Could We Pursue a Profoundly Gifted Humility?

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Could we pursue profoundly gifted humility?

The gay community’s emphasis on pride is a matter of applying poison to a wound. But I want to take a long, and I hope fruitful, detour.

Revisiting the Philokalia

I have generally found efforts to improve a backwards Philokalia of themselves backwards, not to mention a bit stupid and arrogant. The Seven Deadly Sins are what became in the West of the Philokalia’s eight demons, and I have read an official from my own theology department frankly ridicule the Seven Deadly Sins because it does not explicitly list hypocrisy. But in the Philokalia at least, the eight demons are the eight gateway sins, eight gateway drugs to other sins, and hypocrisy falls at least partly under the heading of pride, unreservedly condemned as the worst of the lot. The list of eight sins is not an attempt to catalogue each and every sins; another passage of the Philokalia attempts a catalogue and the list weighs in at over 100 named sins. However, this exercise is exceedingly rare compared to the efforts to warn us of gateway sins, of which a few the reader is warned about repeatedly. People who consider themselves to know better than the Philokalia have my suspicion and ordinarily seem to never have really gotten their feet wet in what is quite arguably the #1 Orthodox written treasure after the Bible.

I was surprised when my abbot (at least for now, and I hope it doesn’t just last for now and evaporate), Metropolitan JONAH of St. Demetrios Monastery, proposed an update as part of his Reflections on a Spiritual Journey. However unstintingly poor classic monasticism may have insisted on being (one passage gives a short list of allowed items and beyond them “not even a needle”), those who became monastics came from privileges that not only included a great deal of wealth and being born into the Old Boy’s Club, but could assume loving and healthy extended families. And maybe the spoiled rich could and should have regarded forms of pride as the nadir of human defilement, and perhaps such it is. In both East and West, in for example St. Seraphim of Sarov or G.K. Chesterton, fornication and drunkenness are considered the sins of men, and pride and rebellion are considered the sins of devils. And the little future St. Seraphim did not need to be cleansed from all human sin, but he absolutely needed to overcome the sin of devils.

However, Metropolitan JONAH points to certain differences today. The extended family has not stayed together but disintegrated into isolated nuclear families, and nuclear families have had a meltdown too. And so many people today have grown up with a broken childhood, with a whole array of situations that were abusive even if squeaky-clean legal (like Mom and Dad outsourcing most of their parenting to a series of daycare centers so they can both bring home the bacon), and the effect of suchlike abuse is a profound shame, a shame that people discover can be anaesthetized, at least temporarily, by engaging in various sins. Addictions, and things like addictions such as various sexual sins, anaesthetize a shame that says, “You’re worthless. There’s nothing left to love. You are horrible through and through.” And so my beloved Metropolitan, whom I am positive understands the Philokalia profoundly, has offered the first update to the Philokalia that I have found to even make sense—and it is a lot of sense that it makes.

A visit to Fr. John

Fr. John Whiteford, whom I have had the privilege of taking two classes with, is another figure I respect profoundly. He is something like a bulldog for Orthodoxy, with topics such as “The anus is not designed for the penis,” and he defends Orthodoxy in something like the fashion of previous bulldogs like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. (While he writes well, I don’t know if he is as epically good as a writer, but I have no hesitation in making the comparison in outlining the type of work by which he serves.) And he called to point an Orthodox Matushka (“Mommy”), meaning a priest’s or deacon’s wife (which in Orthodoxy is a real office), for saying that the cure for shame is empathy without whispering a word about repentance. And I have shouted a great many words about repentance as Heaven’s best-kept secret, but while the Mommy may have left out something important, she also kept in something important.

What was she right about?

There is an absolutely ancient image that has been repeated across centuries for the image of God in us, an image that cannot be damaged or destroyed. Our heart of hearts is like a mirror at the base of a fountain. The waters may be dirty; they may cloud or hide the mirror at the bottom, but there is a real and authentic mirror, and it will shine if the water is cleared up.

John Calvin is perhaps a most extreme example of Western abandonment of this understanding. His successor’s formulation of the essentials of Calvinist Christianity opens with a ‘T’ for “total depravity,” that we are profoundly corrupt all the way down to our very core. And Orthodoxy says no to this: in our very hearts is the image of God which is absolutely incapable of being deformed, dissolved, or destroyed. And to pull one example, St. Maximus the Confessor briefly speaks of adding to “the natural good of image” with “the voluntary good of likeness.” The term “human nature” as I encountered it as an Evangelical was always seen as something fallen; to admit “human nature” is to admit weakness, fallenness, sin. But the nature of human race was never created as fallen, and the natural good of image is incorruptible. It is not a spark of God, as in Origenism and Hinduism, but it is something created which is incorruptibly good, and thinking it is a spark of God may represent an understandable confusion. It is an image, a symbol, in which the whole God himself is indelibly present. Not even in Hell can this be undone: “Hell,” said Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, “is immersion in the love of God.”

Now the dirt in the water may hide the mirror to a profound degree. St. Maximus’s counterbalance to “the natural good of image” is “the voluntary good of likeness,” and the voluntary good of likeness is of water that is limpid, pure, and allows the mirror to shine gloriously. It is a life’s work to clear the water, and the clearer the water becomes, the more sharply people become aware of how much muck is still in the water, and the purest consider themselves the most defiled. But nonetheless even their defilement rests exclusively in the water above the mirror. The mirror remains as undefiled as the mirror that shone from Lord Adam in Paradise.

And where does gay pride fit into this? Or disability? Or, for that matter, topless?

The essential draw to all these spiritual diseases is that they self-medicate, and provide some degree of respite to the shame of being utterly worthless and having nothing good in you. And when the effect wears thin, it is possible that the sins of men can’t sear away the pain as strongly as devils’ sin.

And what about the profoundly gifted? What do we have to be humble about?

Let me bring one rabbit trail before getting on to my real point. If, in history, something goes wrong that leaves over a million murder victims, it is the fruit of profoundly gifted effort. Like Hitler, for instance, or the gospel of “St. Marx.” The whole singularity in which the whole world is sinking has the achievements of the profoundly gifted as instrumental. No intellectually disabled individual in history has created a black mirror. It is Steve Jobs who does it. Profoundly gifted can and do things with such good intentions as pave the road to Hell and lead legions down with them. There is something in this that we should be very humble about.

But let me talk about humility for an instant.

G.K. Chesterton says, “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.”

Humility is the spiritual wine that opens the eyes to the beauty of the universe, and humility is the spiritual wine that can let profoundly gifted look at IQ normals and see the glory of the image of God at work.

“In humility consider others better than yourself” (Phil 2:3) has got to be one of the least palatable texts in the Bible (or at least unpopular for us to apply it to ourselves), but “In humility consider others better than yourself” is another way of saying, “In humility be surrounded by other people who fascinate you, whom you admire, respect, and enjoy.” The Biblical text is more than that, but it really is an opening of the eyes to the glory of the precious other people in your life.

I do not know how to say enough about humility, besides saying in shorthand, “Read the Philokalia” as a shorthand quote. Humility ranks high on the Ladder; it is with discernment one of the two great virtues the Fathers in the Philokalia simply cannot stop talking about or praising enough. Humility is a powerful contributor to God-shaped love, a mother to joy, and it is a Heaven on earth. Heaven is where the saints are, and Heaven is where the humble are.

I don’t wish to condemn too strongly people who reach for devil’s sin when the sins of men cease to sufficiently anaesthetize pain. But really, even if we allow queers (or whatever they are called this week) to try to feel good on a lasting basis for pride, we might be able to think far enough the box to pursue humility.

And oh, by the way, people are less hostile if we are genuinely humble.

Could we pursue a profoundly gifted humility?

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Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.