The Joy of Humility

Everything, absolutely everything in religion is ambiguous, and this ambiguity can be cleared only by humility, so that the whole spiritual life is or must be directed at seeking humility. The signs of humility: joy! Pride excludes joy. Then: simplicity, i.e., the absence of any turn into one’s self. Finally, trust, as the main directive in life, applied to everything (purity of heart, when man can see God). The signs of pride are: the absence of joy; complexity and fear.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, p. 161)

 

 

 

Advertisements

Overcoming Anger

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:20)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-32)

14929745490_d83e78b8b7

St. Paul warns that those who act in anger will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:20-21).   The spiritual literature of Christianity through the centuries kept anger (or one of its manifestations – wrath, rage, revenge, hatred, etc) as one of the deadly sins or passions which Christians were to work to overcome.  And though the New Testament does allow for anger as long as it doesn’t involve sin (Ephesians 4:26), anger was viewed as a dangerous and destructive passion for it often overwhelms the rational thought process and pushes people to act hastily and with force disregarding wisdom or a measured response.

Christ does not want you to feel the least hatred, resentment, anger or rancor towards anyone in any way or on account of any transitory thing whatsoever. This is proclaimed throughout the four Gospels.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 13842-44)

Anger can give us a sense of empowerment – even when we are in the wrong or have not authority in a situation.  Our angry response towards others is often more a measure of our own feelings than a proper evaluation of the wrong we think someone else has done.  Anger can arise in prayer, making us think it is righteous, but often is a sign of our own spiritual illness.

When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger. Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1302-8)

26076523126_15b6edd851

The cure for anger?  Humility is a cure all for much of what ails us spiritually in Orthodox literature.  The humble person maintains an even keel no matter what is going on – be it praise or criticism – and does not react to others but carefully chooses their actions.  Humility stops us from getting emotionally charged by everything that happens around us.  But anger can also be overcome by the combination of courage and mercy – which may not seem like they can go together, but they are at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within.   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 43079-43081)

 

Humility as Being Human

“’What is humility?’ had a simple but penetrating answer: ‘It is when your brother sins against you and you forgive him before he comes to ask forgiveness.’ One story, which illustrates this, suggests that it was only through realizing this kind of humility in practice that one could become reconciled to another with whom one had a disagreement.

A brother was angry with another brother for something he had done. As soon as the second one learned of this, he came to ask the brother to forgive him. But the first brother would not open the door to him. So the one who had come to ask for forgiveness went to ask an old man the reason for this and what he should do. The old man told him,
‘See if there is not a motive in your heart such as blaming your brother or thinking that it is he who is responsible. You justify yourself and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition, I tell you this: even it is he who has sinned against you, settle it in your heart that it is you who have sinned against him and justify your brother. Then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.’

Convinced, the brother did this; then he went to knock at the brother’s door and almost before he heard the sound the other was first to ask pardon from the inside. Then he opened the door and embraced him with all his heart.”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 252-253)

Embracing the Sinner

“One of the most difficult problems faced in Christian life, and one that the desert monks experienced acutely, is the problem of our temptation to seek distance from the struggles of others, and to promote a sense of separation from the sins of the world around us. There is a certain passing resemblance to Christianity in doing so. Indeed, we certainly do not actively desire temptation for ourselves, nor do we approve of engaging in any sin. It might seem natural, on the surface, to seek distance from those struggling with such things–to set ourselves apart as more pure and more holy than others.

Yet, when we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other human beings, whether they are Christian or not, we quickly begin to resemble the foolish elder. We condemn and chastise those around us for their brokenness. Such condemnation and chastisements are, despite their outward claim to holiness, works of anger and never of love. If love is a shared commitment to purity of heart between individuals, then seeking separation from others, by its very nature, discourages love and can even make it ultimately impossible. To share the pursuit of purity of heart with another, one must share a connection with her, and in a fallen world, that means sharing a connection with a fallen person.”

(Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 73)

The Publican and Me

5445613926_85169104aa

One of the lessons of the Gospel Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) is that humility is a virtue needed as a precondition for further spiritual growth.  It isn’t a goal that we strive for and hope to achieve in some distant future after years of Christian maturation, but it is part of the foundation we need for further growth.

6995565225_d498f6e3a7_mThink about Moses, that mighty hero of the Old Testament who defied the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt and led a slave rebellion against the Egyptian Empire.  God speaks to Moses face to face the Scriptures tell us (Exodus 33:11)and God even backs down when challenged by Moses who intercedes for Israel.   Yet, God calls Moses the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3).  Certainly, we see in Moses that being humble does not mean lacking courage.  But it is Moses own humility which God finds so virtuous in Moses.  Moses was not arrogant, did not seek things for personal gain, and served both God and the people faithfully even when the people and God were displeased with him.  In all of this, Moses is a Christ-like figure.  But humility was the virtue at Moses’ heart.

And Jesus Himself tells the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee to extol the virtue of humility.  We’ve all been told endless times that the Pharisee in the story is the religious zealot.  He does everything he boasts of doing.  He is not lying nor exaggerating but telling the truth about his piety.  He is laying claim to the reward he assumes God must bestow upon him for his virtue.  The Publican is the notorious sinner of the parable, who admits before God that he is a sinner and begs God’s mercy.  As even St. John Chrysostom notes it is not particularly humble to admit you are a sinner when in fact you are one – you are just acknowledging the truth of the matter.  The Publican has little to commend himself to God, and yet it is he not the pious and self-righteous Pharisee that is favored by God because God rejects the pride of the Pharisee and embraces the humility of the Publican.  The Publican goes beyond admitting to the truth and accepting the judgment that is laid on him.  Therein lies his humility.  He cannot lay claim to any reward for virtue, but opens himself to the mercy and love of God.

Now we can retell the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee so we perfectly understand it by putting our self in the Parable in the place of the Pharisee and then picking whomever we consider to be the most loathsome, despicable kind of sinner for the Publican.

6849439164_25997164bb_n

Almost everyone has a kind of person or sinner they particularly despise and wish evil on.  When I visit inmates in prison, the murderers despise the child molesters.  Everyone seems able to imagine a sinner worse than themselves, someone else who is the foremost of sinners and perhaps beyond God’s grace.

One inmate I visited in a prison told me a story which really was his living out the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  He was in prison for having been involved in the manslaughter of his pregnant girlfriend and the baby she was carrying.  One day in prison, he learned he was being assigned a new table place at meals – directly across from a child molester.  He despised child molesters.  He was seething with anger that he would now have to sit across from this pedophile at every meal.  This ruined not only that day but threatened to ruin every meal he would eat.  As he sat at table with his food in front of him, stewing in his anger and hatred, the child molester sat across from him, and not even looking up, he humbly bowed his head and quietly said grace over his food:  “God, thank you for the food you have given me and for providing for me every day though I am a terrible sinner living in prison where I deserve to be.  Forgive me, Lord, for my sins are many.”   Sitting across from this man, shame came over the inmate.  For he had started eating without giving thanks to God or saying any prayer, and found himself consumed with hatred.  He felt total embarrassment that he was being so judgmental because he felt himself to be a Christian, and yet here was this man praying and confessing his sins at the table while all he did was internally rage with anger.   It is easy to be the Pharisee.

So, now retell the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee.  Who is the Publican in your life – the liar, the murderer,  the child molester,  the homosexual, the criminal, the adulterer, the thief, the user of pornography, the drug pusher, the abuser, the angry, the greedy, the narcissist, the obese, the person who doesn’t use their turn signal, the driver using their cell phone?   Who is the kind of person you really despise?  Now tell the parable:

7305699938_68e888fb39_mTwo people went to our church to pray.  I was one, and the other was . . . (name the worst sinner you can imagine – whether by name or by sin they commit). . .

I went to the front of the church and stood before the icon and prayed:  God I thank you that I am not like those who sin against You.  I fast most of the days during Lent, I pretty often remember my prayers, I donate some money to the church and to charity.  I am especially thankful that I am not like … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) because he/she commits the most horrible kind of sin.

24873289413_680bc62134_m

The … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) … knelt in the back of our church, bowing his head before God, wringing his hands and quietly weeping in his heart, he prayed, “God be merciful to me the sinner.”

 

Jesus said:  “I tell you, this person went down to his/her house justified rather than the first; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14)

The Sin of Pride

In preparation for Great Lent, we Orthodox are asked to consider the virtue of humility and the value of repentance for finding one’s way to God.  So today’s Gospel, Luke 18:10-14, gives us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

St John Cassian offers us a description of how we can tell if the sin of pride is at work in us.  We can see in his description many words which describe what today we might call a narcissist, a shallow loud mouth, the stubborn uncooperative person, the bully, the incorrigible.  St. John says:

By the following indications, then, that carnal pride of which we have spoken is made manifest.

First of all, a person’s talking will be loud and his silence bitter;

his joy will be marked by noisy and excessive laughter,

his seriousness by irrational sadness,

his replies by rancor,

his speech by glibness,

and his words will burst out helter-skelter for a heed-less heart.

He will be devoid of patience,

without love,

quick to inflict abuse,

slow to accept it,

reluctant to obey except when his desire and will anticipate the matter,

implacable in receiving exhortations,

weak in restraining his own will,

very unyielding when submitting to others,

constantly fighting on behalf of his own opinions but never acquiescing or giving in to those of others.

And so, having become unreceptive to salutary advice, he relies on his own judgement in every respect rather than on that of the elders.” (The Institutes, pp. 271-272)

While we might imagine this is a description of many in positions of power, Cassian is talking about each of us.  In Lent, it is time to look at my self and my own faults, for the only person I can change is me.  Recognizing faults in others is most helpful when it teaches us about our self.

Imitate the Publican

Amma Syncletica teaches us to imitate the Publican not the Pharisee in our piety and behavior.

She also said, “Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.” ( The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p. 52)

She is, of course referring to the parable of Jesus found in Luke 18:10-14 –

“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.”

Zacchaeus, Come Down From That Tree

“’But I am in the midst of you, as He that serveth’ (Luke 22:27).

I shall not attain Jesus, if I seek him reigning in the place of honor. I have to look for Him and find Him in that place where He is hiding, in the last place, in His suffering and humiliated members. It is because they are not looking for Him there that so many men cannot believe in Him or have only a nominal faith in Him. Zacchaeus had to come down from his sycamore in order to join Jesus in the crowd.”

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus, a Dialogue with the Savior, p. 64)

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).

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)