There is something very misleading about "reading about humility" as if one could learn about true humility from a book. In fact, St. John says this precisely: "Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of such quality that it eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking for words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: Holy Humility."
Therefore, St. John approaches this step with some concern. His hesitancy to write about humility stems from at least two sources. First, as he insists, humility is a virtue won through struggle. There is a very real sense in which humility can only be learned existentially - through the experience of the struggle for God. In the context of this struggle, we are taught by God Himself what it means for us to be humble. It is one thing to write about it and to give mental assent to it. But how many of us really know that this is true, how many of us feel that it is true, how many of us experience the torturous presence of pride moment to moment? There is only one way to learn: life-long struggle with oneself.
Second, it is difficult to write about it because humility expresses itself in different ways in different people. Since humility is a grace of God in the soul, learned existentially in the context of my own individual struggle to find God, it is inescapably personal. What it means for me to be humble is tied to who I am, where I have come from, where I am going and how I am supposed to get there. The uniqueness of my own road to God means that humility is going to be different for me than for anyone else. Furthermore, as I grow older and my life changes, humility will take on new meaning and new expression.
However, as beginners we are in need of some direction. St. John gives us general guidelines to follow in the specifics of our own struggle. First, he reminds us that the struggle for humility is the most important struggle of our spiritual lives. Humility is victory over every passion, a love of prayer, and the guardian of all other virtues.
Second, he teaches us how to recognize the presence of humility in our hearts. (Remember: his purpose in giving us these "signs of humility" is not to make us proud because they are there, but to make us humble because they are not!) Sign number one of humility is "the delighted readiness of the soul to accept indignity, to receive it with open arms, to welcome it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and grievous sins." Sign number two is "the wiping out of anger - - and modesty over the fact that it has subsided." Sign number three is "the honest distrust of one's own virtues, together with an unending desire to learn more."
Third, he teaches us how to cultivate the presence of humility in our hearts. Here St. John reminds us that there is not one way to humility. The heights of humility may be scaled from various vantage points: 1) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves often of our sins. Nothing keeps us from thinking that we are "holy" like the remembrance of what we have done and are doing wrong, 2) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves of how much grace we have received. If we cannot "handle" the constant remembrance of our sins or if this grace has not been given to us, then perhaps we can humble ourselves by the constant remembrance of God's mercy and grace. True gratitude leads to humility, 3) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves of how weak and vulnerable to sin we are. If we cannot continuously remind ourselves of our sin, and if we cannot remain continuously thankful, at least we should be able to remember at all times how easy it is for us to fall. We are not strong in and of ourselves; we are vulnerable, we cannot defend ourselves spiritually or physically. Let us be humbled. This is why the holy fathers say that physical labor, vigils, fasting, etc. are important aids to humility. They reveal the weakness of our flesh, so that we might put no trust in it. Recognition of our own mortality and frailty leads to humility.
1-12 In these opening paragraphs St. John speaks of his hesitancy in writing about this virtue. Humility, he explains, can only be understood through experience and is expressed differently from person to person and changes with the passage of time.
Do you imagine that plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately or clearly or sincerely describe the love of the Lord, humility, blessed purity, divine enlightenment, fear of God, and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. The same applies in the first instance. A man stands revealed as either having had no experience of what he is talking about or as having fallen into the grip of vainglory.
Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of a quality that eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: "Holy Humility."
Humility is a grace in the soul and with a name known only to those who have had experience of it. It is indescribable wealth, a name and a gift from God. "Learn from me," He said; that is, not from an angel, not from a man, not from a book, but "from Me," that is, from My dwelling within you, from My illumination and action within you, for "I am gentle and meek of heart" (Matt. 11:29) in thought and in spirit, and your souls will find rest from conflicts and relief from evil thoughts.
The appearance of this sacred vine is one thing during the winter of passions, another in the springtime of flowering, and still another in the harvest time of all the virtues. . . . As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. We rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome. For every day we somehow imagine that we are adding to our burden by an ignorant scattering, that the very abundance of God's gifts to us is so much in excess of what we deserve that the punishment due to us becomes thereby all the greater.
13-34 The distinguishing characteristics, signs, and value of humility. St. John also speaks in these paragraphs about the importance of self-knowledge and self-examination for those who desire humility. Those who truly desire this virtue will use every means available to obtain it.
Where there is humility there will be no sign of hatred, no species of quarrelsomeness, no whiff of disobedience . . . . The man with humility for his bride will be gentle, kind, inclined to compunction, sympathetic, calm in every situation, radiant, easy to get along with, inoffensive, alert and active. In a word, free from passion. "The Lord remembered us in our humility and delivered us from our enemies" (Ps 135:23-24), that is, from our passions and from our impurities.
The sun lights up everything visible. Humility reaches across everything done according to reason. Where there is no light, all is in darkness. Where there is no humility, all is rotten.
A man truly humble within himself will never find his tongue betraying him. What is not in the treasury cannot be brought out through the door.
A solitary horse can often imagine itself to be at full gallop, but when it finds itself in a herd it then discovers how slow it actually is.
A first sign of emerging health is when our thoughts are no longer filled with a proud sense of our aptitudes. As long as the stench of pride lingers in the nose, the fragrance of myrrh will go unnoticed.
Holy humility had this to say: "The one who loves me will not condemn someone, or pass judgment on anyone, or lord it over someone else, or show off his wisdom . . . .
You will know that you have this holy gift within you and not be led astray when you experience an abundance of unspeakable light together with an indescribable love of prayer. Even before reaching this stage, you may have it, if in your heart you pass no judgment on the faults of others. And a precursor of what we have described is hatred of all vainglory.
The man who has come to know himself with the full awareness of his soul has sown in good ground. However, anyone who has not sown in this way cannot expect humility to flower within him. And anyone who has acquired knowledge of self has come to understand the fear of the Lord, and walking with the help of this fear, he has arrived at the doorway of love. For humility is the door to the kingdom, opening up to those who come near.
Those of us who wish to gain understanding must never stop examining ourselves and if in the perception of your soul you realize that your neighbor is superior to you in all respects, then the mercy of God is surely near at hand.
Whoever is eager for the peaceful haven of humility will never cease to do all he possibly can to get there, and with words and thoughts, with considerations and explanations, with questionings and probings, with every device, with prayer and supplication, with meditation and reflection, he will push onward, helped by God, humiliated and despised and toiling mightily, and he will sail the ship of his soul out from the ever-stormy ocean of vainglory.
35-64 St. John then describes how to cultivate the presence of humility within our hearts. The truly humble, he teaches, will never trust in himself or his own strength. He who has genuine humility will not sin voluntarily. Through his lowly self-abasing actions he will seek to form this virtue in his soul. Humble is as humble does!
Some drive out empty pride by thinking to the end of their lives of their past misdeeds, for which they were forgiven and which now serve as a spur to humility. Others, remembering the passion of Christ, think of themselves as eternally in debt. Others hold themselves in contempt when they think of their daily lapses. Others come to possess this mother of graces by way of their continuous temptations, weaknesses, and sins. There are some - and I cannot say if they are to be found nowadays - who humble themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, a real reward! And you may be sure that it is by this particularly blessed route that anyone has traveled who in a few short years has arrived at the summit of dispassion.
. . . God is delighted when He sees us courting dishonor for the purpose of crushing, striking, and destroying our empty esteem. And virtue of this sort comes only from a complete abandonment of the world and only the really great can endure the derision of their own folk.
A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning of this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.
Just as birds fear the sight of a hawk, those who practice humility fear the sound of an argument.
A humble man will always hate his own will as a cause of error. In his petitions to the Lord which he makes with unwavering faith he learns what he should do and obeys. He does not spend his time scrutinizing the lifestyle of his superiors. He lays all his burden on the God Who used an ass to teach Balaam what had to be done. All the acts, thoughts, and words of such a man are directed to the will of God and he never trusts himself. Indeed, to a humble man, self-confidence is as much a thorn and a burden as the orders of someone else are to a proud man.
Humility cannot be genuine and at one and the same time have a worldly strain. Genuine humility is not in us if we fall into voluntary sin, and this is the sign that there is something material still within us.
The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk by the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.
A man who sits on a throne acts in one way, and the man who sits on a dunghill acts in another. That, perhaps, is the reason why that great and just man sat on the dunghill outside the city. Totally humbled, he said in all sincerity, "I despise myself, waste away" (Job 42:6), and have regarded myself as dust and ashes.
Humility has its signs. It also has its sinews and its ways, and these are as follows - - poverty, withdrawal from the world, the concealment of one's wisdom, simplicity of speech, the seeking of alms, the disguising of one's nobility, the exclusion of free and easy relationships, the banishment of idle talk.
Nothing can ever so humble the soul as destitution and the subsistence of a beggar. We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of aggrandizement.
65-66 St. John concludes by reminding us once again that humility is not a virtue that one obtains through struggle alone, but it is given by God and comes through loving union with Him.
Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal here parent's name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: "Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God for your possession. To Whom be glory forever." Amen.