Laying a foundation

28 January OS 2018 – 17th Sunday of St. Matthew (the Canaanite Woman), Ss. Ephraim and Isaac the Syrians

The reading from the Gospel for our saints of today is the usual passage read for a monastic saint.

The Lord said to His disciples: All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11: 27-30

In commenting on this passage, St. Theophylact says the following about verses 29 and 30, regarding the easy yoke and light burden laid upon Christ’s disciples:

The yoke of Christ is humility and meekness. For he who humbles himself before all men has rest and remains untroubled; but he who is vainglorious and arrogant is ever encompassed by troubles as he does not wish to be less than anyone but is always thinking how to be esteemed more highly and how to defeat his enemies. Therefore the yoke of Christ, which is humility, is light, for it is easier for our lowly nature to be humbled than to be exalted. But all the commandments of Christ are also called a yoke, and they are light because of the reward to come, even though for a time they appear heavy. – The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, p. 99 (Chrysostom Press, House Springs, MO 1992)

We normally do not think of ourselves as vainglorious and arrogant people strutting through life, constantly seeking praise and scheming against our enemies.   The passion of vanity, however, is in fact a deep-seated problem for nearly everyone; it simply comes with the human condition.   Most if not all our irrational fears and anxiety are related to this passion.

Pride is the most deep-seated of the passions. It is the dumb conviction of the heart that the heart is the source of its own life. Vanity is a secondary or derivative aspect of pride, operating in the faculties of the mind, especially memory and imagination: it is the false image, the collection of erroneous ideas we have about ourselves, whether positive or negative. It is the mental idol of the ego on the basis of the deep-seated pride in the heart, formed by misuse of the mind. You might think of the ego as a grotesque pagan statue on a grim iron pedestal: the pedestal is pride of heart, and the statue is the false self, the ego, the portrait of oneself formed by the mind according to vanity. When others throw stones at the statue, we are enraged, because it is our god.   We cannot help throwing stones at it ourselves, because it is indeed hateful, and this is what leads to depression and despair.   If one’s god is hateful, what is the point of life?

If one wants to conduct an active and conscious spiritual life rather than treating the duties of faith only outwardly, it is essential to recognize that everyone, including oneself, suffers from pride and vanity.   We Orthodox Christians, however, if we have not de-activated the grace of baptism through sin (we never lose it, except by apostasy, but we can render it non-functioning – not dynamic though retaining its potency – through serious and un-repented sins which separate us from Holy Communion), have the energy of God within us to become aware of these passions, to take steps by God’s grace to heal them, and, by God’s grace, to transform them – to transform pride into complete, final, spontaneous confession from the depths of the heart that God is God and we are not, and to transform vanity into accurate self-knowledge in our daily lives. Taken together, this is called humility, and with humility come joy, gratitude, meekness, courage, patience, and all the radiant ensemble of the virtues.

What is step one?   To get rid of pride and vainglory, we have to undertake a difficult spiritual struggle, and the minute we make the resolve to do so, our pride and vainglory are jumping up and saying, “I’ll do it! I’ll struggle and get rid of pride and vainglory!”   A real puzzle, is it not? How do we get rid of the problem that we are unconsciously and instinctively convinced is the power that solves our problems? So the first step in spiritual life is to renounce reliance on oneself and to place all-daring trust and complete reliance on God. This is the subject of chapters two, three, and four of a book we should all have on our shelves, Unseen Warfare, as edited by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse.   Always better to obtain and read the book, of course (I found used copies of the St. Vladimir Seminary Press paperback available online just now for as little as fourteen dollars), but one could also read it on the screen here:

Here is the beginning of chapter two. Please do read, and join me in trying to do what the author says:

“Not to rely on oneself is so necessary in our struggle, my beloved brother, that without this, be assured, not only will you fail to gain the desired victory, but you will be unable to resist the smallest attack of the enemy. Engrave this deeply in your mind and heart. Since the time of the transgression of our forefather, despite the weakening of our spiritual and moral powers, we are wont to think very highly of ourselves. Although our daily experience very effectively proves to us the falseness of this opinion of ourselves, in our incomprehensible self-deception we do not cease to believe that we are something, and something not unimportant. Yet this spiritual disease of ours, so hard to perceive and acknowledge, is more abhorrent to God than alt else in us, as being the first offspring of our self-hood and self-love, and the source, root and cause of all passions and of all our downfalls and wrong-doing. It closes the very door of our mind or spirit, through which alone Divine grace can enter, and gives this grace no way to come and dwell in a man. And so it withdraws from him. For how can grace, which comes to help and enlighten us, enter that man, who thinks of himself that he is something great, that he himself knows everything and needs no outside help?—May God preserve us from this disease and passion of Lucifer!—God severely reprimands those who are stricken with this passion of vainglory and self-esteem, saving through the prophet: Woe unto them that arc wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight” (Isaiah v. 21). And the Apostle tells us: ‘Be not wise in your own conceits’ (Rom. xii. 16).

“While God abhors this evil conceit in us, there is nothing He loves and desires to see in us more than a sincere consciousness of our nothingness and a firm and deep-felt conviction that any good we may have in. our nature and our life comes from Him alone, since He is the source of all good, and that nothing truly good can ever come from ourselves, whether a good thought or a good action. Therefore He takes care to plant this heavenly seed in the hearts of His beloved friends, urging them not to value themselves and not to rely on themselves. Sometimes He does this through the action of grace and inner illumination, or sometimes through external blows and tribulations’ sometimes through unexpected and almost unconquerable temptations, and sometimes by other means, not always comprehensible to us. Yet, although expecting no good from ourselves and not relying on ourselves is the work of God in us, we on our side must make every effort to acquire this disposition, doing all we can, all within our power. And so, my brother, I offer you here four activities, by means of which, with God’s help, you may end by acquiring disbelief in yourself, and learn never to rely on yourself in anything.

“(a) realise your nothingness and constantly keep in your mind the fact that by yourself you can do nothing good which is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Listen to the words of the wise fathers: Peter of Damascus assures us that ‘nothing is better than to realise one’s weakness and ignorance, and nothing is worse than not to be aware of them’ (Philokalia). St. Maximus the Confessor teaches: ‘The foundation of every virtue is the realisation of human weakness’ (Philokalia). St. John Chrysostom says: ‘He alone knows himself in the best way possible who thinks of himself as being nothing.’

“(b) Ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers; for this is His gift. And if you wish to receive it, you must first implant in yourself the conviction that not only have you no such consciousness of yourself, but that you cannot acquire it by your own efforts; then standing daringly before the Almighty God, in firm belief that in His great loving kindness He will grant you this knowledge of yourself when and how He Himself knows, do not let the slightest doubt creep in that you will actually receive it.

“(c) Accustom yourself to be wary and to fear your innumerable enemies whom you cannot resist even for a short time. Fear their long experience in fighting us, their cunning and ambushes, their power to assume the guise of angels of light, their countless wiles and nets, which they secretly spread on the path of your life of virtues.

“(d) If you fall into some transgression, quickly turn to the realisation of your weakness and be aware of it. For God allows you to fall for the very purpose of making you more aware of your weakness, so that you may thus not only yourself learn to despise yourself, but because of your great weakness may wish to be despised also by others. Know that without such desire it is impossible for this beneficent self-disbelief to be born and take root in you. This is the foundation and beginning of true humility, since it is based on realisation, by experience, of your impotence and unreliability.”

By the prayers of Ss. Ephraim and Isaac, of Ss. Nicodemus and Theophan, and all the saints,  may we begin the blessed path towards saving humility.  Amen.

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