Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent
O Lord and Master of my life, give Thy servant a humble spirit!
We repeat this prayer often and often, if not always with our lips, at least in thought, together with those who minister at the altar. But, nevertheless, are there many who long to earn this excellent virtue—humility? Alas! The spirit of the world, the spirit whether hidden or open of pride and arrogance and boasting, so far predominates even among Christians, that the virtue of humility is all but entirely forgotten; and if it still continues one of the band of virtues, then it is only as a rarity, once of old in use, but now found useful only by a few who, so to speak, are special admirers of this one virtue in particular.
And yet, what virtue is there more lovely in every one, than humility? I say in all and for all men; for our Lord Himself says: To whom will I look but to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word? And we, do we not ourselves experience especial pleasure when it is our lot to have dealings, or even only conversation, with a man who is truly humble, especially when he is adorned with other qualities?
For that reason, and that we may love humility and not fancy that it will be an obstacle in our way of advancement of life, that virtue is itself the reward promised, and serves itself to our advancement exactly as in opposite vices pride at once threatens us with the punishment it brings, that is, abasement; Whoso exalteth himself, shall be abased; and whoso humbleth himself, shall be exalted. And since that is said by God Himself, who has never lied in any witness He ever gave of Himself, we find that the result shows His word to be true. Yea, how many proud men have been humbled; and how many humble men, on the other hand, have been set on high!
He that goes to fight, and fights to conquer, must cover himself with the bright armour of humility.
For as to pride, it is one of the shafts of the devil. With it he fought and overcame our father Adam, and his children after him.
But the weapon of our Lord is humility. He made it to be used against the wicked, and with it He threw down Satan from his lofty throne.
The disciples armed themselves with it, and with it the true ones overcame in battle: and they have made victory sure with it for all, both first and last.
Disciples of Christ, then, lay hand on that armour: for with it you will gain the victory, and it will give you the kingdom. (Aino d'oyel laguno, etc. S. Ephr. Serm. on Humility, xv. Vol. III. Syr. and Lat. p. 644.)
But nothing can move us, nor lead us to humility; no, not even the word of God, nor our own experience. To be proud, to be high-minded, to think our selves better than our neighbours; to look down upon our equals; and to seek preeminence and distinction; is all done by us as a matter of course. Whence is that? It comes from our little knowledge of our selves; from our so seldom turning our thoughts to our own defects. He who knows himself well, will always be humble, whatever be the talents he may possess. And why? Because with all and every gift or perfection we may have, we have a great many defects; whether they be innate in us or dependent on ourselves; and that ought to make us humble. And, in the first place notice: that our all-wise Creator, to save us from pride, after having given a man some superiority or acknowledged talent for certain things, always takes away from him aptitude for certain other things, even of the commonest; or else He accompanies the talents of that man, with some perceptible defect apparent to all. As, for instance, men gifted with a great mind, often have little or no gift of speech whatever: men with an astonishing memory, are often deficient in judgment: handsome men especially, are often short-sighted or dull of understanding. Even our own abilities, when they have reached the compass allowed them, and see the limit they cannot pass, ought to bring us to a humble frame of mind.
Thou man, art, perhaps, remarkable for thy great intellect, and wide sphere of knowledge. Thou then, shalt learn, sooner and probably, more intimately, than others, what all the intellect of man is worth, and how much he knows;—how that intellect, in the words of Solomon, discovers with difficulty what belongs to the earth; while it neither can know of itself nor yet determine what is beyond the limits of the world of senses, in Heaven above. The uncertainty and frailty of many of our accomplishments too, causes us not to pride ourselves in them. Thou art now endowed with health and beauty, which invite thee to glory before others: but how long will that good-looking face of thine last, those rose-coloured cheeks and ruby lips, which some call heavenly, but which, in fact, are often a look of hell? Tomorrow sickness comes, and all those charms are gone: the day after tomorrow lamentation and woe knock at thy door, and all is withered, and after some days old age arrives, and thou art then only one of many that totter in it. Is it not then better not to be singled out now from among the rest by pride, when all will count it a merit and a virtue on thy part?
Whenever we cast a glance, however hurried, at our moral imperfections, and call to mind our manifold transgressions, done with and without our will, we have at once an ever-flowing source of humility, the same for all. For how many bounden duties for each and every one of us, which he has either not fulfilled at all, or attended to carelessly? How many opportunities of doing good, let go without a thought; or else embraced to do some good, but either interestedly and in part only? How many evil inclinations open and avowed, and how many deeds of darkness? How many more sinful thoughts and emotions? It costs us only to look into our heart, though it be at times only, and to examine the roll of our thoughts, of our feelings, and of our actions, for us all to see how small we are in spirit, how impure in heart, and how far we are, all of us, from that which we ought to be.
If, considering all these, and many other reasons, there come to one of us the holy desire to pray no longer with his lips for the gift of a spirit of humility, but to obtain effectually this virtue loved of God, then he will see that humility is a state of the soul, in which the soul feeling her own weakness and impurity, shuns every exalted opinion of herself; and studies continually to discover in herself some good, and to root out all evil. But the soul never considers herself as having attained unto perfection; she looks for it from the grace of God, and not from her own frailty.
Humility is more pleasing unto God than burnt offerings and sacrifices;
Humility perfects the righteous; makes penitents acceptable; gets sinners forgiven, and debtors set free."
Humility is like a spring from which flow all kind of graces; but pride is a well that yields only evil and sorrow of all sorts. (S. Ephr. Serm. on Humility. Vol. III., Syr. Lat. p. 644.)
The man who is humble, always feels some holy misgivings as to himself, as to the strength of his mind and of his will; and so he is circumspect, modest and calm in all his words and deeds. He never allows himself to give a rash or an insolent judgment; much less of persons and of things which are above him, especially of the mysteries of the Faith. The man who is humble shrinks especially from praise and from a high position: for that reason he not only does not court either, but he is glad when they pass him by. He willingly yields priority in all things to others, even in good works. But when it is necessary to set the example, then he is first.
Our Lord made charity the first of all virtues: yet how is charity got but by humility? If thou seekest to have charity, first be of an humble spirit; and with charity thou wilt receive also faith and hope. (S. Ephr. Serm. on Humility. Vol. III. Syr. Lat., p. 645.)
The man of a humble spirit meets a failure or disappointment, not only without mortification, but even with gladness; for he knows how valuable and useful these are for the correction of his inner man. Therefore he is ever ready, without rancour to forgive him who has offended him, and to return to him good for evil. So great are the visible signs of humility! He loves to hide his virtues, and on the contrary to lay bare his failings, if he may do it without offence to his neighbour.
Vain is every practice, every restraint, every service, every self-denial, and every kind of discipline without humility. For as humility is the beginning and the end of all good, so also is pride the beginning and the end of all evil. (Ματία πᾶσα ἄσκητις. S. Ephr. Vol. I. Gr. Lat. p. 23.)
Where is humility to be learned? Nowhere so little as of earthly wisdom. Reason, according to its nature, says S. Paul, "puffeth up;" that is, it leads a man to pride, to self-consequence and self-exaltation; but pure love alone edifieth, by making him humble, constant and firm. But best of all is humility learnt of holy men of God, who have set us the highest examples of humility; as for instance, Abraham, who having been honoured with extraordinary revelations and with the exalted title of 'friend of God,' called himself earth and ashes: David, whom neither the dignity of king, nor the calling of Prophet, prevented from saying of himself, l am a worm and no man, the very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people: and S. Paul, who, being the first of the Apostles in afflictions and in labour, confesses with humility that he is the first of sinners.
But in order that we might learn more willingly this virtue which is difficult for our self-love, we may take as our teacher of humility our own Lord and Saviour. Learn of Me, says He, for I am meek and lowly in heart. Of what has He not given us a lesson? In what has He not set us an example of humility? At His coming into our world, the Ruler and Lord of All might have surrounded His cradle if not with luxury, at least with the necessaries of life; but where was He born? In a stable. Wherein was He laid at His birth? In a manger. Behold an example of lowliness and of humility for you rich! Herod persecutes Him ruthlessly, and His life is in danger; does He send against His persecutor only one of those twelve legions of angels that are always ready to fulfill His commands? Not He; but when persecuted, He humbly saves His life by flight into Egypt. There is an example of humility for you, great of the earth! John goes to the Jordan to preach repentance and to establish Baptism for the remission of sins; is there room for Him there? For Him Who did no sin, but rather Who came upon earth to destroy every sin by His own righteousness? And what would they think if One without sin would seek that Baptism and receive it? But the Lord asks for it, and receives it at the hands of His own forerunner. Behold an example of humility for you who set too much value on the opinion others have of you; and who, through fear of what is thought of you, shrink even from good works! But on Golgotha! There, indeed, is, not an example, but we may say, a wonder of humility, by the side of which all our efforts and attempts at self-abasement are nothing.
True disciple of Christ, make humility thine own; for from it as from a well-spring of grace, flow all other virtues.
It will bring thee nearer to God, and place thee in the company of Watchers and of Angels on high. It will open to thee hidden mysteries; it will fill thee with all wisdom; it will lay bare before thee depths of knowledge; and make known unto thee things hidden from others.
For humility brings low thy pride, and keeps under the haughtiness of thy spirit.
It says peace to all that is within thee, and clothes thee in a precious garment. It puts lowly thoughts into thy mind, and gives beauty to thy countenance.
It subdues anger in thy heart, it roots out all passion from thy soul, and it drives away from thee all jealous and wicked feeling.
It fills thee with love and peace, with joy and gladness; not the joy of the earthly ones, nor the gladness of the great;
But with the joy of the Spirit, and with the gladness of wisdom, and it brings to thee the love of other men, and friendship with God. (S. Ephraem, Serm. on Hum. Vol. III. Syr. Lat. p. 647.)
And if we be earnest in endeavouring to acquire a humble spirit, we need not so much reason with ourselves, as choose for ourselves some masters and models of that virtue; and our pattern will be our own Lord and Saviour. In order to be taught of Him therefore, we must make ourselves over to Him wholly, as a little child who comes to his teacher to learn of him; and then at His feet, we shall hear what He has to say to us. Men can at best teach and give advice; He however not only teaches a hundredfold better, but Himself sets us the example of all He teaches, and He gives us strength to finish in ourselves the work which He teaches us to do. Amen.
O O O
Meditations For Every Wednesday and Friday in Lent on A Prayer of S. Ephraem, Translated from the Russian, to which are added Short Homilies For Passion Week, From S. Chrysostom, S. Severian, and S. Ephraem, trans. Rev. S. C. Malan, M.A. (London: Joseph Masters and Co., 1859) 107-120.