Scattered throughout the festal landscape of the Orthodox Christian Church are numerous Feasts of the Virgin Mary- her conception which we will celebrate on December 8, her birth, her presentation to the Temple, the Annunciation, and her Dormition being the most prominent. On her feasts, and more specifically in her person, Creation rejoices as perfect humility is made manifest. She was born of humble parents, she was received in the Temple by humble hands, in humility she accepted God’s will to be the Mother of God Incarnate, and she humbly looked to her own son for salvation as she prepared to repose in the faith.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, considered one of the most prominent intellectuals in the Catholic Church of the 20th Century, wrote in his book title Humility: Wellspring of Virtue that “Humility is Truth.” These three words are profound, especially with the example of the Theotokos still fresh in our minds. Her lifelong humility as well as the humility manifested by any and all of the saints is a reflection of the humility that is God, Who is Truth, Who is Love, Who is Perfection, Who, as the Lord Jesus Christ reminded the young ruler, is the Good. The task before each and every one of us is then to live as an icon of God, like the Theotokos and like the saints, which can only be accomplished through manifesting a sincere humility before God and His Creation.
Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, a desert father of the sixth century, affirms that there are these two kinds of humility: “The first kind of humility is to hold my brother to be wiser than myself, and in all things to rate him higher than myself, and simply as that holy man said, to put oneself below everyone. The second kind is to attribute to God all virtuous actions. This is the perfect humility of the saints. It is generated naturally in the soul by the performance of the commandments. [It is] just like a tree bearing much fruit: it is the fruit that bends the branches and lowers them down, but when there is no fruit, the branches point upwards and grow straight.”
The words of Dorotheos are in the spirit of those written by James the Brother of our Lord, in the General Epistle of James, “humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” But who is this Lord or in the words of Francis of Assisi “Who are You and who am I?” If we acknowledge that the Triune God is our Creator, our Savior, and the Giver of every Good Gift, then like Hildebrand, “We discern our nothingness and our obscurity and join in the words of the Psalmist, ‘But I am a worm, and no man.’ We come to understand that we are utterly in the debt of God and completely dependent upon Him. ‘Know ye that the Lord is God” he made us, and not we ourselves.’ If we are mislead based on a truly false sense of worth, so as to think that we can stand in the presence of the God, or that we can simply lift ourselves up, then we have embraced Lucifer’s original gesture of absolute pride of rebellion against God, “in an impotent attempt to appropriate His power and dominion.”
We are led by this line of thought to the reality that “the nearer a man is to God, the more he sees himself a sinner.” I would venture that some, even in our parish, would question the validity of this statement. I again turn to St. Dorotheos who explains: I remember once we were speaking about humiliation and one of the great lights of Gaza, hearing us say ‘The nearer a man is to God the more he sees himself a sinner’, was astonished, and said, ‘How is this possible?’ He did not know, and wanted to know the answer. I said to him…how do you regard yourself in respect to the other citizens here?’ And he said, ‘I regard myself as great, and first among the citizens.’ I said then, ‘If you went away to Caesarea, how would you regards yourself then?’ ‘I would value myself somewhat less than the great folk there.’ So I said, ‘If you went away to Antioch, what then?’ And he replied, ‘I would regard myself as one of the common people.’ I said, ‘And if you went from the city of Caesarea into the presence of the Emperor, what would you think of yourself then?’ He replied, ‘I should think of myself as just one of the poor.’ Then I said to him ‘There you are! In the same way, the saints, the nearer they approach God, the more they see themselves as sinners.’
He continues by elevating Abraham, Isaiah, and Daniel as prime examples of humility in the presence of God: Abraham, when he saw God, called himself ‘dust and ashes.’ And Isaiah said, ‘Unhappy am I, for my lips are unclean.’ Similarly Daniel was in the lion’s den and Habakkuk came to him with a meal and said to him, ‘Accept food, which the Lord has sent you.’ And Daniel replied, ‘For the Lord has remembered me!’ He had great humility in his heart when he was in the lion’s den because they did not devour him once and for all, not even afterwards, and so with astonishment he cried, ‘the Lord has remembered me.’
How are we to discern if we have embraced true humility in the likeness of the saints? An answer is found in the discussion with Father Paisios of blessed memory. When he was asked “Geronda, to what extent does God help us in our spiritual struggle?” his response was this: “To the extent that we allow God to help us. When you ask God for something, and for a long time He doesn’t help, you should know that there is pride. If we have passions, for example, gluttony, vain talk, anger, envy and so forth, and in addition to that we also have pride, God won’t help because we are obstructing divine Grace with our passions….For this reason, in order for God to help us, we must help God with our humble thought…Then God helps, because the soul, entrusted into the hands of God with a good and a humble disposition, is entitled to divine help.”
Even with a dedicated fast, a seemingly sincere prayer life, and thoughtful almsgiving, God remains unable to draw near to us if we lack humility. Accordingly, the acquisition of humility is the genesis of the all the virtues, the means by which our prayers are answered and we transcend our limitations in the Holy Spirit, drawing closer through Christ to our Heavenly Father.
I close with the words of Hildebrand who writes: Humility bursts the bonds of all narrowness; through it, even a personality insignificant by nature will acquire width and greatness. For it is only the humble soul, the soul that has emptied itself, which can be fully penetrated by the divine Life it has received in holy Baptism; and it is upon such a soul that there falls a reflection of the greatness and infinitude of God Here is a great mystery, paradoxical yet true: precisely he who speaks the word of total assent to his finiteness and limitation will thereby illuminate his nature with an aura which in some way images the unlimited breadth of God. In him alone who dies inwardly, descending almost beneath the natural level of being that has been his due in the order of creation, who wills no longer to occupy any space at all, may the wealth of supernatural life blossom out, according to Saint Paul’s words: “I live, yet it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.”