Today we will conclude our seven-part series of teachings by St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north. Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine. Today’s concluding chapter is, “Humility and Love.” Much of St. Theophan’s teachings come to us in the form of letters he wrote to lay persons so his advice is very practical and down-to-earth for those who are trying to grow spiritually. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.
BEGIN: You say that you have no humility or love. So long as these are absent, everything spiritual is absent. What is spiritual is born when they are born and grows as they grow. They are the same for the soul as mastery of the flesh is for the body. Humility is acquired by acts of humility, love by acts of love.
-- Keep both eyes open. This is the measure of humility: if a man is humble he never thinks that he has been treated worse than he deserves. He stands so low in his own estimation that no one, however hard they try, can think more poorly of him than he thinks himself. This is the whole secret of the matter.
-- The Lord sometimes leaves in us some defects of character in order that we should learn humility. For without them we would immediately soar above the clouds in our own estimation and would place our throne there. And herein lies perdition.
-- There is no need for me to repeat to you that the invincible weapon against all our enemies is humility. It is not easily acquired. We can think ourselves humble without having a trace of true humility. And we cannot think ourselves humble merely by thinking about it. The best, or rather, the only sure way to humility is by obedience and the surrender of our own will. Without this it is possible to develop a satanic pride in ourselves, while being humble in words and in bodily postures. I beg you to pay attention to this point and, in all fear, examine the order of your life. Does it include obedience and surrender of your will? Out of all the things you do, how many are done contrary to your own will, your own ideas and reflections? Do you do anything unwillingly, simply because you are ordered, through sheer obedience? Please examine it all thoroughly and tell me. If there is nothing of this type of obedience, the kind of life you lead will not bring you to humility. No matter how much you may humble yourself in thought, without deeds leading to self-abasement humility will not come. So you must think carefully how to arrange for this.
-- Spiritual unrest and passions harm the blood and effectively damage our health. Fasting and a general abstinence in our daily life are the best way to preserve our health sound and vigorous.
Prayer introduces the human spirit into God’s realm where the rock of life dwells; and the body also, led by the spirit, partakes of that life. A contrite spirit, feelings of repentance, and tears - these do not diminish our physical strength but add to it, for they bring the soul to a state of comfort.
You wish that contrition and tears would never leave you, but you had better wish that the spirit of deep humility should always reign in you. This brings tears and contrition, and it also prevents us from being puffed up with pride at having them. For the enemy manages to introduce poison even through such things as these.
There is also spiritual hypocrisy which may accompany contrition. True contrition does not interfere with pure spiritual joy, but can exist in harmony with it, concealed behind it.
And what of self-appreciation? Take up the sword of humility and meekness, hold it always in your hand, and mercilessly cut off the head of our chief foe. END
From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 271 - 274.