Excerpts on the Virtue of Humility (Saint John of the Ladder)

NOTE: The Orthodox Fathers have an entirely different view than modern science and psychology on the subject of humiliation and its effects. Patristic texts encourage Christians to seek every opportunity to be embarrassed, humbled, shamed, derided, insulted, bullied, etc. Though research shows many of these things can lead one to various neuroses and psychopathological disorders, the Fathers teach these things to be part of the narrow path to theosis, and the only way to salvation. Geronda Ephraim said in a homily on struggling to acquire humility: “If you’re praying to God to give you humility, you are essentially asking him to humble you and you are asking to be humbled…” Geronda Ephraim places a lot of emphasis on acquiring humility, which is holiness. Blind obedience is taught as the shortcut to acquire humility. The following quotes are from the Ladder of Divine Ascent, also known as The Monastic Bible. In many monasteries, it is a tradition to read this book during Trapeza meals throughout Great Lent.

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Let us pay close attention to ourselves so that we are not deceived into thinking that we are following the strait and narrow way when in actual fact we are keeping to the wide and broad way. The following will show you what the narrow way means: mortification of the stomach, all-night standing, water in moderation, short rations of bread, the purifying draught of dishonour, sneers, derision, insults, the cutting out of one’s own will, patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry; when condemned, to be humble. Blessed are they who follow the way we have just described, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (Step 2:8)

Exile means…desire for humiliation… (Step 3:1)

Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. (Step 4:3)

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And there was to be seen among them an awful and angelic sight: venerable and white-haired elders of holy beauty running about in obedience like children and taking a great delight in their humiliation. There I have seen men who had spent some fifty years in obedience. And when I asked them to tell me what consolation they had gained from so great a labour, some of them replied that they had attained to deep humility with which they had permanently repelled every assault. Others said that they had obtained complete insensibility and freedom from pain in calumnies and insults. (Step 4:20)

…But knowing that Macedonius was telling him an untruth and that he sought punishment only for the sake of humility, the Saint yielded to the good wish of the ascetic… (Step 4:31)

When their physician noticed that some liked to display themselves before people of the world who were visiting the monastery, then in the presence of such visitors he subjected them to extreme insults and gave them the most humiliating task, so that they began to beat a hasty retreat, and the arrival of secular visitors proved to be their victory. (Step 4:33)

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From obedience comes humility, and from humility comes dispassion … Therefore nothing prevents us from saying that from obedience comes dispassion, through which the goal of humility is attained. (Step 4:71)

I have seen a religious who used to snatch the words from his superior’s lips, but I despaired of his obedience when I saw it led to pride and not to humility. (Step 4:79)

Insults, humiliations and similar things are like the bitterness of wormwood to the soul of a novice; while praises, honours and approbation are like honey and give birth to all manner of sweetness in pleasure-lovers. But let us look at the nature of each: wormwood purifies all interior filth, while honey increases gall. (Step 4:103)

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Let us trust with firm confidence those who have taken upon themselves the care of us in the Lord, even though they order something apparently contrary and opposed to our salvation. For it is then that our faith in them is tested as in a furnace of humiliation. For it is a sign of the truest faith if we obey our superiors without any hesitation, even when we see the opposite of what we had hoped for happening. (Step 4:104)

When a foolish person is accused or shouted at he is wounded by it and tries to contradict, or at once makes an apology to his accuser, not out of humility but in order to stop the accusations. But when you are being ridiculed, be silent, and receive with patience these spiritual cauterizations, or rather, purifying flames. And when the doctor has finished, then ask his forgiveness. For while he is angry perhaps he will not accept your apology. (Step 4:116)

I saw there [i.e. the Prison] some who seemed from their demeanour and their thoughts to be out of their mind. In their great disconsolateness they had become like dumb men in complete darkness, and were insensible to the whole of life. Their minds had already sunk to the very depths of humility, and had burnt up the tears in their eyes with the fire of their despondency. (Step 5:10)

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Others out of unspeakable humility condemned themselves as unworthy of forgiveness, and would cry out that it was not within their power to justify themselves before God. (Step 5:11)

Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. (Step 6:8)

A vivid remembrance of death cuts down food; and when in humility food is cut, the passions are cut out too. (Step 6:12)

A characteristic of those who are still progressing in blessed mourning is temperance and silence of the lips, and of those who have made progress—freedom from anger and patient endurance of injuries; and of the perfect—humility, thirst for dishonours, voluntary craving for involuntary afflictions, non-condemnation of sinners, compassion even beyond one’s strength. The first are acceptable, the second laudable; but blessed are those who hunger for hardship and thirst for dishonour, for they shall have their fill of the food that does not cloy. (Step 7:4)

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If nothing goes so well with humility as mourning, certainly nothing is so opposed to it as laughter. (Step 7:8)

Drive away with the hand of humility every transitory joy, as being unworthy of it, lest by readily admitting it you receive a wolf instead of a shepherd. (Step 7:57)

It is not he who depreciates himself who shows humility (for who will not put up with himself?) but he who maintains the same love for the very man who reproaches him. (Step 22:17)

Vainglory incites monks given to levity to anticipate the arrival of lay guests and to go out of the cloister to meet them. It makes them fall at their feet and, though full of pride, it feigns humility. (Step 22:22)

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The Lord often brings the vainglorious to a state of humility through the dishonour that befalls them. (Step 22:38)

The beginning of pride is the consummation of vainglory; the middle is the humiliation of our neighbor… (Step 23:2)

It is one thing to be humble, another to strive for humility, and another to praise the humble. The first belongs to the perfect, the second to the truly obedient, and the third to all the faithful. (Step 25:19)

Humility is a divine shelter to prevent us from seeing our achievements. Humility is an abyss of self-abasement… (Step 25:26)

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It is impossible for snow to burst into flame; still more difficult is it for humility to dwell in an unorthodox person. This is something which the pious and faithful achieve, and then only when they have been purified. (Step 25:32)

If the limit and rule and characteristic of extreme pride is for a man to feign such virtues as he does not possess for the sake of glory, then it follows that a sign of the deepest humility will be to cheapen ourselves by pretending to have faults that we do not possess. (Step 25:44)

We should unceasingly condemn and reproach ourselves so as to cast off involuntary sins through voluntary humiliations. Otherwise, if we do not, at our departure we shall certainly be subjected to heavy punishment. (Step 25:55)

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The ever-memorable Fathers laid down that the way to humility and its foundations is bodily toil. And I would say obedience and honesty of heart, because they are naturally opposed to self-esteem. (Step 25:62)

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