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How we play humility

Several years ago the spiritual father of our monastery and St. Kosma's men's hermitage, Father Superior Avraam (Reydman) began leading discussions about spiritual life with the monastics and the laity. These talks became much loved: everyone would find for himself specific answers to essential questions of life: how to struggle with passions, how to fulfill the commandments of the Gospel, how to have the right attitude toward various phenomena of modern life. The talks have been published in the books: Talks with the Laity and The Good Part, excerpts from which are offered here to you.

Many years ago I asked my spiritual father, Father Superior Andrey (Mashkov) what humility meant. At that time I was young and inexperienced; it seemed to me that if I were to receive a precise answer, I would immediately acquire this virtue, and everything would go fine for me. In addition, I had found in the Ladder of St. John the Ladderer a saying that humility is the exterminator of all passions, and I grew zealous to acquire humility, so as to eliminate all passions therewith; as it is said in a fairy tale, I killed a dozen in one stroke. In reality, humility is acquired in struggle, and sometimes, unfortunately, in obstacles and falls, and the one who acquired humility could be said to have acquired perfection or is approaching it. Willy-nilly I had to realize it with years, from my own bitter experience. But at the time I am describing I turned to Fr. Andrey with the question: What is humility? and he gave me an answer that seemed totally unexpected and even inappropriate to me. He said that humility is non-relying on the self. I was very disappointed by his words: What is he saying, what does it have to do with my question?!, yet, I didn't say anything. I think he felt that I did not agree with it, and did not continue the discussion, but years later I realized that that was indeed so: humility consists of relying in everything not on yourself but on God, and of considering yourself a sinful, worthless person. Fr. Andrey said this from experience, he was truly humble.

Often we do not understand what true humility is, what it means to deem oneself worse than others. Thus, instead of becoming humble, we occupy ourselves with humble-talking. Humble-talking is a very well-spread false virtue, when a person humiliates himself in words, but does not consider himself as such in his heart. This vice is so well-spread that it is hard not to become infected with it. There is a story about one such sage monk. He would so convincingly denounce some of his sins that his listeners believed him, and when they believed him, the monk was saddened. Do you understand? Imagine yourself in his shoes, because all of occasionally get in similar situations. We say: Yes, I am a sinful man it seems, that is modest, or: I am not very literate, I read little. If the person we are addressing believes that we are such, we would really be upset, we would not like that. In reality, we call ourselves sinners, half-educated and talk about our other shortcomings in order to be elevated vis-a-vis those people who deem humility a virtue. That is, we brag, so to speak, with a primitive redneck cunning, such as: I am bad, but the person we are talking to, should say: Oh no, you are good. No, I am bad. Oh no, you are good. No, I am a sinner. Oh no, what are you talking about. It really pleases us, it is very difficult to refuse from this.

My spiritual father, Fr. Andrey, would never talk about himself like that. There was not a single case when he would say badly about himself, e.g.: I am a sinner or something like that. Yet, when he would be insulted, or humiliated, or treated as some simple, worthless man, he would not react to this at all. Once he was horribly, awfully insulted. He was already in the office of Father Superior (he was not heading the monastery, he just had the office of Father Superior). Once he had to go somewhere for an occasional religious rite to give communion to an ill person. It was morning, and, according to the monastic rules, the midnight office was being served at the monastery. It was lent. They were singing the troparion: Lo, the Bridegroom comes at midnight..., and all the brethren would come out and stand in the middle of the church. Since Fr. Andrey was going out for the visit with communion, he did not take along his uniform, i.e., the mantle, and, I think, even the klobuk. The people who had to pick them up, were being slightly late, and Fr. Andrey decided to come out together with the brethren into the middle of the church: he was a very brethren-loving man, loving monastic love. So he came out, but without his mantle. And here assistant to the father superior told him: You are like Judas. Imagine this: to say so to a man who at the time was over fifty years old, who had a multitude of spiritual children, who was brought up in faith since his childhood, who lived at the Glinskaya hermitage where spiritual life blossomed since he was thirty. No one could reproach him for anything, even for something external. And he, a man of a completely unblemished life, is being told in front of all the brethren: You are like Judas! Fr. Andrey himself later told me about this. I got indignant then: How could the assistant to the father superior have said this? And Fr. Andrey answered: Oh, he was weak, and you could tell that he was not angry at this man.

It is possible to give many other examples of how Fr. Andrey was humiliated and insulted. But he, even if he would feel hurt at times, would not bear the grudge for long, the offense would soon pass. He would say that even a saint could get offended, but to nurse a grievance was not good. Many interesting things could be told about Fr. Andrey's humility, but, nevertheless, I will repeat, you could never hear from him: I am s inner, I am bad, I am ignorant. Neither would he say anything particular good about himself, he never spoke about his spiritual life, his spiritual experiences, but if opportunities to practice humility occurred, he would humble himself. This humility of Fr. Andrey was already not human, of course, but from God, it was the gift of God. For him he will always remain a model of true, unfeigned humility.

Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble in heart.

Question. I really consider myself a sinner and a worthless creature. How can I know whether this feeling is authentic?

Answer. I do not think that you really think that. Otherwise, it would have been immediately apparent from conduct. Whoever really considers himself sinful and worthless, of course, will neither condemn, nor revile, nor reproach anybody. That is, it is one thing to deem yourself as such in your mind, and another thing to feel this for real, sincerely, in your heart. When holy Fr. Dorotheus said to his elder, St. Barsonophy the Great that he considered himself worse than every creature, he answered to him: My son, for you it is pride to think so. But Abba Dorotheus, unlike me and you, was an intelligent man and immediately understood what the elder meant. He acknowledge: Yes, father, this is pride for me, indeed, but I know that I should really think that about myself. Then Barsonophy the Great told him: Now you stepped on the path of humility. That is, Abba Dorotheus acknowledged that in reality he did not deem himself worse than every creature, he just has a theoretical conception about the necessity of thinking like this, but in reality he does not have this authentic opinion about himself. This is very important.

I, too, can call myself various insulting names, but I allow this myself more for consolation. Oh you, stupid thing, what have you done? (let's say I did something wrong). So, what of that? For it does not mean that I consider myself a stupid man, I still think that I am smarter than many and many. Even if we reproach ourselves in this way, we, nevertheless, do it in an easy and loving way. Is this not so? It is very difficult to learn not to play.

Question. Holy Fathers say that humility means considering yourself worse than everybody else. How can this be reached? And also: what is fake humility?

Answer. Fake humility is humility for show. First of all, it is an affected humble appearance. Secondly, it is humble-talking: a person is saying about himself that he is a great sinner and worse than everybody else, but if he is really insulted, immediately comes into indignation and jealously stands for his rights. Thirdly, fake humility manifests itself in that a person in his thoughts repeats some prepared humble expressions, for instance, the sayings of holy fathers about humility, thinking that this is what he genuinely thinks, but the essence of these sayings does not penetrate his heart.

From a heart come out not simply evil thoughts, but also all human thoughts. A person thinks with his heart, if one could say so: if he is not convinced in something with his heart, it means he is not convinced in this at all be it good or bad. Let's say, you read in St. Gregory the Sinaite that one should consider oneself worse than anybody else. You go about repeating: I am worse than everybody else, but if your heart does not agree with these words, it means that in reality you do not think so. Your humility is imagined, you just fantasize about yourself. If you are humble in your heart, then you are really humble. You might not be giving any definitions of humility, you might not have any image-like conceptions about it, but there will be humility. And, on the contrary, you can talk about yourself to your heart's content, as righteous Abraham, that you are dust and ashes, or like prophet David, that you are a worm, and not a man, but in your thoughts you'd be holding: Here, I am a worm and not a man, therefore I am better than all these people. Because they are not thinking about themselves that they are worms, whereas I do. Thus, they are worms, and I am a man. One should not force oneself in such an unreasonable manner.

We have to remember that everything is given by God. Any true and ingrained virtue is the action of grace. One needs to discern forcing oneself to virtue from genuine virtue that we acquired from the action of grace. Thus, what helps more and better than all in acquiring virtues, is Jesus prayer. Everything that comes from unceasing repenting Jesus prayer is genuine, even if it is small, it is still genuine. But one needs to be quite cautious with the artificial forcing oneself to virtue, lest one become entangled and instead of forcing the self, move to acting. We would not even notice ourselves how this could happen: we would be acting something out not even in front of people but inside, in front of ourselves.

Thus, the main thing is to find for ourselves that measure of humility which you sincerely accept with your heart, and from it to start moving forward and forcing the self for greater things.

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