By Fr. Stephen Powley
“Take up the sword of humility and meekness, hold it always in your hand, and mercilessly cut off the head of our chief foe.”
This incredible man of God, St. Theophan the Recluse (+1891), passed on many wonderful writings for us. Here are just a few on Humility and Love. Each section is worth pausing and thinking more fully about.
Where Humility and Love Are Absent, Everything Spiritual Is Absent
You say that you have no humility or love. So long as these are absent, everything spiritual is absent. What is spiritual is born when they are born and grows as they grow. They are the same for the soul as mastery of the flesh is for the body. Humility is acquired by acts of humility, love by acts of love.
The Measure of Humility
Keep both eyes open. This is the measure of humility: if a man is humble he never thinks that he has been treated worse than he deserves. He stands so low in his estimation that no one, however hard they try, can think more poorly of him than he thinks himself. This is the whole secret of the matter.
Defects of Character
The Lord sometimes leaves in us some defects of character in order that we should learn humility. For without them we would immediately soar above the clouds in our own estimation and would place our throne there. And therein lies perdition.
The Path to Humility — Obedience
There is no need for me to repeat to you that the invincible weapon against all our enemies is humility. It is not easily acquired. We can think ourselves humble without having a trace of true humility. And we cannot make ourselves humble merely by thinking about it. The best, or rather, the only sure way to humility is by obedience and the surrender of our own will. Without this it is possible to develop a satanic pride in ourselves, while being humble in words and in bodily postures. I beg you to pay attention to this point and, in all fear, examine the order of your life. Does it include obedience and surrender of your will? Out of all the things you do, how many are done contrary to your own will, your own ideas and reflections? Do you do anything unwillingly, simply because you are ordered, through sheer obedience? Please examine it all thoroughly and tell me. If there is nothing of this type of obedience, the kind of life you lead will not bring you to humility. No matter how much you may humble yourself in thought, without deeds leading to self-abasement humility will not come. So you must think carefully how to arrange for this.
Conceit and Censoriousness
Humbling oneself is not yet humility, but only the desire and search for humility. May the Lord help you acquire this virtue. There is a spirit of illusion which in some unknown way deceives the soul by its guile. It so confuses our thoughts that the soul thinks itself humble, whereas inwardly it conceals an arrogant and conceited opinion of its own worth. So we have to go on looking carefully into our heart. External relationships which lead us to humility are the best means here.
You have been somewhat negligent. The fear of God left you, and soon after that attention left you too, and you fell into the habit of censuring people. You say that you have sinned inwardly, and this is true. Repent quickly and beg God’s forgiveness. Such a fault as that brings its own retribution: the fault is inward, and so is the punishment. We can condemn others not only in words but also with an inner movement of the heart. If the soul, when thinking of someone, criticizes them adversely, then it has already condemned them.
Taking Offence, and Turning the Other Cheek
You say that you are offended. To be offended at lack of attention is to consider oneself worthy of attention, and consequently to set a high value upon oneself in the heart; in other words, to have a heart swollen with pride. Is this good? Is it not our duty to endure wrongful accusation? Certainly it is. How then shall we start practicing this duty? After all, when we are commanded to endure, we have to endure every unpleasantness without exception, and endure gladly, without losing our inward peace. The Lord told us, when smitten on one cheek, to turn the other also, but we are so sensitive that if a fly so much as brushes us with its wing in passing we are immediately up in arms. Tell me, are you prepared to obey this commandment of the Lord about being smitten on the cheek? You will probably say, Yes, you are prepared. Yet the instance you describe in your letter is precisely an occasion where this commandment applies. Being smitten on the cheek should not be taken literally. We should understand by it any action of our neighbor in which, it seems to us, we did not receive due attention and respect — any action by which we feel degraded, and our honor, as people call it, wounded. Every deed of this kind, however trivial — a look, an expression — is a blow on the cheek. Not only should we endure it, but we should also be ready for some greater degradation which would correspond to turning the other cheek. What happened in your case was a very light slap on one cheek. And what did you do? Did you turn the other? No; so far from turning it, you retaliated. For you have already retaliated; you have made the other person feel that you are somebody, as though saying, “Keep your hands off me!” But what are we good for, you and I, if we do this? And how can we be regarded as disciples of Christ if we do not obey His commandments? What you should have done is to consider: do I deserve any attention? If you had had this feeling of unworthiness in your heart you would not have taken offense.
Take up the Sword of Humility
Spiritual unrest and passions harm the blood and effectively damage our health. Fasting and a general abstinence in our daily life are the best way to preserve our health sound and vigorous.
Prayer introduces the human spirit into God’s realm where the rock of life dwells; and the body also, led by the spirit, partakes of that life. A contrite spirit, feelings of repentance, and tears — these do not diminish our physical strength but add to it, for they bring the soul to a state of comfort.
You wish that contrition and tears would never leave you, but you had better wish that the spirit of deep humility should always reign in you. This brings tears and contrition, and it also prevents us from being puffed up with pride at having them. For the enemy manages to introduce poison even through such things as these.
There is also spiritual hypocrisy which may accompany contrition. True contrition does not interfere with pure spiritual joy, but can exist in harmony with it, concealed behind it.
And what of self-appreciation? Take up the sword of humility and meekness, hold it always in your hand, and mercilessly cut off the head of our chief foe.