How to Practice Humility

How are we to come to this saving humility, leaving behind us the deadly swelling of arrogance? By exercising ourselves in it in all things, and by keeping in mind that there is nothing which cannot be a danger to us.  For the soul becomes like the things it gives itself to; and takes the character and appearance of what it does.  Let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your bed, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.  And let your speech, your singing, your manner with your neighbour, let these things also be more in accord with humility than with vanity.  In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excessive sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing.  In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.  Be a help to your friends, kind to the ones who live with you, gentle to your servant, patient with those who are troublesome, loving towards the lowly, comforting to those in trouble, visiting those in affliction, never despising anyone, gracious in friendship, cheerful in answering others, courteous, approachable to everyone, never speaking your own praises, nor getting others to speak them, never taking part in unbecoming conversation, and concealing where you may whatever gifts you possess.

On the contrary, accuse yourself of your own faults (Prov. xviii. 17), and do not wait for others to find fault with you: that you may be like the just man who in the beginning of his speech is his own accuser (Job xxxi. 34); that you may be like Job who was not ashamed to confess his faults before the multitude in the city.  Do not be heavy in rebuking; nor reproach another quickly or in heat (for this is a kind of arrogance), and do not find fault over little things, as though you yourself were wholly perfect.  Give your help to those who have made a slip, helping them spiritually to restore themselves, as the Apostle warns us: Considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted(Gal. vi. 1).

Be as eager not to be glorified among men as others are to acquire glory among them, provided you remember the words of Christ, that he loses his reward with God who looks to be honoured before men, and does good that he may be seen by men.  For, He says, I say to you, they have received their reward.  So do not bring loss upon yourself, seeking to be esteemed by men.  Since God is a great watcher of men, seek glory from God; for He gives a splendid reward.  Have you attained to dignity, that men should stand about you, and show you respect?  Then become like those subject to you; not as having power, as the Scripture says, lording it over the clergy (I Pet. v. 3); and not after the manner of earthly rulers.  For he who would be first, the Lord has commanded him to be the servant of all (Mt. x. 44).

In brief then; follow after humility, as a lover of it.  Love it, and it will glorify you.  If you wish to travel to the true glory, this is the way, with the angels, and with God.  And in the presence of the angels Christ will acknowledge you as His disciple; and He will give you glory if you have imitated His humility Who said: Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest to your souls (Mt. xi. 29): To Whom be glory and empire for ever and ever.  Amen.

~ St. Basil, On Humility, chapter 7


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Scripture is Interpreted by the Church

“Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”

~ St. Vincent of Lerins, A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies

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Interpreting Scripture with Humility

One elder passed seventy weeks in fasting, eating food only twice a week, as he begged the Lord to reveal to him the meaning of a passage in Holy Scripture. But God would not reveal it to him. Seeing this, the elder said to himself, “I have labored long and hard, and I have accomplished nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.”

When he had left his cell and locked the door behind him, an angel from the Lord appeared and said to him: “Seventy weeks of fasting did not bring you nearer to God. Now, however, when you have humbled yourself and resolved to go to your brother with your question, I have been sent to you to explain the meaning of this passage.” And fulfilling this, the angel departed.

~ Paterikon of Bishop Ignatius, found in Spiritual Sowings. Translated by Elizaveta Baranova

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St. Gregory on Monarchy

“The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that which we hold in honour.”

~ St. Gregory the Theologian, Third Theological Oration

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Church Mice

“We Orthodox, particularly those of us who are Western converts,” Bishop Kallistos said, “are often in danger of becoming church mice. We just live inside the church and nibble at the crumbs in the church, but we don’t look outside at the presence of Christ in the world as well.”

“We Orthodox who live in the West are heirs to the entire cultural and intellectual tradition of the West, much of which indeed is profoundly Christian. We are heirs to Dante, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Wordsworth,” Bishop Kallistos continued passionately. “Of course we have our own Orthodox interpretation of their work. But if we are to play our role as Orthodox in the Western world we must be willing to listen and to learn from the spiritual masters of the Western tradition . . . Because this for us, and I speak as a Western convert, this for us is our own cultural heritage. We must not simply reject it and say ‘I shall only read Orthodox authors.’ Sometimes Orthodox say to me ‘Oh, I’m not going to waste my time reading Dante; he wasn’t Orthodox,’ which is a pity: for, if they did read Dante, they might learn a lot. Well, perhaps some people should just read Orthodox books. But others of us must surely engage in a dialogue with Western culture. Otherwise we are betraying our roles as Orthodox placed here in the West as mediators and witnesses.

God did not put me in ninth-century Byzantium. He placed me in twenty-first century Oxford. There must be a reason for that.

Moreover, what is asked of us Orthodox is to listen as well as speak. All too often we carry on an Orthodox monologue. But we need to hear the voice of the other. Somebody said to a friend of mine (my friend is Christian, the person speaking to her was not): “The trouble with you Christians is you want to give us the answer before you bother to find out what our questions are!'”

I joined Bishop Kallistos in a hearty laugh. Then he continued, “Now, I think we could apply that to Orthodoxy in the modern Western world. Before we give them all the Orthoodx answers, which in any case we ourselves know so incompletely, we need to listen to what their questions are. We need to consider where these questions are coming from, what is the meaning of the whole experience of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment? As a Westerner I should start from where they are.”

Kyriacos C. Markides, Gifts of the Desert: (New York: Doubleday, 2005), pp. 168-169.

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See No Evil

“Speaking about good images and good memories, I am really concerned about the images children get exposed to through the mass media,” Marina interrupted. “I see the results in my practice.”

“It is disastrous,” Father Maximos agreed. “Children should be exposed to good images so that they can store them in their memory. If day in and day out they see nothing else except diabolical images on television, people hitting and shooting one another, then they are bound to be affected. When a child sees demons, fights, and T-shirts with monsters on them, how are these images going to help that child be peaceful? Sometimes I go into the rooms of children when I am invited to conduct a sanctification service at various homes. I get horrified at what I see. Posters of monsters, wild rock stars, ferocious-looking black panthers. Had you locked me up in such a space I would have gone paranoid. Yet they have their children live in such environments.”

Kyriacos C. Markides, Gifts of the Desert: (New York: Doubleday, 2005), pp. 125-126.

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Sacred Space

Kyriacos Markides mentions a discussion he had with two colleagues and friends in Maine:

After an evening talk on Eastern Orthodoxy at the Orono Methodist Church, the organizers and I walked to the local pub to continue our discussion related to issues of faith and worship. They lamented the fact that few young people from the university community attend church these days. In order to attract students they initiated a program in which a rock band played in church every Friday night. The band would set up its stage next to the altar and play rock with religious lyrics. Few students, however, attended those concerts. They asked my opinion on how to attract more students to the church.

Why, I asked, would students come to church to hear religious rock and not attend the real thing at a rock concert?

But the lyrics are Christian, my friends pointed out.

Sacred music, I argued, comes from a different source. Those who compose such music are spiritually inspired. I suggested that a first step to make the church more attractive to students was to create an atmosphere whereby when a person entered the church he or she experienced the sacredness of the space. Rock cannot do that.

The church has to offer a clear distinction between the ordinary “profane” world and the realm of the sacred so that a person who enters the church will leave the “profane” world behind.

Kyriacos C. Markides, Gifts of the Desert: (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p. 122.

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Father Maximos told us another story in his usual casual manner. “During the first year I was a monk on Mount Athos, there was some kind of a misunderstanding between a young hieromonk and his elder. The young hieromonk was very upset because he heard a rumor that his elder was planning to change his work schedule. Being young and inexperienced he started bad-mouthing his elder. The rest of us, naive and younger than he was, would not waste a moment. We went straight to the elder and reported him. The elder’s reaction was ‘I’ll take care of him during vespers. I will make him feel so much shame he won’t know where to go and hide his face from the rest of us.’ We thought he was really going to reprimand him.”

“I remember it was Saturday before vespers. The elder walked down the steps from his cell, which was on the second floor, and called for this hieromonk. ‘Come to the sanctuary. I want to talk to you,’ he said to him somberly. ‘Holy Mother of God,’ the rest of us murmured among ourselves. ‘Alas to him.’ The elder was going to take care of him right inside the sanctuary. All of us were tense, waiting for the developments. We expected to hear raised voices and reprimands as the elder scolded him. I happened to be inside the sanctuary helping with the service as I had just been made a deacon. And what do you think I witnessed? As they entered the sanctuary, the sixty-five-year-old elder fell on his knees in front of the twenty-five-year-old monk, kissed his feet, and asked for forgiveness. ‘I am sorry, my brother,’ he said to the young monk, ‘I must have done something to cause you grief. Please forgive me.’ The other of course was shattered and began sobbing while asking forgiveness from the elder. By the grace of God, tranquility was restored in the monastery and a valuable lesson was offered to all of us.”

Kyriacos C. Markides, Gifts of the Desert: (New York: Doubleday, 2005), pp. 73-74.

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Still a Pepper

Father Maximos tells a story related to the life of an elder known as Abba Isaiah, the spiritual guide to a group of monks:

“One of his disciples had difficulties relating to the other monks. He was irritable, constantly grumbling and angry. At the same time he recognized that he had a problem and wished to overcome it. One day he went to his elder and said: ‘I am convinced that if I go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I will be able to absorb the grace that emanates from the holy shrines. It will help me free myself from my anger and become a good monk.’ The elder urged him to stay put and carry on with his personal struggle and told him that there was no need to travel all the way to the Holy Land. The elder advised that conditions at the monastery were more conducive to helping him overcome his shortcomings. ‘If you genuinely struggle to overcome your problems,’ the elder said, ‘then I believe God will help you. What you need is not pilgrimages but to struggle against your passions.'”

“But that monk insisted on getting his elder’s blessing to go on this pilgrimage,” Father Maximos continued. “Finally the elder gave his permission. ‘Okay,’ he conceded. ‘Since you are so insistent then by all means go ahead.’ Exhuberant, the disciple began preparing for the long journey, which at that time was done on foot with pack animals and lasted for months. Before he left the monastery he went to his elder and, as was the custom, performed a prostration in front of him in order to receive his blessing. The elder then gave him a small tight bundle to take along on his journey. Inside he placed a head of garlic, and onion, and a piece of dried hot pepper. ‘Please,’ he told that disciple, ‘do me a favor. Everywhere you go, after making the sign of the cross, rub this bundle over all the holy shrines you visit. Then bring it back. I want to have it absorb as much grace as possible so that I can use it as a talisman. The monk was delighted. He thought he was doing his elder a great favor.”

“Several months later this monk returned from his pilgrimage feeling fully charged with divine grace. He appeared humble and peaceful. But this condition lasted for no more than two months. With the slightest provocation he regressed to his old ways and again created problems in the community. At a certain point the elder asked him to hand over the bundle and asked all the monks to gather. Then the elder opened it up. He raised the head of garlic and said, ‘You went garlic and came back garlic.’ He picked up the onion and said, ‘You went an onion and came back an onion.’ He pointed at the pepper and said, ‘You went as a pepper and came back as a pepper.’ Jerusalem had no effect on them . . .

Kyriacos C. Markides, Gifts of the Desert: (New York: Doubleday, 2005), pp. 53-54.

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Why Did I Come Here?

Dr. Constantine Cavarnos had a conversation with a hermit on Mount Athos:

“Why did I come here? You will ask me,” said the hermit, whose name was John. “For the sake of eternity. Our life here on earth, whether we are plain folks, scientists or professors, princes or kings, will inevitably come to an end. When we die, these titles and capacities will mean nothing, absolutely nothing. The only thing that will matter then will be the quality of our soul, whether it is good or bad, whether we have saved it or lost it. Heaven and hell are everlasting, whereas our earthly life is insignificantly brief.”

Constantine Cavarnos, Anchored in God: An Inside Account of Life, Art, and Thought on the Holy Mountain of Athos (Athens: 1959), p. 183.

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