Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Humility

Gregory Palamas spoke of preparing ourselves to experience and to know God through fasting accompanied always by prayer and humility. In a similar way, John enjoins humility in order that we may speak more appropriately about God as participators in Him:

Do you imagine that plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately or clearly or sincerely describe the love of the Lord, humility, blessed purity, divine enlightenment, fear of God, and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. The same applies in the first instance. A man stands revealed as either having had no experience of what he is talking about or as having fallen into the grip of vainglory.

Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored up safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of a quality that eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: “Holy Humility.”

John will relate a number of traditional definitions for humility, all of which he says he considered while trying to discover the true nature of humility. He notes, quite aptly, that humility is more than the absence of pride; it is a positive and indispensable virtue.

To exalt oneself is one thing, not to do so another, and to humble oneself is something else entirely.

Many have attained salvation without the aid of prophecies, illumination, signs and wonders. But without humility no one will enter the marriage chamber...

He defines humility first with reference to its opposite and then with an analogy from nature:

If the outer limit, the rule, and the characteristic of extreme pride is for a man to make a show of having virtues he does not actually possess for the sake of glory, then surely the token of extreme humility will be to lower ourselves by claiming weaknesses we do not really have.

A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning fo this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.

This idea of humility, which we would probably call self-abasement or (worse) low self-esteem, is totally foreign to our culture. Reading it, we are almost instinctively compelled either to reject it or to try to soften its force. John, however, seems to mean precisely what he says and gives an example of its value when temptation arises:

Demons once heaped praise on one of the most discerning of the brothers. They even appeared to him in visible form. But this very wise man spoke to them as follows: "If you cease to praise me by way of the thoughts of my heart, I shall consider myself to be great and outstanding because of the fact that you have left me. But if you continue to praise me, I must deduce from such praise that I am very impure indeed, since every proudhearted man is unclean before the Lord. So leave me, and I shall become great, or else praise me, and with your help I shall earn more humility." Struck by this dilemma, they vanished.

We could stand to apply a liberal helping of humility to our problems in an effort to outwit the enemy.

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