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The meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace (Psalm 37:11)
Humility, like faith, is a gift of Grace. Some happy souls may, perhaps, be disposed toward it at birth; but all, whatever their dispositions, have to struggle with pride and self satisfaction. Rare, indeed, would be the person who does not enjoy praise and admiration, for taking pride in a job well done is a very human trait and need not even be sinful, as such. The truly humble man, however, is he who is immune to both flattery and offense, who, as Kipling says, ". . . can meet with triumph and disaster. . . And treat those two imposters just the same." Accepting all with equanimity, this man quietly follows his path to salvation, while "delighting, " as the Psalmist says, "in the abundance of peace."
But what does humility really mean? The derivation of the word "humble" is the Latin "humus," meaning "soil," and herein lies a most apt metaphor for understanding what is most basic to humility. The humble feel themselves equal to the soil upon which they walk and from which they are made. They cannot be lowered, for they are already low. But this lowliness in no way means servility; it means purity and godliness. Satan's great fall came from his inordinate pride, which rendered him impure. For us, each time that we let pride get the better of us; we have similarly soiled ourselves. This is the nature of our lowliness: not servility, but a purity shared with the soil, by which we paradoxically remain unsoiled (by pride).
It is a curious fact, too, that the more humble we become, the closer we are to God. Our Lord Jesus Christ said that, unless we become as children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We must therefore, become simple and pure, like children, to draw near God. "And the source of this purity", says St. John Cassian, "is unavailable to us unless we have acquired real humility of heart." The ascent to God, the climb toward the divine, begins with the acquisition of humility. We approach the heights by attaining lowliness. We acquire spiritual maturity by becoming children.
It is important to understand clearly that humility lies not primarily in the natures with which we are born, but in how we develop those natures. The decisions, which we ultimately make in life, determine who we are. We are not responsible for what talents we may have, as also we are not responsible for what happens to us in the world's turmoil. What we are responsible for is what we do with what we have and what we make of what happens to us. Thus, those who are called to high stations in life can be humble in their hearts, while a sweeper can feel envy and pride. Haughtiness can dwell equally in the heart of the mighty one and in the beggar. The attainment of humility rests outside the rank and station to which one is born; it resides in what we do with what we are. In the eyes of God, all men are equal, and we are judged accordingly, not by our rank, but by our accomplishments.
What we must all do, then, is develop the degree of natural humility with which we are born, whether it be great or small. We must nurture it, perhaps even forcing ourselves to act humbly, no matter how difficult that may be to do. In time, what we act may become reality. We must be cautious in our actions and our deeds and in our habits, remembering the task before us: the acquisition of humility. Clearly our own wills are involved here, and whether we humble or exalt ourselves depends greatly on our own volition. It is only the result of our willful humility or pride which lies outside our grasp - in the divine promise of the Saviour: ''Whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matt. 23:12).
And what of this humility? What does it profit us? Above all, true humility shows itself in the most glowing colors when we are beset by adversity. It is our only hope in the inevitable bleakness of human life. When adversity strikes, we can meekly bow our heads in acceptance, without outward complaint or inward revolt. We can remember always that Jesus, the master of the most extreme humility, during his trial gave hardly any answers. And he asks that we pick up our crosses and likewise follow him. ''Take my yoke", he beckons, "and learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 1 1:29 30). Indeed, if we let these words guide us and follow the example set by Christ before us, our spirits will be strong and we will humbly endure all things in love. Humility guides us to the Spirit, the fruits of which are ''love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, faith, meekness, and temperance . . ." (Gal. 5:22 23). Humility engenders meekness, against which no earthly law, no persecution, and no adversity can prevail.
The Holy Fathers from the earliest times dwell on humility, and Holy Scripture abounds in emphasis of its great virtue. Humility, reaches, therefore, into the inner core of Christianity. It is an essential subject, resounding from the past and necessarily heard in the present. These sounds should not prompt in us abstract thought or mere reflection, but humble submission to the Will of God: "Humility consists not in considering our conscience, but in recognizing God's Grace and compassion " (St. Mark the Ascetic). Humility, as we said in our opening words, is - in recognition of our efforts and as reward for our love of God - a free gift given by Grace.
Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration Ellwood City, Pennsylvania The Dormition Fast, 1981