Sunday, May 13, 2012

"He who humbles himself will be exalted"

"He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).  To understand such a teaching, we look first to He who spoke the words - to Christ.  Our Lord humbled himself, took the form of a slave and became obedient unto death - death on a Cross.  This is the Master we follow and the model for our life.  This virtue is exalting, Hesychios tells us, because it destroys all those things that are evil and hated by God.  Humility strips us of all self-will and so all pride in ourselves and deeds.  Even after endless struggle, it leads us to say, “We are worthless servants, we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).  Humility acknowledges that all is grace; that all that we do comes from God’s hand.  It is the extreme and perfect humility of Christ that destroys all sin and when it is found in our hearts it strips away all that is contrary to God and his will.

Yet, surprisingly, Hesychios tells us that it is barely to be found among the ascetics (Philokalia, Vol 1, 173).  One may have a partial embrace of the ascetic life and so produce many virtues, but stop there.  Virtue itself can be sought as a possession, used to adorn oneself and exalt oneself in the one’s own eyes and the eyes of others. Humility only comes through great labor and is perfected only through suffering and trial; through self-emptying.  It is what most conforms us to the Lord and its opposite, pride, makes us most like Satan and unclean in the eyes of God:

“Scripture refers to the devil as ‘unclean‘ because from the beginning he rejected humility and espoused arrogance.  As a result he is called an unclean spirit throughout the Scriptures.  For what bodily uncleanness could one who is completely without body, fleshless and weightless, bring about in himself so as to be called unclean as a result? Clearly he was called unclean because of his arrogance, defiling himself thus after having been a pure and radiant angel.  ‘Everyone that is arrogant is unclean before the Lord‘ (Prov. 16:5), for it is written that the first sin was arrogance . . .”(Philokalia, Vol 1, 173).

How is it, then, that this gift of humility is to be acquired?  First, by recognizing that it is indeed a gift.  We are made humble by the mercy of God.  What we can do involves mostly acknowledging the truth about ourselves and our lowliness.  Hesychios writes:

“[We] can recollect the sins we have committed in word, action, and thought; and there are many other things which, reviewed in contemplation, contribute to our humility.  True humility is also brought about by meditating daily on the achievements of our brethren, by extolling their natural superiorities and by comparing our gifts with theirs.  When the intellect sees in this way how worthless we are and how far we fall short of the perfection of our brethren, we will regard ourselves as dust and ashes, and not as men but as some kind of cur, more defective in every respect and lower than all men on earth” (Philokalia, Vol. 1, 173-174).

While Hesychios’ words are terse and while we must be able to distinguish between the kind of mourning for sin that true humility produces and that leads to greater dependence upon God and the self-contempt that leads to depression and unholy sorrow, the counsel here is necessary given the pernicious nature of our pride and of the Devil’s temptations.  It is humility and the ascetic discipline of watchfulness that free a man from his sins and cut out the passions of his soul.  The fruit of this, Hesychios tells us, is purity of heart.  Those who have purified their hearts of all pride and the passions will see God and the greater the purity the “more they will see” (Philokalia, Vol 1, 175).

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