Preparing for Great Lent: The Temptation of Pride

She also said: “Just as treasure is found to be lacking once it is exposed, so virtue disappears when it becomes known and is noised abroad. And just as wax is melted before a fire, so too does the soul disintegrate and lose its vigor from being praised.” (Syncletica, Give Me a Word:The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 306)

“A man who outwardly fulfills all the commandments, but retains pride, contempt and malice in his heart will still remain far from God. God cannot be “bought off” by fasting or sacrifices, because-as the psalm tells us – “the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit” (meaning grief for one’s sins), but “a broken and contrite heart God will not despise” and will not reject.”   (Fr. Alexander Men, Awake to Life: Sermons from the Paschal Cycle, p 7)

Humility: The Foundation for Being Christian

“Cultivating humility also means that we will begin to stop measuring ourselves continually against others—a problem ancient Christians had, too, judging by the many times it is mentioned in the literature:

Abba Poemen said that a brother who lived with some other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What ought I to do?” The old man said to him, “Keep silence and do not always be comparing yourself to others.” (Apoth., Poemon 79, p. 178)

Having humility will mean that we will have no particular desire to do better than others, and we will not care if someone else does better than we. Pride hurts, but humility takes the fear out of a lot of introspection, making us courageous and strong.

           Having the old virtue of humility also makes us patient with ourselves when we do find the things we probably will see in ourselves. We will be able to accept it as true that the passions, feelings, attitudes, obsessions, and certain kinds of behavior do not go away all at once simply because we have identified them.  Humility reminds us that the process of becoming free of our passions is often a long one, and that is all right. Humility allows us to follow another common piece of advice in the early monastic literature: do not try to do everything at once; take on only one passion at a time. Learning to love is a slow business.

           Humility, finally, will enable us to hear what others tell us and will help us cultivate within ourselves a continuous attitude of listening to the world around us, to friends, to those who are not so friendly, to what we encounter in prayer and worship. Humility makes us receptive of all that comes to us that might bring us to love of God and each other. Humility is the only possible attitude out of which we can ever speak a word of truth to another person without doing terrible harm to ourselves and the other. After all, what we are about is never ever executing God’s righteous judgement on another person or ourselves.”   (Roberta C, Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 83-84)

A Chariot Race: The Publican vs. The Pharisee

The Gospel lesson of Luke 18:10-14, the Publican and the Pharisee:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

St. John Chrysostom comments:

However, it is no humility to think that you are a sinner when you really are a sinner. But whenever a man is conscious of having done many great deeds but does not imagine that he is something great in himself, that is true humility. When a man is like Paul and can say: “I have nothing on my conscience,” and then can add: “But I am not justified by this,” and can say again: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am the chief,” that is true humility. That man is truly humble who does exalted deeds but, in his own mind, sees himself as lowly. However, in his ineffable loving-kindness, God welcomes and receives not only the humble-minded but also those who have the prudence to confess their sins. Because they are so disposed toward him, he is gracious and kind to them.

           To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.

For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility. The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.

So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.

           To help you to see that the one team is swifter than the other, recall to your mind the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee yoked a team consisting of justice and pride when he said: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, greedy, nor like this publican.” What madness! His self-claimed superiority to all his human nature did not satisfy his arrogance, but he even trampled the publican, who was standing nearby, under the foot of his great haughtiness. And what did the publican do? He did not try to evade the insults, he was not troubled by the accusation, but he patiently accepted what was said. But the dart shot at him by his enemy became for him a curing medication, the insult became a word of praise, the accusation became a crown of victory.       (Homily V, The Fathers of the Church, p. 158-160)

The Holy Prophet Moses the God-Seer

The Holy Prophet Moses is commemorated in the Orthodox calendar annually on September 4.  Moses is referred to in Orthodoxy as the “God-seer” based on the witness of Scripture:

“When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” (Exodus 3:4)

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel…”  (Exodus 24:9-10)

“Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11).

“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face…”  (Deuteronomy 33:10)

The 4th Century monk Evagrius noted that when Moses is praised in the Old Testament, it is not for his many mighty deeds or powerful miracles.  Rather, he is praised for his humility.  “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth”  (Numbers 12:3). Evagrius writes:

“’Tell me, then, why has Scripture, when it wanted to praise Moses, left aside all miracles and commemorated only his meekness? For it does not say that Moses punished Egypt with the twelve plagues and led the esteemed people out thence. And Scripture does not say that Moses was the first to receive the Law, and that he acquired insights into bygone worlds. And Scripture does not say that he separated the Red Sea with his staff, and brought forth water from the rock for the thirsting people. Rather, Scripture says that he stood all alone in the desert in the face of God, when he wanted to destroy Israel, and he besought to be blotted out with the sons of his people. Before God, he set down love for mankind and transgression by saying: ‘If you will forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray you, out of your book which you have written.’ Thus spoke the meek one! But God preferred rather to forgive those who had sinned than to do an injustice to Moses.’

Thanks to his meekness, Moses was the only one who spoke with God, ‘face to face’ and learned from him the reasons of creation ‘in visible form, and not [only] in dark sayings.’ For meek love, the ‘mother of knowledge’, is the door to natural knowledge, to which the five books of Moses bear witness. Indeed, as ‘friendship with God’ and ‘perfect spiritual love’, love marked by meekness is even the place where ‘prayer in spirit and in truth is effected!”     (Gabriel Bunge, Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread, pp 83-84)

See Also:  Moses, the Man of God

 

St. John the Baptist: Friend and Lover of God

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“The man who loves himself seeks his own glory, whereas he who loves God loves the glory of his Creator. It is characteristic of the soul which consciously senses the love of God always to seek God’s glory in every commandment it performs, and to be happy in its low estate. For glory befits God because of His majesty, while lowliness befits man because it unites us with God. If we realize this, rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, we too, like St John the Baptist, will begin to say unceasingly, ‘He must increase, but we must decrease’ (cf. John 3:30).”

(St Diadochos of Photiki , The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 7610-18)

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Approaching God in the True Lenten Spirit

During the Matins for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we sing the following hymn which reminds us what keeping Lent and having a true lenten attitude means.

As the Thief I cry to You: Remember me!

As the Publican, with downcast eyes, I beat my breast and say: Be merciful!

As the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O King who pities all,

that I may sing the praises of Your boundless compassion.

Great Lent is given to us as a school to teach us the humility we need to serve God and our fellow Christians.  We need to embody in our spiritual lives the humility, repentance and honesty of the Wise Thief, the repentant Publican and the Prodigal Son.    The very purpose of any fasting, abstinence and self-denial in Lent is to bring us to the attitude of these three penitents.  If we don’t see ourselves in them, and learn to be them in our repentance, our fasting is of little value.  If we fast and then feel righteous, or fast and then criticize and condemn others, or fast but fail to be humbled or to repent, then we have fasted wrongly no matter how rigorously we kept every jot and tittle of the fasting rules.  Lent is about changing our hearts not our stomachs.

Here is another hymn from the Matins of the Prodigal Son:

SAVIOR, I SET OFF ON A FOOLISH JOURNEY;
I WASTED ALL YOUR PRECIOUS GIFTS OF GRACE.
I LIVED IN LUXURY, AND THE DEVILS WERE MY FRIENDS;
I RETURN TO YOU EMPTY HANDED, LOVING FATHER.
RECEIVE ME IN REPENTANCE, AS YOU ACCEPTED THE PRODIGAL;
RESTORE TO ME MY BAPTISMAL ROBE OF PURITY, AND SAVE ME!

We do not want to go through Lent, even with zeal and rigor, but then approach God with “empty hands” as the Prodigal did. He had nothing to show for his affluent life.  He could only approach his father with empty hands, revealing the wastefulness of his life choices.

For us, it is not the rigor of the fast which matters, but the spiritual fruit which it produces in our lives.  If we focus only on the foods, we lose sight of the fruits of our labor.  We fast in order to approach God bearing an offering of our spiritual labors.

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand,

‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

for I was hungry and you gave me food,

I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you clothed me,

I was sick and you visited me,

I was in prison and you came to me.'”  (Matthew 25:34-36)

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Being Meek and Being Blessed

Meekness means having a heart that is humbled and peaceful.

Children are meek. This is why the Lord says, ‘If you do not become as children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven’  (cf. Matt. 18:3). 

A proud person is never satisfied; everything bothers him, and he follows his own will. We must be obedient to the will of God in order to learn humility and meekness while we are still in this life, while there is still time. A heart that is full of love thinks not of itself, but of others. It prays for all living things and for the whole world.”    (Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, p 89)

Humility Inspired by God

Bridegroom2“There are many kinds of humility. One man is obedient, and has nothing but blame for himself; and this is humility. Another repents of his sins and considers himself loathsome in the sight of God – and that is humility. But there is still another humility in the man who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit. He who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit has a different understanding and a different perception. When the soul by the Holy Spirit sees the Lord, how meek and lowly He is, she humbles herself thoroughly. And this is an especial humility. No one can describe it, and it is made known only through the Holy Spirit. And were men to understand through the Holy Spirit what a Lord is ours, all would be transformed – the rich would despise their riches, scholars their learning, and rulers their glory and power. Every man would humble himself and live in profound peace and love, and there would be great joy on earth.”    (Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite,  pg. 310)

The Nature of Good Soil

In Luke 8:5-15 we read the parable of the sower, who sows good seed but its yield is dependent on where it is planted.  Jesus said:

“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom comments:

“The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground. To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness despite in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed. I said to this woman ‘Learn to be like this before God; abandoned, surrendered, ready to receive anything from people and anything from God.’ ” ( Beginning to Pray, pg. 35)

The Impulsive: A Zeal which is Not Enlightened

Some aspects of human behavior haven’t changed through the centuries.  St. Isaac the Syrian comments below on impetuousness of youth, something as observable today as it was 1400 years ago.  Another phrase sometimes applied to such impetuosity comes from St. Paul – they have a zeal which is not enlightened (Romans 10:2).

St. Isaac is referring here to young monks who imagine themselves as being spiritual giants and geniuses whereas old monks with years of experience in the spiritual warfare would never make the claims of spiritual progress that the young inexperienced monks imagine for themselves.  It often happens with people new in the faith as well.  They read THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT and though practicing the faith for only a few months rashly judge themselves already to have attained the top steps of the ladder and the heights of heaven.   As St. Isaac says if they continue with their self-deception they will go insane – especially when they find themselves struggling with the most elementary aspects of virtue and purity.

“Even venerable elders, who from youth to old age have exhausted themselves with asceticism in the vineyard of the Son, practicing excellent disciplines, are scarcely accounted worthy of partially receiving one of the gifts of the land of peace. But youths, with the impetuosity of their nature and with disorderly fervor, audaciously rush upon the mysteries of the Fathers hidden in their books. Or else they receive by instruction and hearsay from others that which they ought not. Then grace cuffs them and educates them to delay and not to rush headlong upon lofty things, but, on the contrary, to labor quietly in the vineyard until such a time as they attain to true rest. If, however, they continue in their audacity, grace withdraws from them a little, and they are seized by ten thousand temptations. They are smitten by the passions of the body, the very same passions which they formerly held in contempt, and they are tormented by dark periods of soul and abused by the demons. Violent uprisings, as well as confusion and listlessness of mind, assail them. If they do not recollect themselves and put themselves in order, they will go insane. O how many afflictions, trials, snares, and stumbling blocks in this, our Lord’s, narrow way are arrayed against those who, with the impulses of nature, disorderly fervor, keen wits, and the accepting [or hearsay] from others, wish to enter the abode of life and partake of the honeycomb of the Spirit!” (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, pg. 401)