23 February 2012


Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (12)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

When the monks went into the desert, their efforts at detachment constituted only a start. Recall that their goal (whatever we might like to think of the means) was to transform the old creation into the new creation given to us in Jesus Christ. The old man died at baptism and the new man is born in our hearts. Nevertheless, the old man tries to hang on, hence that interior struggle to live a godly life.

How can we achieve the love God wants us to have for himself and for others? The desert fathers offered a one-word answer to that question: Humility. Humility is such an important virtue in the minds of Christian ascetics because it is counter-cultural and because is not a much sought-after virtue in most walks of life.

Humility is, for example, not really the chief characteristic most people seek in leaders, especially political leaders. In business, one never hears of corporations seeking executives assert that only the humble should apply. No one ever says that what makes this or that leader extraordinary is his humility--even if they may praise his (genuine!) humility. Humility may look good on a leader, but it really isn't thought to be the chief, necessary attribute.

In contrast, many monks possessed great power by virtue simply of their humility. Crowds flocked to them because of the reputations for humility. Emperors, military and political leaders, the wealthy--as well as the poor--sought out these monks, traveling many miles to get advice and counsel from these "Fathers".

One of the most famous was John the Dwarf. One of the fathers said of John: "Who is this John who by his humility has all of Scetes hanging from his little finger?" (Sayings of the Desert Fathers 36). An entire community of monks willingly suspended themselves from their abbot's little finger because of his humility. Contrast that with the numbers of people, particularly Christians, who are suspended by some Christian leaders' little fingers, not because of their humility, but because of some other type of power/ability, especially an ability to guilt or otherwise manipulate. One wonders how many CEOs get things done because their subordinates hang from their little fingers because of their humility.

Of course, John didn't start out humble. Like many, he had it forced upon him. The story is told that John told his elder brother, Daniel, that he no longer wanted to be concerned about clothing and food and wished to live like the angels in heaven. Removing his clothing, John removed his clothing and left his cell. After a week John became hungry and went back to the monastery and knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" Daniel asked.

"It is I, your brother, John."

Daniel replied, "John has become an angel, and is no longer among men."

John continued to knock, but Daniel didn't let him in until morning. Then he said, "You are a man, John, and must work if you want to eat."

After being brought to his senses St John went to St Pomen, known for his firm and steadfast will, asked guidance and promised obedience in all things. St Pomen tested John's patience and humility by assigning him an unusual task. For three years St John carried water and poured it on a dry stick, until it bore fruit. St Pomen took the fruit to the brethren saying, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."

It was only after being taught, the hard way, that he was a man, not an angel, that John the Dwarf acquired the humility which made him famous, and valuable as a teacher and leader.

But we must note that there is a false humility. And it disguises itself in many ways. The desert monks were quite aware of this. One of the most common forms of false humility is poor self image. It's true that St Paul tells us we shouldn't think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but we should have sober judgment in accordance with the faith God has given us. A poor self image fails to account for whatever gifts God has given us. What's expected of us is a balanced self-assessment, not too high, not too low. Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners, but we never find him down on himself in his epistles. He is still an apostle, and he expects, rightly, to be treated like one. At the same time he is humble, because he knows he will answer to Christ for his work. And his humility is demonstrated in the fact that, while he does talk about himself occasionally, he is always drawing our attention not to his accomplishments (which he dismisses as rubbish) but to what God has done in Jesus Christ. We also can possess true humility by remembering that, whatever our own accomplishments, they pale in significance compared to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

Another type of false humility is to run around with a dark cloud over our heads. In this state of mind, we run around telling ourselves and perhaps others how unworthy we are. This is paralysis. But real humility, accompanied by real repentance, doesn't need to live like this. We shouldn't live like this because we've been freed not to do. Once we've confessed our sins to God and have been forgiven, He wants us to let it go. Living as if he hasn't forgiven us is not true humility.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Pomen gives us some well needed advice:

A brother said to Abba Pomen, "If I fall into a shameful sin my conscience devours and accuses me saying, 'Why have you fallen?'" The old man said to him, "At the moment when a man goes astray, if he says, "I have sinned”, immediately the sin ceases. (Saying No. 99)

Having been forgiven by God, we need not walk about with poor self image, moaning about how unworthy we are. On the other hand, the fact that God has forgiven us does not mean that any we have harmed have forgiven us, even if we have asked them to do. While that fact should not burden us with a sense of our unworthiness, it should help us with that sound judgment St Paul talks about in Romans 12.3.

For the sake of true humility we are not to worry about past sins. Once God has forgiven them, they are no longer an issue. Don't keep bring it up in false humility that says you're the worst sinner in the world for committing this terrible sin that you'll never forget. That is not the freedom God has given to us. In true humility we must admit that we committed a terrible sin for which we are very sorry. But we've confessed our sin to God, are forgiven by His grace and can move on. For the sake of humility we must focus on God, not ourselves--even when the focus on ourselves is specifically on our sins against Him and others. God's grace should fill us with both joy and humility--joy because we have been forgiven; humility because we have not deserved it or earned it, and could not have done, even if we wanted to.

But what is humility, and how do we acquire it?

In brief (and this would be my own definition) humility is simply the recognition and acceptance of one's limitations, in all areas of life. Consequently, it entails, among other things, submission to God and all other legitimate authorities in our lives; recognition of the virtues and talents possessed by others, particularly when they surpass our own; giving due honor and, when required, obedience; and recognizing the limits of our talents, abilities, or authority; and, not reaching for what is beyond our grasp.

One of the least humble men in Scripture, to me, is Haman. The sixth chapter of the book of Esther records that one night King Ahasuerus couldn't sleep. So he had his servants bring to him some of the records of the empire. In those records he learned that Esther's uncle, Mordecai, had discovered a plot by two of Ahasuerus's servants to kill him and reported it. Ahasuerus also learned that no honor had been bestowed upon Mordecai in gratitude for this service. So he called Haman and asked him, “What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?” It didn't occur to Haman that the king would want to honor anyone but himself, so he proffered the following recommendation:

For the man whom the king desires to honor, let them bring a royal robe which the king has worn, and the horse on which the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown has been placed; and let the robe and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes and let them array the man whom the king desires to honor and lead him on horseback through the city square, and proclaim before him, "Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor." (Esther 6.11)

And the king did exactly that--to Haman's mortal enemy, Mordecai. And, to pour salt on the wound, Ahasuerus had Haman lead around the horse, proclaiming, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.”

After his humiliation, Haman ran home and cried on wife's shoulder. Had Haman just a bit of humility he would not have thought himself deserving of the king's honor for any reason whatsoever. Any service he might have rendered, or did in fact render, was simply his duty. When we do our duty, we are not owed anything, not even gratitude. As the Lord says in Luke 17.10, "So you...when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'"

Likewise with Mordecai. When he reported the plot, he did nothing but his duty, particularly his duty to his God. If, having knowledge of the plot, he had not reported it, he would have been guilty of Ahasuerus's blood and worthy of condemnation. As the Westminster Larger Catechism says, our duty, with regard to the sixth commandment, includes all lawful endeavors to preserve the lives of others. (See Question 135.) Mordecai did nothing deserving of honor.

Honor is a gift. It is always undeserved and bestowed at the pleasure of the one bestowing the honor. That's why it's called honor, not wages.

In contrast with Haman, when it comes to a lesson in humility, my favorite Bible character, the one with whom I most identify, someone who truly learned his limitations and to submit to God's authority, is King Manasseh. The Scriptures record that Manasseh rebuilt the high places which his father, Hezekiah, had razed, constructed altars for Baalim, and worshipped "all the host of heaven". As if that was not enough, he also built altars in the Temple. He sacrificed his children, used enchantments and witchcraft, dealt with familiar spirits and wizards. Still not satisfied, he set up an idol in the house of God. Finally, Manasseh, and the people ignored the prophets God sent to warn them. God, therefore, brought the Assyrians, who took Manasseh, bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon.

It was there, in Babylon, in affliction, that he turned to and humbled himself before God, and prayed to him. As the author of the Chronicles puts it: "Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God."

Restored to his throne, Manasseh removed the false gods and idols out of the house of the Temple. He took all the altars that he had built on the Temple mount and cast them out of the city. He repaired the altar of the LORD, sacrificed peace offerings and thank offerings, and commanded Judah to serve the God of Israel.

Finally, it's one thing to talk about the need for humility, but how does one actually go about acquiring this virtue? I think the one man in the history of Christianity who truly provided a guide for this was a St Benedict of Nursia. In his Rule he published twelve practices to guide his monks in the acquisition of this important virtue. I'll let St Benedict conclude this post:

The first degree of humility...is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes (cf Ps 35[36]:2), shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded, that he always considereth in his mind how those who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for those who fear God. And whilst he guardeth himself evermore against sin and vices of thought, word, deed, and self-will, let him also hasten to cut off the desires of the flesh.


The second degree of humility is, when a man loveth not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carrieth out that word of the Lord which saith: "I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me" (Jn 6:38). It is likewise said: "Self-will hath its punishment, but necessity winneth the crown."

The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle saith: "He became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8).

The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up, but hold out, as the Scripture saith: "He that shall persevere unto the end shall be saved" (Mt 10:22). And again: "Let thy heart take courage, and wait thou for the Lord" (Ps 26[27]:14). And showing that a faithful man ought even to bear every disagreeable thing for the Lord, it saith in the person of the suffering: "For Thy sake we suffer death all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter" (Rom 8:36; Ps 43[44]:22). And secure in the hope of the divine reward, they go on joyfully, saying: "But in all these things we overcome because of Him that hath loved us" (Rom 8:37). And likewise in another place the Scripture saith: "Thou, O God, hast proved us; Thou hast tried us by fire as silver is tried; Thou hast brought us into a net, Thou hast laid afflictions on our back" (Ps 65[66]:10-11). And to show us that we ought to be under a Superior, it continueth, saying: "Thou hast set men over our heads" (Ps 65[66]:12). And fulfilling the command of the Lord by patience also in adversities and injuries, when struck on the one cheek they turn also the other; the despoiler of their coat they give their cloak also; and when forced to go one mile they go two (cf Mt 5:39-41); with the Apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and "bless those who curse them" (2 Cor 11:26; 1 Cor 4:12).

The fifth degree of humility is, when one hideth from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesseth them. Concerning this the Scripture exhorts us, saying: "Reveal thy way to the Lord and trust in Him" (Ps 36[37]:5). And it saith further: "Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever" (Ps 105[106]:1; Ps 117[118]:1). And the Prophet likewise saith: "I have acknowledged my sin to Thee and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sins" (Ps 31[32]:5).

The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holdeth himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: "I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before Thee, and I am always with Thee" (Ps 72[73]:22-23).

The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 21[22]:7). "I have been exalted and humbled and confounded" (Ps 87[88]:16). And also: "It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I may learn Thy commandments" (Ps 118[119]:71,73).

The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk doeth nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that "in a multitude of words there shall not want sin" (Prov 10:19); and that "a man full of tongue is not established in the earth" (Ps 139[140]:12).

The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: "The fool exalteth his voice in laughter" (Sir 21:23).

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."

The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always letteth it appear also in his whole exterior to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: "Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven" (Lk 18:13); and again with the Prophet: "I am bowed down and humbled exceedingly" (Ps 37[38]:7-9; Ps 118[119]:107).

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, The Goal of the Monastic Life

Part 7, The Walk

Part 8, What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Part 9, Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Part 10, Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors

Part 11, Detachment: Letting Go

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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