The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter VI:
On Humility

PRIDE is the last and deadliest of the eight great faults which beset the feet of the hermits on their way to perfection. Over against it stands the virtue of humility, with its ultimate expression, discretion. Pride may be described as inward self-assertion. From the world's point of view, there is a right and proper kind of pride, a pride which saves men from permitting themselves even to contemplate the possibility of certain kinds of baseness. This kind of pride is what we mean by self-respect. It is the assertion of self to self. Just as the strong man asserts himself against his neighbours, refusing to be led or driven, so the self-respecting man asserts himself against himself, and, because he is determined to maintain himself for what he is, declines to be lured or goaded into ways which, for good or evil, would involve his becoming other than he is. It is perhaps impossible to draw any hard line between that self-respect which is recognised as good, and pride which is admittedly evil. Indeed, even the word "pride" itself is sometimes used, unmodified by any adjective to express a quality in man which is regarded as a virtue. This confusion of our moral judgment is the result of trying to combine the moral ideal of the teaching of Christ with the uninspired morality of even very noble men.

The hermits were perplexed with no such difficulty. To them there were no such virtues as proper pride and self-respect. All assertion of self was evil. Self-assertion against God was rebellion and sin. Self-assertion against men was the outcome of pride, its external expression. Self-assertion within was pride, in however attractive garments it might deck itself. Their judgment in the matter was absolute. They refused to recognise any kind of pride as virtuous. So it must be that many of their favourite examples of humility will strike the ordinary reader as morbid and exaggerated, and some of their heroes will not seem heroes at all, but weak creatures wanting in self-respect. For instance, the monk who grovelled on the ground, beseeching pardon, while his brother beat him for a fault he had not committed, must no doubt seem to most of us to be contemptible. To the hermits who told his story he was a hero just for the same reason that makes him seem to us contemptible. He had no proper pride. He not only refused to assert himself against his brother by insisting on his innocence, but he refused to assert himself to himself; and asked pardon for what he had not done. To the devil also, who had plotted the separation of the brethren, this man seemed to be a hero, one so near to God as to be unconquerable. It does not really matter whether the story is literally true or not. Our consciences recognise that what the story relates would always really happen. The devil could not but fly defeated from such humility as this man showed.

Most of the stories and sayings, however, make no such strange demands upon our moral sense. We recognise gladly the lofty teaching of the story of the hermit to whom the desired revelation came only after he had humbled himself. We readily admire, even if we are slow to imitate, the humility of Arsenius, who was not ashamed to accept spiritual teaching from an ignorant peasant. Nor when we remember the dangers which beset the hermit's path shall we be astonished at the vision of St. Antony, and the voice which came to him praising humility. There were dangers of which most men know nothing, like that of the monk to whom the devil came disguised as the angel Gabriel, or that which beset St. Ammon when men asked him to judge between them.

The thought of humility and the desire of it was very constantly present to the hermit's mind. I do not find on any other subject so many brief, and as one may say proverbial, words as on humility. In some of these the thought is so condensed as almost to defy intelligible translation, but I am sure that a careful study will reveal in each of them some spiritual thought which will well repay the labour of pursuing it.


Of the great safety of being humble.

St. Antony tells how once in a vision he beheld all the snares of the evil one spread over the whole earth. When he looked upon them and considered their innumerable multitude, he sighed, and said within himself, "Who is able to pass safely through such a world as this?" Then he heard a voice, which answered him, "The humble man alone can pass safely through, O Antony. In no way can the proud do so."


A story of how a certain one escaped one of the snares of the devil through humility.

The devil once appeared to a certain brother transformed into the likeness of an angel of light. He said, "I am the angel Gabriel, and I am sent unto thee." The brother, though he doubted not at first but that he saw an angel, yet out of his humility made answer, "Surely you are sent to some other one and not to me, for I am altogether unworthy to have an angel visitor." Then the devil, being astonished and baffled, departed from him.


The humility of the abbot Arsenius who once dwelt in the emperors court.

The abbot Arsenius was one day talking with an ignorant peasant monk about spiritual thought. Another monk saw him doing so, and said to him, "How is it, Arsenius, that you, who know both Latin and Greek, consult this peasant about his thoughts?" Arsenius answered him, "I do, indeed, know Latin and Greek, which contain the wisdom of this world, but I have not yet succeeded in acquiring even the alphabet of what this peasant knows. His wisdom is of another world."


How a brother once obtained a spiritual benefit as a reward for his humility. It is related of a certain brother that he once persevered in fasting for seventy weeks. This he did desiring to obtain a divine illumination on the meaning of a certain passage in Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, though he so fasted and desired, God hid the matter from him. Then, at last, he said within himself, "See, I have undergone great toil and am nothing profited. I shall go to one of the brethren, and inquire of him what this word of Scripture may mean." So saying, he went out and closed the door of his cell after him. Immediately then an angel met him and said, "The seventy weeks of your fasting have not brought you near to God that you should know His mind. Now, however you have humbled yourself in going to inquire of your brother. Therefore I am sent to reveal to you what you desire to know." Then the angel opened to him the matter about which he was perplexed, and departed from him.


How a divine and eternal reward awaits those those humility has taught them to regard their own labour as nothing.

A certain father said, "He who labours and considers that by his labour he has accomplished or effected anything, has already, even here, received the reward of all that he has done."


The way in which a certain brother learnt and practised humility.

There was a certain brother who belonged to a high family, as this world reckons rank and grandeur. He was the son of a count, and was extremely wealthy; also he had been well educated as a boy. This man fled from his parents and his home, and entered a monastery. In order to prove the humility of his disposition and the ardour of his faith, his superior ordered him to load himself with ten baskets and to carry them for sale through the streets of the city. If anyone should want to buy them all together he was not to permit it, but was to sell them each to a separate purchaser. This condition was attached to his task in order to keep him the longer at work. He performed his task with the utmost zeal. He trampled under foot all shame and confusion for the love of Christ and for His name's sake. He was not perturbed at all by the novelty of his mean and unaccustomed work. He thought neither of his present indignity nor of the splendour of his birth; he aimed only at gaining through obedience the humility of Christ, which is the true nobility.


Words of the hermits concerning humility.

Evagrius said: "The beginning of salvation is to despise yourself."

Pastor said: "A man ought to breathe humility as his nostrils breathe the air."

Another said: "Humility is that holy place in which God bids us make the sacrifice of ourselves."

Syncletica said: "As no ships can be built without nails, so no man can be saved without humility."

Hyperichius said: "The tree of life is on high. Man climbs to it by the ladder of humility."

Another said: "It is better for a man to be conquered by others on account of his humility, than to be victorious over them by means of pride."

Another said: "May it ever be my part to be taught, and another's to teach."

Cassian said: "It is never said of those who are entangled in other sins that they have God resisting them, but only 'God resisteth the proud.'"

Motois said: "Humility neither is angry nor suffers others to be angry."

The abbot John the Short said: "The door of God is humility. Our fathers, through the many insults which they suffered, entered the city of God."

He also said: "Humility and the fear of God are pre-eminent over all virtues."


How one yearned for perfection, and God taught him to be humble.

There was a certain old man who dwelt in the desert, and it seemed to him that he had learnt the perfection of all the virtues which he practised. So he prayed to God, saying, "Show me what is yet lacking for the perfection of my soul and I will accomplish it." Then God, who wished to teach him humility of mind, said to him, "Go to the leader of a certain congregation of monks, and what he bids you, that do." At the same time God spake to that leader of monks and said, "Behold, the solitary of whom you have heard comes to you. Bid him take a whip and go forth to herd your swine." The hermit arrived, knocked at the door, and entered. When they had saluted each other and had sat down, the hermit said, "Tell me, what shall I do to be saved." The other, doubting within himself, replied, "Will you do what I bid you?" The hermit said, "Surely, yes." Then said the other, "Lo! Take this whip and go forth and herd my swine." While the hermit drove the swine out to their pasture there came by some men who knew him, and they said, "Do you see that famous hermit of whom we heard so much? He must have gone mad, or some demon possesses him. Look at him feeding swine." All this the hermit endured patiently. Then God saw that he had learnt humility, and was able to bear the insults of Therefore He bid him return to his own place.


How a certain elder shrank from being praised, and rejoiced when he was despised.

A certain old man dwelt in the lower part of the desert, at peace, in a cave. A religious man from a neighbouring village used to bring him what he wanted. It happened that this man's son fell sick. With many prayers he besought the old man to come to his house and pray for the child. At length he prevailed with him, and running home, cried out, "Prepare for the coming of the hermit." When the people of the village knew that he was coming they went out with torches to welcome him as if he had been some prince or governor. The hermit, as soon as he perceived how they meant to greet him, stood upon the river-bank, and taking off his clothes, went naked into the water. When the man who was accustonied to minister to him saw this he was greatly ashamed, and said to the villagers, "Return to your homes, for our hermit has lost his senses." Then going to the old man, he said, "My father, why have you done this? All those who saw you are saying, 'That old man is nothing better than a fool.'" The hermit replied to him, "That is the very thing I wished to hear."


How St. Ammon became a fool for Christ's sake.

This story is told of the abbot Ammon. Certain men came to him asking him to judge in a contention which they had. He, however, would not, and put them off. Then a woman said to another woman who stood near her, "The old man is silly." Ammon heard her words, and calling her to him said, "For very many years I have toiled in various solitary places to attain that silliness at which you scoff Is it likely now that I shall be content to lose it because you taunt me.


The abbot Pastor's description of humility.

The abbot Pastor was once asked by a monk: "How ought I to conduct myself in the place where I dwell?" He answered, "Be cautious as a stranger among strangers. Wherever you are, never seek to have your own opinion prevail or your word influential. So you may have peace.


How the devil was vanquished by the great humility of one of the brethren.

There were two brethren, relatives according to the flesh, and bound to each other yet more closely by the spiritual purpose of their devotion. Against them the devil laid a plot that he might separate them the one from the other. Once, towards evening, the younger of the two, as he was wont, lit their lamp and put it on its stand. Through the malice of the devil the stand was overturned, and the lamp went out. By this means the devil hoped wickedly to entrap them into a quarrel. The elder of the two, growing suddenly angry, struck the younger fiercely. But the younger fell humbly on the ground and besought, saying, "Sir, be gentle with me, and I will light the lamp again." Then, because he gave back no angry word, the evil spirit was filled with confusion, and departed from their cell. That same night he told the chief of the devils the story of his failure, saying, "Because of the humility of that brother who fell upon the ground and begged the other's pardon I was unable to prevail against them. God beheld his humility, and poured His grace upon him. Now, lo! it is I who am tormented, for I have failed to separate these two or make them enemies."


Another story of a devil vanquished by humility.

There was a certain hermit renowned among the monks. It happened that there once met him a man possessed by an evil spirit, who struck him violently upon the cheek. The old man straightway turned to him the other cheek, that he might smite him upon it also. The devil was not able to endure the flame of his humility, but immediately departed from him who was possessed.

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