Humility – The Only Path Forward in Orthodoxy

Humility certainly figures prominently in anybody’s list of virtues, and most people are more than a little aware of pride playing some role in their spirtual failures. However, knowing that pride is a problem and that humility is a virtue is not saying that we know anything about humility.

First, humility is not precisely the opposite of pride nor is it merely the absence of pride. It is not an absence, but, mysteriously, is truly a fullness (something true of all virtue). Indeed for us, as Christians, to speak of something as a virtue is to recognize that it has a manifestation of the character of Christ. For He truly is the fullness of virtue, and the stature of His fullness is the measure God has set for us in our life in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

St. Paul offers the most complete description and admonition to true humility:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

This passage is among the most profound in its revelation of the inner life of Christ. St. Paul says of Christ that he “emptied” Himself – theologically referred to as the kenosis. It is this emptying that at the same time gathers into Christ the fullness of our broken humanity and all creation. His complete emptiness before death is also His complete fullness that will burst forth at Pascha.

More than that, St. Paul makes of this central act of Christ the central act of our own obedience. We are “to have this mind among ourselves – it is God’s gift to us in Christ Jesus. It is not a description of behavior we should try to live up to (morality) – but a description of a charism God has bestowed on us in our union with Christ. In Christ we are able to become empty – in a way that makes room for the other – even the whole universe. It is, I believe, another description of love.

I offer this short explication of humility and will add one other note – this from St. Silouan of Mt. Athos – perhaps the most profound in his grasp of humility of any man in recent years.

When the soul comes to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit, how humble and meek He is, she [the soul] sees herself as the worst of all sinners, and is happy to sit in shabby raiment in the ashes like Job, while she beholds other men in the Holy Spirit shining in the likeness of Christ.

And this:

God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (James 4:6).

I turn now to the second part of this posting – the path forward in Orthodoxy. The only path for Orthodoxy is the path that leads to union with God and with one another. There can be no institutional goals apart from this path, for the Church would not be Orthodox were it not in union with God and with itself.

Of course, there are many instances where the unity of the Church is greatly strained. We live under the strain of multiple jurisdictions where only one should exist. We live with tensions between ancient patriarchates. Some of this is nothing new. Church history is filled with the accounts both of God’s grace at work in the Church and of some in the Church refusing the grace that was given.

In my own jurisdiction (the Orthodox Church in America) we have our own struggles, disagreeable matters that provoke anger as well as discussion. I have chosen generally not to discuss such matters on this blog (it is not my gift). This posting itself is not an invitation to discuss the particular difficulties within the life of the OCA or elsewhere My interest is to speak to every scandal – from a minor distraction in the local parish – to the largest difficulties that face us collectively. For in all scandal there is only one path forward – the path of humility. Justice is not a path, for we will not see justice in this life or receive from it the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions – but simply not to believe that such accountability will move us further along the path to which we have been called.

That path is nothing less than the humility of Christ, the mind we were commanded to have among ourselves and which is God’s own gift to us. Humility will not rejoice at the fall of another, but will weep and seek the restoration of a brother.

I believe it is the vocation of the Orthodox Church to demonstrate in its life the humility of Christ. We already embody this when, at the Vespers of Forgiveness, we prostrate ourselves before one another to ask forgiveness. Before the whole world, God Himself was prostrate, reconciling to Himself everyone and everything.

The next several years will probably be among the most important in quite some time for Orthodox Christians. Many possibilities and opportunities are open to us – but the only choice that one need make before such moments – is the choice to have the humble mind of Christ. That path takes us where we want to go – for that path alone leads to Christ.

Please do not reprint this article without specific permission of the author.

16 Responses to “Humility – The Only Path Forward in Orthodoxy”

  1. jamesthethickheaded Says:

    “The only path for Orthodoxy is the path that leads to union with God and with one another. There can be no institutional goals apart from this path, for the Church would not be Orthodox were it not in union with God and with itself.”

    Thank you. Easy to get distracted. Spread the Word. He is enough… yet so often we think we want or need more… to somehow add our own “flourish”. As if.

    Agree on the one hand that time is precious.. but at the same time, wonder that we don’t also need to pray for the patience to allow for the fullness of time… God’s time… not ours. Seems so often we press to make something happen where time, reflection, and prayer may offer more… both personally and up through the institutional level. We often try to make happen what only God can do. Prayer for leadership… true discipleship… and preparation to act in concert seems called for in so many of our Orthodox Churches that perhaps our struggles here are just a microcosm of those across the globe.

    We listen. We watch. We pray. We wait. Keep us posted.

  2. shevaberakhot Says:

    Humility gives us the perspective of Christ and if the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

    Apologies for the pithy statement.

  3. Fr Protodeacon David Kennedy Says:

    Thank you dear Father. It is a joy to read such words, words that point to the Word.

  4. Karen C Says:

    Dear Father, I’m so very thankful for your perspective–for indeed it reflects that of our Lord Himself.

    “In Christ we are able to become empty – in a way that makes room for the other – even the whole universe. It is, I believe, another description of love.”

    Very true and beautiful words–beautiful reality! There are no icons that have as yet struck my heart as deeply as that of the Bridegroom.

    shevaberakhot, no apologies necessary. Well said. (I am always far too talkative!)

  5. Handmaid Anna Says:

    Father Bless
    As a member of an outpost mission in the OCA, I needed this article to remind myself that we will become what we will be in God’s fullness of time, not ours. Thank you for helping me with my impatience and frustration that seems to surface its ugly head from time to time. And, to realize that we as a group need to have the humility to love one another in order to even attempt to “be” a mission.
    By your prayers

  6. mic Says:

    Forgive me Fr. Stephen, i re-posted “Kinder, Gentler” without your permission, please forgive me…in all honesty, i did not even think to ask, forgive my pressumption.

  7. Jason Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I mean no disrespect, but why did you feel it necessary to post the “copyright disclaimer.” I believe this is the first time I’ve seen it on your thoughtful blog, and being the curious fellow I am, I thought I would just ask.

    Thanks for your blogging ministry.

    Jason

  8. Richard Collins Says:

    Father,

    You recommended I read ‘The Arena’, which I am doing now and have been amazed by the simple wisdom contained in it. He discusses learning both how to ‘act’ as well as how to (or NOT how to!) ‘react’ saying the latter is harder than the former but gives us greater insight into the former.

    You mention in your post about humility not being a ‘moral’ pursuit, and I agree. It is not so much an ‘action’, but a cessation of ‘reacting’ to things that sting our inflated self-image and self-worth. You also mentioned in another post about the path of hesychasm including ‘don’t react’ and I tie these thoughts together.

    To be humble is to be quiet in the face of wrongs and arrogances and to only wish for the salvation of the wrong doer. From such ‘none reaction’ all other ‘actions’ should flow.

    Lord have mercy – this is a hard path and a hard word. I thank you for helping me to think many of these issues through.

  9. AR Says:

    Events in the Church these past weeks have caused me great grief and I’m glad to see this post here. It’s hard to know what to do with issues that are so large and so far beyond most of our grasp or involvement, but which affect us nonetheless. It reminds me of why we pray for our heierarchs so constantly. So you are right, Father. Humility must, must, must be the only way – it couldn’t have been any other answer. And I pray that is what comes out of all this.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Jason,

    I only posted it on this article (and normally never do) because there is a great deal of use and misuse on the internet regarding controversies and troubles in the Church. I have control over this website, but anyone else’s, and was simply protecting my carefully chosen words from being misused or de-contextualized or even appearing where I would prefer my name not appear. Not that anything on the net is ever really under your own control. But it seemed appropriate to me.

    You’ll not likely see such a note often – linking and copying are generally fine by me – attribution is a kindness – but since I’m Orthodox and don’t mean to say anything original, even attribution is only a kindness and not a necessity. If the words have any worth then they are not mine.

    Mic,

    No forgiveness necessary. As per the above. My “copyright” was only for this particular article. Sorry for the confusion. And thank you for the kindness of your thoughts.

  11. Mary Gail Says:

    Richard

    Can you supply the full reference to The Arena?

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    This is the book the Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov.

  13. Eleftheria Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your particular ministry. I have been reading, silently thanking you & God for quite some time. Your postings have more than once provided the necessary balm.
    You wrote:
    “For in all scandal there is only one path forward – the path of humility.”

    This is so relevant, so true – for the Body of Christ and for each member of that Body. A geronda once said that when people are scandalized by the words or actions of a priest or by a particular member of a church, that they fall face down and stay that way, never wanting again to go church, because of course, it’s just an excuse not to attend church. The geronda goes on to say that those people should remember to get up – onto their knees…the path of humilty, as you say.

  14. Ian Says:

    “The Arena” is a book I keep coming back to at Great Lent [I have alternated between it and my name/patron Saint’s “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” each year]; though I feel I should read it far more often. A truly inspiring, challenging and simply superb book.

    May God help us all. With my prayers and in Christ,
    Ian.

  15. Fr. Stephen on Humility « The Virtuous Life Says:

    […] the entire article here. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI […]

  16. The inverted pyramid | S I L O U A N Says:

    […] discussing this passage, Father Stephen Freeman quotes Archimandrite Zacharias: Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory […]

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