On the Essence of Humility

Professor N. E. Pestov. "The Modern Practice of Orthodox virtue".

Chapter 22. The Essence of Humility.

Professor N.E. Pestov

Humility is the garment of divinity.

Ven. Isaac the Syrian

God comes mostly to simplicity and humility.

Ven. John Climacus

On the basis of poverty in spirit, the virtue of humility – as a gift of God – arises and begins to grow in the Christian.

What is humility? John Climacus, the hegumen of Mount Sinai, asked this question to many spiritual fathers. In response to this question, St. John got a range of definitions of humility from the elders.

One of them said: “Humility is constant forgetfulness of one's achievements”. Another said: “It is the admission that in all the world one is the least important and is also the greatest sinner”. A third said: “It is the mind's awareness that one is weak and helpless”. A fourth said: “It is the disposition of a contrite soul and the abdication of one's own will” etc.

But none of the obtained definitions satisfied St. John, and he gave his own response to this question: “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”.

Essentially, St. John did not give a full definition of what humility is, but he pointed that, in his opinion, one cannot do it, because it is a name from God.

The definition of humility given by ven. Isaac the Syrian is close to that. He said:

“Humility is the garment of divinity; for the Word which became man, put it on and spoke in it with us, through our body.

What is more, everyone who puts it on in truth, by humility, takes the likeness of Him that has descended from His height... Humility is a mysterious power, which the perfect saints receive, when they have reached accomplishment of behavior. What is more, this power is not granted except to those who, by the power of Grace, have personally accomplished the whole of excellence, in so far as nature in its domain is able to do this. For humility is all-comprehending excellence. As the shadow follows the body, so God’s mercy follows humility”.

Among other formulations of the essence of humility, let us cite the definition given by bishop Benjamin (Milov):

“Humility is joyous and sorrowful self-humiliation of the soul before God and men by the grace of the Holy Trinity, expressed in thoughts by prayer and seeing own sins, by feeling of a broken heart, active wholehearted submission to the will of God and by zealous care of people for the sake of God.

Humble people wonderfully soften their heart; they have heat in their soul and warmth of love towards all people without exception thanks to some gift from above”.

Elder Silouan, who saw God already in his lifetime, write about humility of Christ: “When the soul sees the Lord, how meek and lowly He is, she humbles herself thoroughly, and she does not wish anything as much, as she wishes Christ’s humility; and however long the soul lives on earth, she would continue to hunger and seek for this inconceivable humility that cannot be forgotten. Humility is a great blessing, life is light and joyous with it, and everything is sweet to the soul. Only to the humble does the Lord reveal Himself in the Holy Spirit, and if we do not humble ourselves we shall not see God. Humility is the light in which we may behold the light which is God – in the words of the psalmist: “In thy light shall we see light.”

Though the Lord takes her to heaven each day and shows her all the heavenly glory in which He dwells, and the love of the Seraphim and Cherubim, and all the Saints - even then, with the knowledge of experience the humble soul will say, “Thou, O Lord, shewest me Thy glory because Thou lovest Thy creature, but do Thou give me tears and the power to thank Thee. To Thee belongeth glory in heaven and on earth, but as for me - I must weep for my sins.” There is no other way of preserving the grace of the Holy Spirit which the Lord in His mercy gives freely.

The Lord showed great pity on me and made me understand that I must weep all my life. Such is the way of the Lord.

Humility of Christ comprises love, peace, meekness, temperance, obedience, and patience.

“God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5, 5). And so I write now out of pity for those who, like me, are puffed up with pride, and therefore suffer. I write that they may learn humility, and find rest in God. Because we suffer only until we become humble, and when we become humble, sufferings will end, because the Holy Spirit makes known to the soul for her humility that she is saved. For one humble thought, the grace comes.”

God in the person of Jesus Christ — the second person of the Holy Trinity — calls us to learn humility from Him: “Come unto me… and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11, 28-29).

Since humility is an attribute of Christ, He Himself comes to abide in the soul of the Christian with humility, and humility reigns in the soul, only when “Christ is formed in” her (Gal. 4, 19).

All the holy fathers consider humility to be the basis of all the virtues. If there is humility, all other virtues easily develop in the soul. But if there is no humility, a virtue ceases to be a virtue; sanctity transforms into delusion; works of charity, fast, mortification of the flesh etc. are performed out of vanity etc.

As Archbishop John says: “Humility of the human spirit is not a weakness, but an extraordinary strength of the person”. This truth is confirmed by the story titled “Living Relics” by Turgenev.

Priest Alexnder Yelchaninov wrote about the same:

“How great is the force of humility. If we sense the faintest shade of conceit in the preacher or the orator, this not only effaces all his actual merits, but even arouses our antagonism. On the other hand, the humble man, even if he possesses neither great intelligence nor talent, conquers all hearts.

“The essence of pride is to lock oneself for God, the essence of humility is to let God live in oneself”.

At the same time, ven. Isaac the Syrian said:

“Humility, even without works, gains forgiveness for many offences; but without it, works are of no profit to us and instead prepare for us great evil. Therefore, through humility, as I said, find forgiveness for your iniquitous deeds. What salt is for any food, humility is for every virtue, and it can mightily obliterate many sins.

“A man should constantly strive to obtain it. And if she becomes ours, she will make us sons of God, and even without good works she will present us to God. For without humility all our works are vain – every virtue and every righteous labour.”

There is a following story about it in the history of the Church: a Christian woman got on a desert island and spent there forty years in works of prayer, fasting and various privations. Then she returned to the mainland with the ship that had arrived to the island. Having found one of the great elders, she told him about her desert labours.

After having listened to her, the elder asked: “And can you receive offences as redolent odours?” — “No, father”, — confused devotee answered. — “Then you have obtained nothing for the whole 40 years of your labours”.

“It is humility alone that may conduct us into the Kingdom, but only slowly”, — Abba Dorotheus wrote as well.

In connection with it, P. Ivanov writes:

“Not everybody has the force required to perform great deeds, but every Christian can have humility. In this sense it is said about imitating the Father, which is in heaven, in perfection. Because he infinitely humbles Himself to condescend to us, to each our action.

“That’s why those are wrong, who believe that the Christian ideal is unachievable, because it requires Godly perfection. It requires the perfection of humility, not the perfection of deeds that would be truly impossible.”

In case of lack of humility, even gifts can cause harm to a Christian. Ven. Isaac the Syrian wrote about it as follows: “A gift without temptations is found to cause the destruction of those who have received it. If you have served well before God, and He has given you a gift, then pray Him to give you knowledge or take the gift from you, so that it would not cause your destruction. Because it is not harmless for everybody to keep the wealth.”

There is a story about a father who asked God for seven years about some gift, and He gave it to him. After this, he came to a great elder and told him about the gift. An elder heard and was greatly distressed, telling: “It is a great tribulation”. Then he said: “Go and spend another seven years praying to God that He might take the gift from you, for it is not good for you.” He went and did this until the gift was taken away from him.

Saint Anthony the Great said: “Except through great humility in your whole heart and mind and spirit and soul and body, you will not be able to inherit the Kingdom of God”.

The devil hates humility as an attribute of Jesus Christ, and he cannot bear it, as well as the Holy Cross.

There is the following story about elder Macarius of Optina. A possessed man was brought to Optina one day, and the elder was sent for. The patient, who had never heard about the elder, became anxious and told: “Macarius is coming, Macarius is coming”. As soon as the elder entered the room, the man leapt at him and gave him a hard slap. The elder used the most powerful weapon – humility – and offered the other cheek. The poor man fell in a faint, lay for a while at the feet of the elder, and then stood up healed. He did not remember his gesture.

So we can understand the words of ven. Isaac the Syrian: “When the humble approaches the children of man, they look upon him as upon their lord. Why do I mention the children of man? Because, not withstanding all the evil and stubbornness of the demons and all the pride of their own mind, as soon as they meet the humble, they become as dust: all their hardness becomes weak, their tricks become craftless, their cunnings idle”.

St. Anthony Great saw with spiritual eyes all the nets of the devil that he spread over the world to catch people and lead them to sins.

The saint was terrified by the dozens of temptations and asked God: “Who can escape from these nets?” — and heard the voice: “Humility escapes from them — they do not even touch it”.

Thus, if the man has humility alone, he is completely freed from attacks, temptations, and power of the evil spirit.

Hegumeness Arsenia of Ust-Medveditsky monastery provides a profound understanding of the importance of humility for the man:

“Humility is the sole state of the soul through which all the spiritual gifts come to a man. It is a door which opens the heart and makes it capable of spiritual feelings.

“Humility brings to the heart an unflappable tranquility, to the mind—peace, to the thoughts—attentiveness. Humility is a strength enveloping the heart, alienating it from all earthly things, granting it comprehension of the feeling of eternal life, which cannot sprout in the heart of the fleshly man.

“Humility gives the mind its original purity. It begins to clearly see the difference between good and evil in everything, and knows the name of every state and movement of the soul within itself, as the first-created Adam named the animals according to the characteristics which he saw in them. Humility relies on the seal of silence in all that is human, and the spirit of man stands before the Lord in prayer in this silence, heeding His words…

“Without the feeling of humility in the heart, there can be no pure, spiritual prayer.

“Peace and joy are the fruits of humility. It is the harbour, where all the good ascetics, all who sorrow in their soul, all who thirst for salvation have found their rest. Do not fear to lose everything humility.

“Humility is the only way and pacification in case of any confusion and temptation. Only with this path, the soul can reach the all-absolving truth, the healing warmth. If you lose this path, darkness and tightness will surround the soul”.

As schema-nun Ardliona, the spiritual mother of Arsenia, told her: “Humility is the ground, into which the corn must fall in order to die — die to live in Christ and bring forth spiritual fruit.

“The soul receives her perfection in Christ, not in herself. Then the soul will rejoice in her weakness. And will such soul want to show herself to be great before people? On the contrary, she wants that everybody sees her weakness, her lowliness, her wretchedness, and her insignificance.”

Archbishop Arseny told the following about all the fruits of humility:

“Do love humility, look, how great it is. Humility attracts God’s grace. Humility kills anger and irritation. Humility delivers the soul from every passion and every temptation. Humility enables to calmly bear sorrows and travails. Humility eases the hardest works. Humility warms the gift of prayer. Humility protects from the moral fall and helps overcome the fall to those who had a misfortune to fall.

“Humility leads to repentance. Humility is the root of spiritual progress: it gives inspiration for virtues and multiplies them. Humility wins people’s favour. Humility destroys self-conceit and delusion of demons. Humility produces all the gifts of the Holy Spirit: spiritual expertise, wisdom, temperance, patience, love, prudence, graciousness, sincerity, open-heartedness, charity. Humility is the way to sanctity. Humility fills the soul with joy and rest in God.”

And Dostoyevsky wrote: “Humble yourself, proud man... If thou conquer and subdue thyself, then thou wilt begin a great work and make others free, and thou wilt see happiness, for thy life will be fulfilled.”