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The vastness of humility
I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.
“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”
“Yes,” I said.
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
Tales of a Magic Monastery, Theopane the monk
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin. They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
You might also like…
Akathist to St. Philaret the Merciful
The Angelic Letters
Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret
The Sign of the Grail