St. Anthony the Great: Wisdom Derived from Humility
THE WISDOM DERIVED FROM HUMILITY,
Humility to virtues, it is often said, is like a root to a tree. A tree could not grow strong, bear fruit, or live a long life unless its roots are established deep in the ground. The branches of humility are modesty, unpretentiousness and respect. Therefore humility, defined as being free from pride, is primary for all those seeking a strong enduring relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Humility, once firmly established, makes the foundation for wisdom strong . King Solomon famed for his wisdom said, "When pride comes, then comes shame; but with the humble is wisdom" (Proverbs 11:2). David the Prophet and King said, "The testimony of the Lord is sure, making the wise the simple" (Psalm 19:7), "the simple" referred to here being the humble. In the Holy Book of Sirach we read, "A poor man with wisdom can hold his head high and take his seat among the great" (Sirach 11:1). Again, the poor man in this verse refers to the humble. Why humble? The poor man knows he is poor, is patient when misfortunes strike him, blames himself in everything and does not care about the opinion of others because his aim is simply to please God.
St. Pachomius, the noted founder of coenobitic monasticism, said, "Be humble so that God guards and strengthens you, because God looks to the humble. Be humble so that God fills you with wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, because it is written that He guides the humble and teaches His ways to the meek." Also St. Pachomius said, "Be humble in order to be joyful, because joy goes hand in hand with humility."
The childhood of this humble saint, Abba Anthony, is one of necessary contemplation by children and youth today. Some saints were born saints; others were saints from their mother's womb (St. John and Jeremiah the prophet). These saints were among the highest levels of saints, a gift from the Lord. St. Anthony was not born in this class of saints. He was a youth born to a noble family attributed for their great wealth. St. Athanasius the Great wrote much concerning the family and childhood of St. Anthony. Our saint was an Egyptian, a descendant of a slave-owning family. His forefathers were believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore from his earliest childhood, St. Anthony, was blessed by having been brought up in the fear of the Lord. As a child reared up in the secular world, he knew nothing of his father's business or of what went on among his kinsmen.
He was so silent in disposition and his mind was so humble that he did not even trouble his parents by asking them questions. He was exceedingly modest and honest beyond measure. When he attended church with his parents he would run before them to the church in an outflow of his affection. St. Anthony never neglected or held lightly the observance of any of the seasons of the church neither in his childhood nor in his early manhood.
Since childhood until he began to distinguish between good and evil; his going to church was not a mere custom, but the result of discernment and understanding. As a child and a young man, St. Anthony looked up to his family as his teachers, paying them honor after the manner of a full grown man, and they, at their old age, regarded him as the master of the house until their days came to an end.
When St. Anthony became an adult, he made the eastern mountains and desert his home; continually having to strive to overcome great obstacles in his attempt to achieve the highest level of sainthood. He desired to prove his love to God and his readiness to exhaust every effort to live in unity with God by leaving the world voluntarily, giving all his wealth to the needy; so that he could live the life of poverty, he had believed, would assist him to gain the earthly life nearest to the Lord, he so ardently wanted.
In all St. Anthony's earthly accomplishments and fame, he retained his humility. As St. Makarius in one of his contemplations said that he saw demon's lures scattered all over the earth and asked, "Lord, who can escape it?" And following this question, St. Makarius heard a voice answering, "The humble will."
St. Anthony's humility took many forms. From childhood, St. Anthony listened to others without insisting on his own opinion. As an adult, St. Anthony committed himself to solitude and practiced it by living enclosed for twenty years during which he did not see a single human face. This, it is thought, is the life he had preferred. Yet, following many years in the desert, when people gathered at his door, asking to see him or hear his teachings, he did not turn them away even though he wanted to remain in the life of complete solitude he had chosen for himself.
He instinctively knew he must replace his preferred way of life and begin to teach monasticism, opening his door to all that wanted to visit. He thus changed his life style for the sake of others; and with wisdom accepted what God wanted him to do. St. Anthony believed monasticism entailed abandoning the world and living in the desert in prayer and meditation. However, when bishops called upon him to go to Alexandria to fight Aranism, he went to the city and stayed with the people for three days until his mission had been accomplished. Only then did he return to his solitude. He was obedient and did as he was told although he was about one hundred years of age at the time.
Another act of humility encompassed visiting the martyrs awaiting trial and torture. He gave them his support and encouraged them.
Further, with humility St. Anthony overcame stringency and stubbornness normally associated with isolation. His modesty created gentleness in him. He flexibly exercised wisdom, increasing moderation and discernment with himself and others. He became happy and joyful in his humility and kept it a central part of him till the end of his earthly life.
During the time of St. Anthony, the Egyptians were in the habit of taking the righteous men's corpses especially those of the blessed martyrs, embalming them and placing them not in graves but on biers in their houses; for they thought that by doing so, they were doing them honor. When St. Anthony got sick,he instructed his two disciples who had been with him the last fifteen years to dig a grave for him and never to tell anyone one where they would bury him. "...and there I shall be until the Resurrection of the dead". Humility, even unto death, was St. Anthony's last wish, following the example of the deaths and ground burials of the holy Apostles.
St. Anthony further gave instructions for his meager possessions. "Divide my garments into lots and give one leather tunic to Bishop Athanasius and the covering of this my bed which he gave to me when it was new; but now it has the age of many years. And to Bishop Serapion do ye give the other leather coat; and this covering of my bed which is made of hair you yourselves shall keep." His only possessions taken care of, he instructed his disciples to abide in the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his face became full of joy unspeakable. With heavenly joy upon his face, St. Anthony departed from this world. The disciples wrapped around him the garment which he had wore, dug an unmarked hole, and buried his body without ceremony. To this very day no man knows where they had buried him except the two disciples who had laid him in the earth.
In quiet finality was the end in the body of the 105 years of the blessed St. Anthony, a great man of God who from his earliest youth to his old age never strayed from the Lord his God.
Many youth have often asked why St. Anthony did not become a bishop; yet he was a contemporary of bishops. During the day of St. Anthony it was not mandated that bishops should be chosen from among monks. In addition, during St. Anthony's time, monasticism was regarded as a spiritual order beyond the realm of pastoral care. It was a life considered better than priesthood and closer to that of the angels. Given those facts, who would quit monasticism to become a bishop.
As stated earlier, one of his famous disciples who wrote his biography was a deacon and became a Patriarch, St. Athanasius the Apostolic. Today, our beloved popes are followers of the monastic life and St. Anthony's legacy, of great humility serving the papacy; preserving the same spiritual virtues as St. Anthony the Great. Today, our popes and their predecessors examples are again supporting the evident; that great humility in life renders ever greater wisdom in service to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephram El-Souriany said, "Inside the meek and humble man, the spirit of wisdom rests." This is such an astounding quote when put in perspective regarding the life of St. Anthony, who he had no guide. He had little childhood formal education. There were no books he could research in order to self educate himself in the desert. He was alone throughout most of his spiritual quest without companions; but did not fall once. He had complete faith in God, the longevity of his life from childhood till death believing that God was with him. He obtained his strength from deep within himself and had the courage to enter into the uncharted unknown in the search of angelic worship. His humility conceived his wisdom.
Today, we commemorate St. Anthony the Great not only on his feast but also in the commemoration of the saints in our Divine Liturgy and in the Midnight Prayers.
Methodius (c290) an Ante-Nicene and bishop of Lycia wrote, "All the bodily members are to be preserved intact and free from corruption. This means not only those members that are sexual, but those other members too that minister to the service. For it would be ridiculous to keep pure the reproductive organs, but not the tongue. It would be ridiculous to preserve the tongue, but not the eyes, ears, or hands. Lastly and importantly, it would be ridiculous to keep all these members pure, but not the mind, defiling it with pride and anger."
May the prayers of the great St. Anthony who sought holiness in solitude, willingly became an obedient and wise teacher, whose humility bore gentleness and goodness be with us all, Amen.
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States
HUMILITY IN THE RULE OF ST BENEDICT
BY FATHER HUGH FEISS O.S.B
my source: The Monastery of the Ascension
Humility is one of the most prominent themes in the Rule of Benedict. It may well be the most difficult to understand. This discussion will discuss Benedict's teaching, move to a theological definition and discussion, and finally conclude with some personal reflections.
The Rule of Benedict
The teaching of the Rule of Benedict regarding humility is very complex. Perhaps the best contemporary expositor of that teaching is the Australian Trappist, Michael Casey.1
Humility is Truth
He points out the humility is not a popular idea right now, though vanity is not prized either. He points out that ideas that seem irrelevant or trivial are often those that call one's framework of thought into question. He also says that whereas we think of humility in psychological terms, in Benedict's time it was more a matter of objective behavior. Once again, humility is truth: conformity of created reality with the intention of its Maker. Humble people are satisfied with the possibilities of human life. Humble people depend on God and recognize in themselves a space that only God can fill. They know they are sinners with a personal history of meanness and broken relationships, burdened with liabilities and limits which result from their personal history, and so in need of grace and acceptance of God's providence and the challenges and opportunities it brings.¨
Humility joins us to the rest of the human race. We share their lot. Our gifts are held in trust for them.
The fruit of humility is naturalness, being ourselves in grace.
St. Benedict's Steps and their Sources
St. Benedict's teaching on the steps of humility derives from the Institutes of John Cassian (4.39), who listed ten signs of humility. The Rule of the Master, written not long before Benedict's Rule, was his immediate source. The Rule of the Master transformed Cassian's ten signs into twelve steps. Perhaps Casey's most important observation is that Benedict's ladder of humility is not prescriptive, but descriptive. He is describing the way that humility will manifest itself over a lifetime in the monastery. They don't cause progress, but measure it. In fact, Benedict doesn't call humility a virtue.
Benedict begins by citing the biblical paradox of the exaltation of the humble. Thus, the monk ascends by way of humility and discipline. His twelve steps are
(1)fear of the Lord
(2)renunciation of self-will
(3)obedience to the superior in imitation of Christ
(4)patience and equanimity in difficulties
(6)contentment with the least
(7)awareness of one's own liabilities
(8)avoidance of individualistic and self-seeking behavior
(9)radical restraint of speech
(10) avoidance of laughter
(11) gravity of speech
(12) humility manifest in all facets of life
As one grows in humility one grows in love that ultimately casts out fear, and acts humbly from habit and with delight.
Thus humility is not a way of diminishment, but a road to freedom, self-transcendence and the capacity to receive grace. Benedict begins with the inner attitudes then deals with outward behavior. One needs to work with both at once.
Seriousness: Fear of the Lord (the first degree)
One component of fear of the Lord is mindfulness, the opposite of mindless extroversion or blind following of instinct. Fear of the Lord involves a call fro the Lord to conversion, to weed out evil in our good deeds. Desires are controlled by an awareness of the dangers they involve.
Doing God's Will (second and third degrees)
Becoming responsive to God requires freeing oneself from alien powers: from sub-personal forces of sin. The choice is not between autonomy and submission, but to what one will submit. Often we see what commanded or drove us only in retrospect. Hence the list of deadly sins helps us identify where we are needful. The goal is not self-help but freedom to follow Christ. We can't root out desires, but we can channel them and interpose discretion between desire and action. Obedience to the human superior is a means to the end of doing God's will. The aim of religious obedience is not efficiency or the imposition of the superior's will, but finding God's will. Superior has to adapt to personal differences of monks, not vice versa (RB 2.31-32). Obedience should be ready, confident and cheerful.
Patience (fourth degree)
Obeying can lead to failure, unfairness. Hence one needs patience as an antidote to anger or sadness. Patience is acceptance, in union with Christ, of whatever pain life brings. The heart of patience is quieting feelings and thoughts which arise. Aelred of Rievaulx distinguished six steps in attaining internal peace: reject world standards in favor and Christian/monastic ones; don't make excessive demands; be honest about internal factors and sensitivities which work against our peace; from experience learn one's limitations; restrain taking frustration out on others or talking just to reinforce one's own point of view; stillness: stay put to avoid avoidance and do some work to break from over-intense self-scrutiny.
Radical Self-Honesty (fifth degree)
The routine of monastic (and non-monastic!) life can lead to discovery of internal factors at variance with one's external practice. This can lead to a crisis. Then one needs to talk to someone with wisdom in order to clarify one's understanding and to find support and a new perspective.
Abasement (sixth to eighth degrees)
If one is tempted by tendencies of domination, acquisition and social approval one antidote is to accept inferior status. The dignity of a human being does not require stripes on one's sleeve. However, monasteries tend to reward the compliant who are satisfied with status quo. These three degrees aim at contentment and equilibrium. The goal is harmony, not passivity, conformity or uniformity.
Restraint in Speech (ninth to eleventh degrees)
Silence is humility in word. Benedict is concerned with human speech, not environmental noise. "Taciturnitas" is a quality acquired by personal discipline, not an external asset. The aim of restraint in speech is to promote prayer. It includes absence of noise, disturbance, frivolity, and mental restlessness. Humor has a place, but playing the buffoon and vacuous chitchat do not. Benedict is describing a wise old man and suggests the young imitate him. For the most part, one will only be able to do that when one has done a lot of living.
Integration and Transformation (twelfth degree)
The outcome of a life of humility is the restoration of God's likeness, the elimination of inner conflict, acceptance of one's lowliness. This is where the whole ladder started, but not it is effortless and abiding. The authentic self is all that is left. Then, Benedict says, when one arrives at perfect love that casts out fear, one acts effortless out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. All this the Holy Spirit manifests in his worker now cleansed of sin and vices.
1. Fear of the Lord is probably the nodal point of the spirituality in the Rule of Benedict. God sees all; we are responsible for every second of our lives; we will be judged (RB 7.10; 7.26; 4.44-45; 19.1). This one needs "to keep in mind." The purpose of the monastic environment and monastic practices is to help us keep in mind God's presence. Recognition of the infinite difference between God and us is where humility and fear of the Lord meet.
2. The eighth step of humility is the most communal. It asks the monk to fit himself into the community, to respect the practice of the elders. Ultimately, learning to be at ease in community, neither neurotic about conforming nor feeling a need to not conform is a sign of maturity and humility.
3. This discussion of humility has emphasized the contrast between God's infinite perfection and our own limits. It has not spoken much about comparing oneself with others. The gospels and Benedict's Rule both speak of counting oneself the least. This doesn't mean you should think of yourself as worthless. Rather it means that you know that everything you have is a gift. Knowing that, you can both accept a compliment and give what you have away. It also means that you give the other the benefit of the doubt, since you don't know their inner disposition, their constraints and the blessings with which the other works. You do know yours, and you are ready to serve others, just as Christ was.
A Theological Definition
Karl Rahner formulated the following definition of humility:
The disposition of the human being who, conscious of his radical distance from God, who is perfect Being, has gratefully and courageously taken to himself God's self-emptying in his Son (Phil 2.2-8) and the transformation (elevation) therein revealed of the little and the weak of this world into the great of the kingdom of God (Mt 18.4 and parallel passages). This humble self-acceptance is expressed particularly in acceptance (forgiveness, endurance) of the weakness of one's fellow man and in readiness to serve him and God.3
This definition merits some commentary. Humility is a disposition, a virtue or habit of heart that permeates one's whole outlook. It is an outlook of human beings. Humility is related to the Latin word "humus," which means earth or ground. The word "human" comes from the sent root. Humility is to recognize both the earthiness of human existence. Humility recognizes that we are created to be with all natural things and all people, in an interconnected web of life. Our ultimate ground is God, who is radically distant, but nevertheless present wherever God's creative power is at work. This God who is utterly transcendent and imminent brings human beings and all else into existence; otherwise they are not. God is—all else is brought to be by God. Our greatness and our fragility and limits spring from the same source. One might even say they are ultimately identical. We are something, somebody, but derivatively, by the gift of Another.
However, historically4 and theologically, humility is rooted primarily not in the human beings status as limited created beings, but in the example and teaching of the Son of God "who emptied himself" (Phil 2.7). Jesus, the incarnate Son, was meek and humble of heart (Mt 11.29). He taught that those who are last shall be first, that those who welcome children with childlike openness and who make themselves the servants of all are the great in the Kingdom of God.
Another dimension of our limitation and imperfection is not simply given but comes from sin, bad habit, bad example, and the failure of human beings to nurture one another. St. Bernard says that "Humility has two feet: appreciation of divine power and consciousness of personal weakness." The Cloud of Unknowing echoes this: "There are two causes of this meekness: one is the foulness, wretchedness and weakness into which a man has fallen by sin…. The other is the superabundant love and worthiness of God himself."
The humble person gratefully and courageously takes to himself Christ's humility. If we really recognize all that we are is God's gift, then we will be thankful. That gratitude will show itself in the courage to follow Christ in his self-emptying on behalf of others. Humility is not a virtue of the fearful, but of the courageous. Self-emptying is glorification. Those who are "little and weak" by worldly measures are "great" in God eyes.
Humility is acceptance of our status as human beings, dust from dust, but redeemed and ennobled by the Son of God. Hence, humility is truth. One who is humble does need to resort to deception to bolster his self-esteem; or does he need to compete or envy others. The humble person accepts both her gifts and her limitations.
This self-acceptance is expressed particularly in acceptance, forgiveness and patience for others and in readiness to serve other and God. To serve here means to be at their disposal, to be ready to perform any task on their behalf.
1. Healthy humility is not the result of having never accomplished anything, but a readiness to let go of what one has accomplished. Humility is having a self, but being ready to give it away.
2. To reiterate a point already made: humility, clear-sighted avowal of one's fragility and weakness opens us to compassion for others sufferings and limitations.
3. Yves Congar somewhere wrote that medieval authors find two motivations for prayer: God's mercy (misericordia) and human misery (miseria). Recognizing one's own sinfulness leads one to entrust oneself to the divine mercy. St. Bernard distinguished cold humility that is a matter of severe truth, and humility inspired by charity toward God and others. Christ's humble service was inspired solely by love.5
ELDER MOSES THE ATHONITE
"HUMILITY, THE FOUNDATION OF ALL VIRTUES"
"HUMILITY, THE FOUNDATION OF ALL VIRTUES"