Peter of Damaskos on Humility

St. Peter of Damaskos. "Book II. Twenty-Four Discourses". X. Humility.

The truly humble man never ceases to reproach himself, even when the whole world attacks and insults him. He acts in this way, not simply in order to attain salvation as it were passively by enduring with patience whatever befalls him, but in order to press forward actively and deliberately to embrace the sufferings of Christ. From these sufferings he learns the greatest of all the virtues, humility: the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, the gateway to the kingdom of heaven, that is to say, to dispassion. He who passes through this gateway comes to God; but without humility his road is full of pain and his effort useless. Humility bestows complete repose upon whoever possesses it in his heart, because he has Christ dwelling within him. Through it grace remains with him and God’s gifts are preserved. It is the offspring of many different virtues: of obedience, patient endurance, shedding of possessions, poverty, fear of God, spiritual knowledge and others as well. But above all it is the offspring of discrimination, the virtue that illumines the farthest reaches of the intellect. Yet let no one think that it is a simple, casual matter to become humble. It is something beyond our natural powers; and it is almost true to say that the more a person is gifted, the harder it is for him to attain humility. It presupposes great judgment and endurance in the face of the trials and evil spirits that oppose us. For humility slips through all their snares.

Humility is also the offspring of spiritual knowledge, and such knowledge is born of trials and temptations. To the man who knows himself is given the knowledge of all things; and to the man who submits to God, all things will be subject when humility reigns in his members. For it is precisely through undergoing many trials and temptations, and through patiently enduring them, that a man acquires experience; and as a result he comes to know both his own weakness and the power of God. In becoming aware of his own weakness and ignorance, he recognizes that he has now learned what once he did not know; and this allows him to see that just as he used not to know these things, and was unaware that he did not know, so there are many other things which he may later be able to learn. St Basil the Great observes in this connection that unless one tastes something one is unaware of what one is missing. But he who has tasted spiritual knowledge knows at least to some extent that he is ignorant, and so his knowledge becomes for him a source of humility. Again, he who knows that he is a mutable creature will never maintain a high opinion of himself; he will recognize that anything he may have belongs to his Creator. You do not praise a pot on the grounds that it has made itself useful; you praise its maker. And when it is broken, you blame whoever broke it, not its maker.

Yet if the vessel of which we are speaking is endowed with intelligence, then necessarily it will possess free will. Whatever is good in it comes from its Creator, and He is also the cause of its being made; but its fall or deviation will depend upon how it exercises its own free will. If you do not deviate, God in His grace will grant you the seal of His approval; but if you give ear to the serpent’s evil counsel, disapprobation will be your lot. Approval and gratitude, however, are due not to the man who receives the gifts but to Him who bestows them. Yet by grace he who receives a gift may deserve approval because by his own choice he accepted what he did not have or, rather, because he is grateful to his Benefactor. And if he is not grateful, not only does he forfeit all approval, but he is selfcondemned for his ingratitude as well. Yet no one, I trust, is so shameless as to claim that the gift was not freely bestowed on him and to pretend in his iniquity that he deserves praise, calmly puffing himself up and condemning those who are apparently not like him, on the grounds that he himself has conferred on himself the wealth he thinks he possesses, and has not received it by God’s grace. Should such a person thank the Giver, he does so in the same way as the Pharisee in the Gospel, and says to himself, ‘I thank Thee, O God, that I am not like other men’(Luke 18:11).The Evangelist - or, rather, God, who knows men’s hearts - was right to say that he spoke ‘to himself, for the Pharisee was not speaking to God. Even though orally he did seem to be speaking to God, yet God who knew his self-applauding soul says that he stood and prayed not to God but to himself.

The fact that the Scriptures often make use of identical or very similar phrases is due, says St John Chrysostom, not to repetitiveness or prolixity, but to the desire to imprint what is said on the heart of the reader. In the ardor of his writing the psalmist did not want to stop, as do those who have not tasted the sweetness of his words and who in their listlessness trample them underfoot so as to be freed from the weight of them. Will such a person ever reap any profit from Holy Scripture? Does he not simply earn condemnation and a darkening of his intellect by opening the door to the demons who are attacking him?

As the Lord has said: ‘If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’(Luke 23:31); and again: ’If the righteous man is only just saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’ (1Pet. 4:18). The demons attack even those whose intellect, immaterial and formless, is concentrated entirely on the remembrance of God; and, unless God assisted them on account of their humility, their prayer would not mount to heaven but would fall back empty. What then will be our lot, abject as we are? We do not even open our lips and speak into the air, so that at the last God may have mercy on us, descending to the level of our ignorance and weakness because we have shown gratitude to Him.

As for whether or not the demons attack even the perfect in this world, let us hear what St Makarios says: ‘No one becomes perfect in this present age; for if they did, then what is given here would not be simply a pledge of the blessings held in store but their full realization.’ He adduces in testimony one of the brethren who was praying with several others and who was suddenly snatched up mentally to heaven and saw the heavenly Jerusalem and the tabernacles of the saints. When he returned to his habitual state, however, he fell from virtue and ended up by being completely destroyed; for he thought he had achieved something and did not realize that, being unworthy and only dust by nature, he was that much the more in debt for having been privileged to ascend to such a height. St Makarios also says that he had known many men, and from his experience had come to recognize without any doubt that no one in this world is perfect: even if he becomes altogether immaterial and is almost one with God, yet sin pursues him and will not disappear completely before his death.

Evagrios the Solitary has recounted how a certain monk was praying when, for his benefit and for that of many others, God allowed the demons to take him by his hands and feet and throw him in the air; and so that his body would not be hurt when he fell to the earth, they caught him in a rush-mat. This they did for a long time, but were unable to distract his intellect from heaven. ’How would such a man even perceive what he was eating? When would he have need of psalmody or reading? But we have need of them because of the weakness of our intellect, though even in this way we fail to concentrate. Alas, such a holy man suffered attacks from the demons, yet we do not worry at all about their assaults. The saints are protected by their humility from the snares of the devil, while we in our ignorance are puffed up. It is indeed a sign of great ignorance for someone to be self-elated-about what is not his. For ‘what do you have which you did not receive’, either freely from God or through the prayers of others? ‘Now if you received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it’ (1Cor. 4:7), but had achieved it yourself? So Abba Cassian puts it.

Humility, then, is born from spiritual knowledge, and itself gives birth to discrimination; while from discrimination comes the spiritual insight which the prophet calls ‘counsel’ (Isa.11:2). By means of such insight we see things according to their true nature, and the intellect dies to the world because it now contemplates the creations of God. To Him be glory throughout the ages. Amen.