What is humbleness, and what is its significance? What did the fathers say commending it? What does the Holy Scripture say about it? What is its place among and its relationship with virtues? What is its relationship with high gifts, with grace, and with trials? How can a person be humble?
All this and more we would tackle – God willing – in a series of articles on this important topic, so that you may know what this great virtue is, and what other virtues it implies.
Humbleness and other virtues:
Humbleness is the basis for all virtues, or rather the fence that protects all virtues and all gifts. We can consider it the first virtue in spiritual life, which is like a spiritual building on top of which stands love towards God and people.
It is therefore the start point, as the Lord of glory started the Sermon on the Mount with the blessings, saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are the meek …" (Mt 5: 3, 5)
Any virtue void of humbleness is in danger of being swept away by the devil of vainglory, or wasted by boasting, pride, and self-conceit.
If therefore the grace granted you success in a certain virtue, you should ask the Lord to grant you such humbleness with it that enables you to forget that you have this virtue, or to recognize that it is much lesser if compared with the virtues of the saints. The same applies if God grants you a certain sublime gift, you should implore God to give you a humble heart, or else take it away from you lest you fall because of it in pride and perish.
It is good that God gives His gifts to the humble, because He knows that they will not cause them any harm.
For His divine incarnation, He chose a humble girl who felt contrition when facing such great glory, as she said, "For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant" "Henceforth all generations will call me blessed." (Lk 1: 48). We also read that God reveals His secrets to the humble and gives them grace (Jas 4: 6; 1 Pet 5: 5; Prov 3: 34). The more glory such people they receive, the more humble and contrite they become before God.
Humbleness is not a separate virtue, but linked with other virtues.
It is like the beads of a rosary, each bead alone has no value unless joined with the other beads by the thread. Likewise, any virtue that does not involve humbleness cannot be a virtue, for humbleness is the fence that protects the other virtues from vainglory.
The Lord Christ in whom all virtues are combined with perfection, desiring to instruct His disciples to take Him as an example, said, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart." (Mt 11: 29) He mentioned these two virtues only although He possesses all other virtues. He could have said, 'Learn from Me wisdom, love, compassion, calmness, ministry, teaching, or strong personality", but He focused on these two virtues only because of their extreme importance.
Humbleness also is outstanding in the sayings and biographies of the church fathers.
Mar Isaac says, 'I want to speak about humbleness, but I am afraid, like one desiring to speak about God, because humbleness was the garment which the Divinity put on when He appeared among us. The devils therefore tremble on seeing a humble person, because they see in him the image of His Creator who defeated them.
How wonderful indeed are these words on humbleness!
Humbleness can overcome devils.
This is clear in the story of Abba Mak'ar the Great, to whom the devil appeared and said, 'Woe to you, Mak'ara, what things you do and we do not! You fast and we do not eat; you keep watch, and we do not sleep; you dwell in the wilderness and desert, and we likewise. Yet with one thing you prevail over us.' When the saint asked what thing that, the devil said, 'By your humbleness you prevail over us.' This is natural because the devil cannot be humble, for he is always arrogant and stubborn. Therefore, none but the humble can prevail over the devil, for humbleness is the thing he lacks.
The importance of humbleness is clear in the biography of St. Abba Anthony.
This great saint saw the snares of the devils set on the whole earth, so he prostrated himself before God, crying, 'O Lord, who can escape these snares?!' He heard a voice from heaven saying, 'The humble escape them.'
The humble escape these snares, because, feeling their weakness, they rely on God's power that is capable of supporting and protecting against the snares of the devil.
On the contrary, the wise rely on their own wisdom, the powerful rely on their own power, and the righteous rely on their own righteousness. The humble unlike those is sure, and admits, having no power, wisdom, or righteousness of their own, but it is God who supports their weakness and fights for them, a matter which the devil fears very much.
That is why casting out the devils mainly needs humbleness. It is true that the Lord said, "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting." (Mt 17: 21) but this is because prayer and fasting are a sign of humbleness. Who prays admits implicitly that he has no power of his own, therefore he asks for power from above through prayer. Even when that person succeeds in casting out the devil, he will not boast of that, knowing that it is God's power that cast out the devil in response to the prayer. Furthermore, true fasting is that in which man is contrite and humbled before God, feeling his weakness.
Devils fled because of the humbleness of St. Anthony.
St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, when fought violently by the demons, used to say to them with humbleness, 'O you powerful, what do you want from me, I the weak? I am unable to fight even the least of you.' He used to pray, saying, 'Save me, O Lord, from those who suppose I am of any value, while I am dust and ashes!' This prayer full of humbleness always made the devils dispersed like smoke on hearing it. So wonderful was the humbleness of the saints!
Those saints were not only humble before God and people, but also before the devils, and by this humbleness they conquered them. This is clear in the biographies of saints like Ss. Anthony and Mak'arius the Great.
The greatness of humbleness appears clear if compared with the awfulness of the opposite vice, that is, pride and haughtiness. Pride brought down an angel from heaven and turned him into a devil.
The first sin the world knew was pride, in which Satan fell, as recorded in the words of the divine inspiration to that falling angel, "For you have said in your heart: 'I will ascend into heave, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God … I will be like the Most High. Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit." (Isa 14: 13, 14)
With the same sin, Satan tempted our first parents.
As he had said in his heart, "I will become like the Most High", he afterwards said to our first parents, "You will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen 3: 5) This means that pride seeks always to rise higher even though it is already high. Satan was a cherub, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty (Ezek 28: 14, 12), and man was in God's image, according to His likeness (Gen 1: 26, 27), yet they wanted to rise high, but in their pride they were brought down, as the Lord says:
"For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Lk 14: 11)
The angel seeking to rise high fell down into the lowest depths of the pit, lost his rank as an angel, and became a devil. Man likewise, though in God's image, seeking to rise high, lost his divine image, was driven away from the garden, and suffered much. The hardest thing a proud person may face is God's resistance against him. For in same time when God showed compassion upon the sinners and tax collectors leading them to repentance, we see the apostle saying the serious words:
"God resists the proud." (Jas 4: 6)
What is the destiny of those who God resists? Do you expose yourself to the resistance of God? Yet we have comfort in the rest of the verse, "but He gives grace to the humble."
Let us fear the words of the divine inspiration, "The day of the Lord of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up – and it shall brought low – upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan; upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up … the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day." (Isa 2: 12- 17)
Much more will be said next week – God willing.