Monday, February 20, 2006

The Way of Humility

Sometimes it’s not easy to look at ourselves honestly, seeing ourselves as we really are. Looking into our own hearts truthfully can be painful. Having pride is easier. Pride insulates our awareness and shapes our perception so that when we look at ourselves we don’t seem that bad. Our hearts look purer in our own eyes than they really are and our faults appear dramatically minimized in size and importance. It’s like a pig looking into a magic mirror and seeing a princess. Have you ever known a parent who thinks her child is absolutely perfect? Even though the child perpetually gets into trouble at school the problem is always the fault of a school administrator, teacher, or another student. We look at ourselves in that way. If we have conflict with someone else, we can’t believe what the other person said or did. Do we never say or do things we shouldn’t? (I know even when I don’t act, I think.) Our coworkers, clients, neighbors, and friends may seem incompetent and immature to us. Do we never make mistakes or do stupid things? “Those people” don’t know what they’re doing? Each of us possesses enough ignorance to go around. Pride is a raging ocean of dark storm clouds around our hearts, keeping us from honest self-awareness. It causes the heart to grow damp and cold. When it overtakes us, our relationship with others (who are not as good as us anyway, we think) begins to decay. Because we are so good, we appoint ourselves as judges over other people.

Jesus once told a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. Tax collectors were hated in their day because, in addition to collecting taxes for the pagan Roman government, they collected an added fee for themselves. Pharisees, on the other hand, didn’t want anything to do with the pagans. They strived for holiness and purity by following strict religious rules and regulations. One day, both the Pharisee and the tax collector walked to the temple for prayer. The Pharisee stood and prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men, corrupt, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I tithe everything I own.” The tax collector, standing far away, would not even lift up his eyes toward heaven, but pounded his chest, praying, “God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went home justified instead of the other one: for whoever exalts himself will be brought down and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (The Gospel of St. Luke 18.10-14).

When we embrace humility we realize how much we really are like the sinners around us. The sinners are not “those people.” We are the sinners. We may actually be worse than most people. As one of the Egyptian Fathers said, “Don’t look down on anyone because you don’t know whether the spirit of God prefers to dwell in you or in them.” The purpose of humility is not to enable us to realize how sinful and corrupt we are so that we can wallow in guilt and depression. Humility is not self-defeating, but empowering. Humility conditions our hearts with the right attitude for us to stand before God and receive the mercy, forgiveness, and restoration He desires to bestow upon us. God is a loving Father who, like in the story of the Prodigal Son, comes running to embrace us when He sees that we’ve left behind our sinful pride to return home. Pride causes isolation. It isolates us from God, ourselves, and those around us. Humility opens our hearts to love, communion, wholeness, and harmony.

Humility is the way toward Paradise and the path of spiritual perfection. God created us as humble creatures, making us in His own divine image and likeness. In the Garden of Eden, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, were tempted to turn away from God with pride. They took the bait and experienced sin, the evil that corrupts our souls and separates us from God. By their own actions, they lost the glory of the divine likeness they once possessed. As the image of God within them warped, the natural passions of humility and love were replaced with arrogant self-centeredness.

When God confronted Adam about eating fruit from the only forbidden tree in the Garden of Paradise, Adam defended himself by saying, “The woman you put here with me gave it to me and I ate it.” Adam’s pride is palpable. I can tell we are his descendents. Things haven’t changed so much that they haven’t remained the same, although down through the centuries we may have become more intellectually creative, emotionally convincing, and philosophically complex in our attempts to deflect blame away from ourselves, condemn others as guilty, and find ourselves innocent (or at least better than the other guilty people).

Since the first sin by our ancestors in Paradise, the war against pride has been fought in the hearts of those determined to regain the divine likeness, find spiritual wholeness, and enter once again through the gates of Paradise. One simple, practical step we can take to become more humble is to dedicate ourselves to saying the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer dating back to the fourth century:

O Lord and Master of my Life,
Take away from me the spirit of laziness,
faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.

Instead grant me, your servant,
the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.

Yes, Lord and King,
give me the power to see my own faults
and not to judge my brother.
For You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

We, as Orthodox Christians, pray this prayer together during the forty days of Great Lent preceeding Pascha (Easter). The prayer will undoubtedly be a vital part of my personal prayers during Lent this year. That for which the prayer asks, I desperately need. It sums up so much about my own faults and my desire to escape my sins and become better than I am.

Standing before an icon of Christ, we begin the prayer. As His servants, who have come to Him requesting love, mercy, and grace, we acknowledge Him as our Lord, Master, and King. Humility grows in an environment where we remember who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. We ask Him to release us from self-centered inclinations, laziness, faint-heartedness (despair), selfish ambition, and idle talk, and to fill our hearts with purity, humility, patience, and love. Our prayer also specifically asks God to help us see ourselves as we really are instead of seeing what everybody else does wrong. If we are able to see our own faults, instead of seeing the faults of other people, we can embody a spirit of humility that allows all the good things we ask for to flourish within our souls and to be made real in our actions.

When we pray this prayer, we don’t just pray with mind, heart, and lips, but with the whole body. Three times during the prayer (marked with a + sign above), we prostrate ourselves before the true and living God, the Creator of all things. At the end of the prayer, we bow twelve times, praying each time, “O God, cleanse me, a sinner.” Then we prayer the prayer a second time from beginning to end, followed by a final prostration. In humbling our body, we remind ourselves to humble our hearts. We sin with our bodies to our own hurt so we make use of our bodies to do good and glorify God. The weak, lazy flesh must be brought under the submission of the awakened, humble spirit.

Through the ancient prayer of St. Ephraim, we approach God in humility, asking for humility. Our spiritual lives involve “synergy,” the cooperation between our free will and God’s grace. We bring Him as much repentance, humility, and love as we can, and He meets us half way to transform us into a person who more closely reflects His own divine image and likeness. Let’s look at ourselves honestly and repent of our self-destructive arrogance so that our Creator, who loves us, can heal us and transform us into spiritually empowered humble creatures capable of true worship, healthy relationships, and divine love.

We have nothing to lose but our pride.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photograph of icon showing St. Ephraim of Syria by Dana S. Kees.