Learning Even from Those Who are Least

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” ‘” (Matthew 21:15)

St. John of Kronstadt reminds us that we might hear the truth spoken to us from people we would never even imagine had anything significant to teach us.  Sometimes we resent the person for being so presumptuous as to tell us something we don’t want to hear or acknowledge precisely because it’s true.

“Sometimes  younger people, or those of equal station, or older ones, teach you by means of hints which you cannot endure, and you are vexed with your teachers. We must endure and listen with love to everything useful coming from anyone, whoever he may be. Our self-love conceals our faults from us, but they are more visible to others. This is why they remark them to us. Remember, that “we are members of one another” (Ephesians IV. 25), and are thus even obliged to mutually correct each other.

If you do not bear being instructed by others, and are vexed with those who teach you, it means that you are proud, and this shows that the fault of which others hint that you should correct yourself is really in you.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 303-304).

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Better Sleep Than Slander

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:3-4)

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

In Orthodoxy, humility is a highly valued virtue.  It is opposed to judgmentalism which is born in the sin of pride.  Judgmentalism leads to self-vaunting self-righteousness – considering oneself better than others.  Humility is what allows us to see our own sins and not to judge our sisters and brothers.   It doesn’t mean being blind – we are not taught to be blind to what is really going on – we are to see clearly even the sins of others.  It is what we do with what we see and how we react to what we see which shows us whether we live in love.  

The wisdom to love rather than judge is found in many spiritual traditions, here is a story from the Islamic tradition:

Sa’di of Shiraz tells this story about himself:
When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap.

Everyone else in the room began to slumber and soon was sound asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.”

My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were asleep like them than slandering.” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 107).

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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 every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

The Holy Spirit in Our Lives

“The Holy Spirit confers true humility. However intelligent, sensible, and clever a man may be, if he does not possess the Holy Spirit within him, he cannot know himself properly; for without God’s help he cannot see the inner state of his soul. But when the Holy Spirit enters the heart of man, he shows him all his inner poverty and weakness, the corruption of his soul and heart, and his remoteness from God. The Holy Spirit shows a man all the sins that coexist with his virtues and righteousness: his laziness and lack of zeal for salvation and for the good of others, the selfishness that informs what appear to be his most unselfish virtues, the crude self-love that lurks where he nevers suspected it. In brief, the Holy Spirit shows everything in its true aspect. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, a man begins to experience true humility, distrusting his own powers and virtues and regarding himself as the worst of mankind.

The Holy Spirit teaches true prayer. No one, until he receives the Spirit, can pray in a manner truly pleasing to God. This is so, because anyone who begins to pray without having the Holy Spirit in him, finds that his soul is dispersed in all directions, turning to and for, so that he cannot fix his thoughts on one thing. Moreover he does not properly know either himself, or his own needs; he does not know how or what to ask from God; he does not even know who God is. But a man with the Holy Spirit dwelling in him knows God and sees that He is his Father. He knows how to approach Him, how to ask and what to ask for. His thoughts in prayer or orderly, pure, and directed to one object alone–God; and by his prayer he is truly able to do everything.” (Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow, The Art of Prayer, p. 232)

 

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)

Seeing the Sinner: Yourself

…The only way in which you know the seriousness of separation from God is in your own experience of yourself. Moses writes to Poeman,

‘If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere’.

And, more graphically, from Moses again,

‘If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you wont have leisure to go to a neighbor’s funeral.’

This is not about minimizing sin; it is about learning how to recognize it from seeing the cost in yourself. If it can’t be addressed by you in terms of your own needs, it can’t be addressed anywhere – however seductive it is to say, ‘I know how to deal with this problem in your life – and never mind about mine.’ The inattention and harshness that shows we have not grasped this is from so many of the desert monks and nuns the major way in which we fail in winning the neighbor. Poeman goes so far to say that it is the one thing about which we can justly get angry with each other.

A brother asked Abbas Poeman, ‘What does it mean to be angry with your brother without a cause? [The reference is obviously to Matt. 5:21]. He said, ‘If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of this, that is getting angry without a cause. If he pulls out your right eye and cuts off your right hand and you get angry with him, that is getting angry without a cause. But if he cuts you off  from God – then you have every right to be angry with him.’

To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at  a settled spiritual maturity which entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness is in fact to leave them without the therapy they need for their souls; it is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery – while reinforcing your own slavery. Neither you nor they have access to life. As in the words of Jesus, you have shut up heaven for others and for yourself. But the plain acknowledgement of your solidarity in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and go forward in hope. It is in such a moment that God gives himself through you, and you become by God’s gift a means of connection another with God. You have done the job you were created to do.” (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 30-31)

 

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

 

Human Freedom means God’s Enslavement

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:5-7)

One of the great mysteries of Christian theology is the humility of God.  God is willing to serve our needs, and to even humble himself to become a servant, a slave who works for our salvation.  God’s humility and God’s willingness to serve us are true because God is love.  God is willing to empty Himself (kenosis) for us humans and for our salvation.  This is the incarnation of love – God becoming human in Jesus Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his hymns on the Nativity of Christ expresses this kenotic theology this way:

“Behold, our freedom forced our Lord to be a servant to us.” (HYMNS, p 181)

When God created us with free will, God knew full well that we might choose against him.  God knew our freedom might lead to His needing to save us.  Thus, as St. Ephrem notes, the freedom which we so enjoy carries the implication, the corollary, that God would have to become our servant to save us.  This doesn’t alter God’s love for us.  Despite the humility required from God in creating us (needed to save us through the incarnation), God created us anyway.  He gifts us with freedom knowing He will have to save us – thus our freedom forces God to be our servant.

This is the great mystery of God’s kenotic love.

Next time you hear the expression, “Freedom isn’t free”, think about what our freedom cost God.

Pride and Humility and Prayer

“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself” (Luke 18:10).

The Pharisee is an interesting study in psychology.  He doesn’t pray aloud, but only within himself.  Why?  He doesn’t want to appear proud.  The proud are concerned about appearances and what others might think of them.  They act for show, carefully orchestrating every move.

The humble on the other hand, openly confess their sins.  The Publican confesses his sin to God and beats his breast.  He isn’t worried about what others might think of him.  He is fearful of how God will judge him.  He isn’t trying to hide anything from God or neighbor.  They all know him and his sins.  He is quite aware of how others judge him, so he doesn’t have to pretend, doesn’t have to put on a show.  His sins are exposed before all, and he humbly acknowledges them asking forgiveness.