there, in the desert of Sinai, where demons had actually appeared before his eyes, extolling his virtues... Those demons were saying to him: "Bravo, you are a truly great ascetic" - an exceptionally wily method implemented by the devil, in order to mess with us...  But how did that Father handle the situation? You know, it is quite a difficult thing - on the one hand, having to say to yourself "it's the devil, I won't pay any attention to him" but on the other hand, hearing him say true things, such as: "look at how you pray and fast; no-one else fasts like you do!..."  Pay special attention here, as it is a tricky situation, because it is easy to say that you won't converse with the devil, ALBEIT what he says is true.  Anyway, what did that elderly and very wise ascetic (that's how the text refers to him) say, in response to those praises?  "If you should cease to praise me with the thoughts that you bring to my soul, then, because of your departure, I shall regard myself as great."  In other words, if you (the demons) praise me incessantly and I don't fall for your tricks and you finally go away, fed up with me because you can see that I haven't fallen into your trap, there is a possibility that I may eventually fall into a trap when you depart, by saying to myself "hey, look - I sent away the demons - I am able to ward off demons - I was humble, I wasn't fooled by them, deep down inside me"... instead, I said nothing of the  sort.  I just said no, no, just go away..." 

So, what the Father finally said to the demons was: "I don't want you to go away, because if you do go away, I may fall into that precise dangerous trap" - which indicates he was aiming to corner them.  However, that would mean they'd either leave him - but that would be dangerous for him, inasmuch as he would then regard himself a demon vanquisher - or they would stay, which is why he did in fact tell them to stay, "provided you don't stop praising me, because that way, thanks to your continuing praises I will be constantly reminded of how filthy I am."  He had recalled the Bible verse "Unclean before the Lord is every haughty hearted one." (Proverbs 16:5)

He cornered them, by saying: "If you leave, there is a risk: you will see that I don't fall for your methods and you will depart. So instead I will be selfish, because if you do stay and continue to test me, then for as long as you are testing me, I will say to myself 'that's why these demons persevere - it's because I am unclean and haughty'."  He had cornered them, regardless what the demon was to do: if the demon went away (and of course it wouldn't want to depart, as it was testing him), it would cease testing him; if it didn't depart and continued to test him, then he would say to himself that the reason he is being tested is his uncleanliness and haughtiness.  There is a tiny analysis here, which I won't repeat further down, with regard to our associating with temptations:  even if a temptation does tell you "you're good, you're good" and you want to say: "go away, go away", you must not say "go away"; you should instead say "Lord have mercy" and then God will allow whatever He wills: "....and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil..."  See how the phrase expresses it?  It is Christ, not ourselves, Who intervenes, as to when temptations will cease or not cease - according to our spiritual benefit.... "and lead us not...but deliver us from evil..."  And some will ask:  "Does that mean God imposes the temptation?"  No, God does not impose it, but only God knows when it is beneficial for it to depart.... Which is why we address God and say to Him: "Do what You want - You are the physician; we are ignorant"...

These are very subtle points of spiritual life, and in an event of confession-therapy, these details are extremely opportune, because we encounter people who are worn out by many and varied temptations and they ask their spiritual fathers: "what are we to do? Stand fast and say GO or STAY?" etc..  Well that is wrong. We should address God for everything.  That's why we have the Lord's Prayer  (we say: Our Father...").

And what a powerful expression: "I am unclean before the Lord"....  Everything visible is illuminated by the Sun.... it is one thing for a person to be boastful and another thing to NOT be boastful, and yet another thing to be humble.  Notice the discernment here: it is another thing to be boastful and another to NOT be boastful.... no similarity to what we are talking about: that a person must have humility.  One can be haughty (which certainly isn't a matter of humility), but can likewise NOT be haughty, and yet say "how great am I - look what I can do..."; again, this doesn't mean that one has humility. It is merely an external expression of the term, nothing more.  The one who has actually become humble - deeply and internally - is not influenced by words that are uttered by lips. He is not affected by anything, and that is what you will judge yourself by.  The humble person, when praised, will respond by saying "Lord have mercy". This is where you will turn to, if your thoughts are no longer boastful of their natural virtues... this is the sign that health is beginning to set in:  when we no longer boast about anything, when there is no self-analysis or self-regard. We ascribe everything to God. It is a very advanced ascesis, but it is an ascesis for everyday life. Anyway, I am saying all this somewhat briefly, and you just hold on to whatever you can from the sweetness of this subject, which is an extremely essential one. 

Thus, humility is (as adeptly as I can define it) a divine virtue which covers our eyes so that we cannot see our achievements; however, not seeing them presupposes not analyzing them.  Am I achieving something now, by citing the Fathers and analyzing them to you?  Someone might reply "yes, because we aren't the ones who are reading; you are the one reading to us".  But I am only doing what is self-evident - so to speak - and am only providing you with a practical example.  That's how life is... What? Should we stop breathing? Is my breathing an achievement?  Is it an achievement, that I can walk? For a disabled, sick person it is an achievement if they manage to walk, however, nothing is actually our own achievement.  Are the important things we do "our personal achievements"? See?  Self-esteem... our trying to make our children have strength... futile...  Whoever begins to feel that he has accomplished something, has done nothing whatsoever himself; it is just the course of life which is always an upward one.  You see, we are talking about Holy Humility which rises far up - and it is that deep trust in our Christ, nothing more... that's why nothing can affect us; we are free beings and don't get  stuck anywhere... we don't want praises, we hate glory - we want no glory, we want nothing.  How we have destroyed our children, by bringing them up through that matter of glory... we don't care if they study and learn; we only aspire to diplomas and salaries... a thousand other things... a totally hellish behaviour.... but we don't bother to cultivate this other thing (humility)..

So, in this way, although most of us sometimes refer to ourselves as sinners, the fact is that deep down inside us we don't really believe it; we only utter it outwardly, right?  As analyzed earlier, whoever says he has felt it (humility) is unable to explain it, and in fact, will cite the following psalm to God: "Not to us, Lord, not  to us, but glory be to Your Name" (Psalm 113:9).... "My praise shall be of You, in a great congregation" (Psalm 21:25) These words are found in our Bible; it is the Book of Psalms which our Church asks us to read every day... they are overwhelming ascetic words...  I am quoting these two phrases from the age-old Book of Psalms, in order to point out something:  When did Christ say that glory comes?  "....now is the Son of man glorified and God is glorified in Him..." (John 13:31) - it was on an evening before He was crucified... His glory was His Cross.... what an awesome example of a life path!  And that is exactly the reason why every difficulty, every pain, every hubris, every injustice does NOT cause me to become demon-possessed, to run out into the streets shouting and protesting because my rights were taken away from me. Every injustice takes me to another place - I transform it into a glorification of God and I focus on what I should be doing.  We however only focus individualistically - only on our own frayed rights.  Nowadays (and I am saying this gracefully and only as an example so that you can perceive what I'm saying) we usually protest, only when we are personally affected by something. 

I was telling some people the other day: See? Now they (the government) are imposing certain measures because of the economic crisis; certain salaries are being cut down and certain people are justifiably protesting, according to the measure of injustice they are suffering... but then it occurred to me: why are they protesting NOW? Of course what is happening is an injustice, but then, people have already been starving to death in Greece for quite a long time; there are homeless people etc... and yet, all the while that we were enjoying our own lives, none of us went out to shout protests about the people who were going hungry; now that we have been affected personally, we have decided to protest. This may not be a wrong move per se, but why didn't we ever protest that way about those who hungered?  Therefore, deep inside is a hidden, human issue here... and THAT is how we should examine spiritual life: beyond politics, beyond political parties, beyond the economic crisis.... we need to measure up against ourselves.  If I go out now, the moment I am being treated unjustly (and it is an actual injustice), and I begin to pound my fists, shouting "unfair! unfair!" it will only be a half truth, because when the other person was suffering, nobody bothered to shout about the injustice that he was undergoing.  When a homeless person was dying on a suburban square near the coast, another person was blissfully sipping his coffee at a nearby cafe... he hadn't protested then, and he isn't protesting now... This is just an example, so that you can compare it against your own behaviour; it will open the path that the Fathers call "towards oneself" - it is the examination firstly of our own glance at things, our own stance in this general framework - and then see how we should be responding.

It is a pity that I am not analyzing John of the Ladder in more detail, so I will simply close his chapter and refer to some other Fathers for a few minutes, which I have noted here. He goes on to speak of the neurons of humility; i.e., that it is an organism which has a nervous system, paths, and describes how it is  composed... he also says certain key phrases, for example: "the withholding of wisdom, the withholding of one's noble descent, avoidance of pointless rambling, and -he adds- if the need arises for you to become a beggar, do not be ashamed to ask." These, he says, are paths towards humility.

To go now briefly to some other Fathers (whom I will surely be unfair to, with my brevity): I have some texts here, both by Gregory the Theologian and Gregory Palamas as well as John the Chrysostom, but just let me give you at least a small taste of the beauty of Patristic wisdom.  Let us listen to Gregory the Theologian for a moment:  "Observe -he says- how that faithful man of God, Moses, was the picture of virtuous living, and yet he preferred the harsh way of living over any regal glory, and how he confronted the angel before going on to perform many ascetic achievements.  He made a choice.  Instead of the royal palaces, he chose another path. And where did he stay? In the Sinai desert, looking after Jothor's flocks !  That grand, amazing man was of royal descent and could have acquired a very high rank, and yet, he never said "I have a rank" etc... he had expectations, even though he hardly knew God... he knew something about Him, from certain forefathers of Israel, but was not acquainted in depth with God.... But -says Gregory the Theologian- because he did that special turnabout, he finally did get to know Him, which is why he became a leader of the people.  And even though he climbed up to such a height, see how he didn't hesitate to point out to God that he had a stammer: he admitted he had a flawed speech..."

Now, if a king were to call you and say: "I will make you a minister of external affairs", would you honestly say "Uh, how can I become a minister? I can't speak English or French, or any other language. Please don't."   "Oh, but you will."   "But I have no qualifications."  Who would honestly decline?  Who would admit he lacks the knowledge?  He would probably say to himself "I will submit a fake diploma, to show that I am qualified."

Anyway, Moses said "This is what I am, Lord" and God said "that's OK, your brother will speak for you"....  "But I stammer"... and after a while he said "but I am also weak - I am not too strong..."  And God said "do not be afraid; I am here"...  What an amazing story this Moses incident is!  He paved the way to humility, which is why - according to the Bible and the Fathers of the Church and our hymns - he was the "gentle Moses".  Gentleness, meekness, are the result of the balance of humility.

And again, by Gregory the Theologian, we find an analysis based on the Old Testament and Proverbs.  According to the Book of Proverbs, pride comes before a fall, and humility before glory.  Pay attention to these words in Proverbs, that before a spiritual catastrophe, or any catastrophe, pride precedes it - both in national affairs as well as personal ones.  The Book of Proverbs is aware of Israel's history; whenever it (Israel) embarked on an act of pride, it would eventually meet with a catastrophe because of it. Whenever it regarded itself as strong, it was eventually disintegrated... and in fact, after the Proverbs era, whenever it even thought it was strong, it was destroyed.  The Israelites twice ended up in captivity, because they felt they were exceedingly strong, whereas prior to glory, there had been humility.  Glory always comes, but it is the result of a process called humility (as we said earlier on), and glory is no longer a deafening phenomenon where you become glorified or awarded; it is a secret gift, a secret savoring.... God's people - the Saints - live that glory of God. That is how they "have seen His Glory" : it is a mystical thing.  In other words, glory has nothing secular about it - it is what the Saints live in!  It's that secret thing that can't be interpreted - just as the text says, which I read to you earlier on... it is a personal savoring...

To speak even more clearly, the text here says that "God is opposed to the proud; He bestows grace unto the humble" (James 4:6). Psalm 118 says: "before being humbled, I had sinned; for this reason I have guarded Your law."  There are many such verses that back up this matter.  Gregory again says: "the humble one tolerates being defeated, whereas he who is puffed up with pride cannot be humbled"... All these quotes should be analyzed.  And something more from Gregory, from an amazing theological poem of his, which refers to humility - I have chosen only one phrase from it:  "Humble is the one who believes he is less than what he deserves"... If he thinks he is deserving of something, he should take it down a notch... but how do you do that?  Well, you will probably ask "If I know English and French (which is  the truth), should I lie?  How do I take that down a notch?" There are only two ways of taking it down a notch: by saying that I don't know Chinese, Swedish, Portuguese and other languages... and: of the three languages that I do know, how do I know them?  Well, it is God Who gave me the brains to learn them. Do cats learn French? No.  Well, I'm thankful I'm not a cat..."

If you study the Fathers, you will see that they have charming quotes like these - simple, decisive thoughts that can make you say (and I apologize for this): "I'm thankful I'm not a cat"...  But you might say "what are you talking about?" Well, you're a human - a "deifiable animal", but an animal nevertheless, don't forget that; and if that logical animal with rational thinking forgets the deifiable element, then it becomes worse than a cat: "...and they became like the mindless beasts..." (Psalm 48) and their English and French and German will be demonical and will destroy the world.  You have seen how many great and wise men have often caused destruction to the world through their great discoveries: the atomic bomb is one example of a formidable wisdom.  How was that used?

That is the kind of detail the Fathers of our Church dwell on.  In an essay against the Barlaamites, Gregory Palamas had very eloquently said: " I praise the one who said that humility is a full knowledge of the truth"... whoever is fully aware of the truth -he says- knows the truth that is Christ... "I no longer live; for Christ lives within me".  And the only chance that I will ever lose this thought -he says- is when delusion enters inside me and talks to me, telling me to "behold, how you know about this, that, and the other thing".  (I will again stress that we should never get into a conversation with temptation...)

And one other thing: when someone becomes humble -he says- that's how the Angels acquired the quality of being unconvertible. After the fall of the demons -according to Saint John of Damascus- the Angels became irreversible in their stance; they can never sin.... "let us stand fast, let us stand with awe"...  The Angels remained Angels forever - there are no angels that can turn into demons any more, because they had stood fast at the time and didn't succumb to the temptation that Lucifer had put before them...

So, according to Saint Gregory Palamas - who makes these awesome analyses about the human mind, about human thought processes, and who delves deep into the depths of the human soul and thought - if you desire to approach as much as possible that angelic quality of remaining unconvertible (yes, we shall always be sinners, but even so, if we do manage to approach it), the same phrase applies:  "do not ever converse with the devil - ever. Ever."  This is what I told you earlier (and Gregory is saying the same thing, from another window, so to speak): that this is the secret to humility.

And in another awesome analysis by the Chrysostom, he says that it is these souls that Christ is pleased with, when He says "I shall come with My Father and I shall make Me a Monastery and I shall dwell with you"... Christ shall dwell with us?  Of course!  With His Father, because He finds the environment familiar, and when the environment is familiar and familial (like when you go to a house that belongs to a child of yours who is living happily), you go there with ease, don't you?   Anyway, he says that we make our heart a welcome place, through humility. And in order to make it a welcome space (because we live in a society every day - be it in a monastery or a city), we are tested in humility every day. God provides us with the opportunity - either in the monastic polity or the secular polity, of marriage, of society, of the city, of the workplace, of the office - we have tremendous opportunities for practicing humility! Don't run off at the first sign of difficulty; don't fence yourself off; don't become disillusioned. Look at those psychiatric patients who say "I can't" and "I can't tolerate" - they are turned away; they are accused, and they say "who? me?"... or they run away and they say "I will leave" and they do leave... There is only one thing we should leave from, and that is sin.  Stand fast and fight it, because everything is an opportunity that is provided by God.  And if you haven't got an opportunity, then someone at work will verbally abuse you today; and if you miss that opportunity -he says- ten more will abuse you tomorrow; and if you don't grab that opportunity, twenty more will abuse you, until you acquire humility.  A huge opportunity...  Did we make use of that opportunity?  At home, your husband scolds you, your children scold you etc... and you will probably remark "but it shouldn't be that way..." - but I'm not talking about what THEY shouldn't be doing. The thing is, AM I making the best of opportunities (for humility) such as these?  God is NOT the cause of evils; God does not "send" them to us; however, when God sees how they have come about, He allows them to evolve, for our benefit.  Note well, that God DOES NOT send them; He allows them to be, for our own good. That's the whole issue.

And with that, I shall conclude my deficient speech which only included the verses that I had before me....  Whatever takes place around us, leads us to an opportunity for humility.  I will even dare to say, that our post-fall society is a perpetual challenge for the acquisition of humility.  And the bigger the challenge is (without God having sent it to us) the more it will benefit us... He merely allows it to continue, until we are rendered capable of tolerating that burden (of humbling ourselves). And what will we put to shame by it?  We will put temptation to shame. Instead of running away and protesting and suing and taking others to court and analyzing our own views (you know, during confession, instead of confessing our own sins, we tend to disclose the others' sins, and there is nothing worse than such an act - it is demonic - to go to the Sacrament of Confession and accuse others) we should be saying "well, that's the way things are; if God hasn't taken the problem away, He must have a reason for it."  Take this as a therapeutic measure.  Pause before Job's theology: he "utilized" his entire range of temptations and turned them into a glorification of God.  And especially for the Fathers, that turning inwards, towards oneself is the appropriate therapeutic means.  Every single difficulty - with the exception of sin - should be seen as an opportunity to approach God, and whoever does turn towards God only, will remain fixed there and become humble.

 

 

Translation:  K.N.

Article published in English on: 28-1-2011.

Last update: 28-1-2011.

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