September-October 2018

Post date: Jan 10, 2019 3:01:00 AM

Icons have always been a means of teaching the faith. From depictions of the great feasts of the Church, to events in the lives of the saints, they tell a story about who God is and who we are in relation to Him. One of the icons that elo­­quent­ly speaks about God is that of the Extreme Humil­i­ty. A brief explanation of this icon at iconreader.wordpress .com says:

At the arrival of unjust persecution, bow your head. At the jeers of false accusations, cross your arms over your heart, whether physically or interiorly, and gratefully receive what is spitefully offered. And when faced with the question, ‘How far, how far do I tolerate this shame, this injustice’, remember that the answer is the grave. This is what the icon labels ‘Ex­treme Humility’, and it is humility that we must strive to emu­late each day. (Hieromonk Irenaeus)

In contrast with this description stand the vices of vain­glory (or self-esteem) and pride.

St. John Cassian wrote about these vices as he advised a bishop by the name of Kastor. About self-esteem, he said:

When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothing, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to en­dure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for the sake of praise (Philokalia v.1 p.90).

Some instances of vainglory and pride are easy to iden­ti­fy. The expression that one is “full of himself” is one way to de­scribe such instances. But pride finds its way in by more in­sidious means.

Pride often whispers in our ears that we should measure ourselves by certain standards and leads us into depression and unhealthy behaviors when we fall short. We become ill and are unable to do as much for the church, or financial hardships come and things change. We become unable to do the things we used to, or to fulfill our stewardship and we are tempted to fade away. A toxic kind of shame tells us that we are less of a person than we were before misfortune befell us. How can we continue to show up? What will other people think? These negative thoughts, known in Church tradition as logismoi, assault us and weaken us. After all, Christians will continue to see Christ within us and remember that we are created in the image and likeness of God. And God will rejoice that we are part of those gath­er­ed together in His name.

Self-esteem sometimes whispers in our ears that we are fine—we do not need to change, we do not need to repent, we do not need to learn more about ourselves or God. The road of re­pen­tance is at times difficult and pride makes it easy to listen to the logismoi that allow us to take the easy way. And yet, a desert father, Ab­ba Sisoes, on his death bed, said that he had not yet begun to repent. The Church com­mem­o­rates him on July 6 as St. Sisoes the Great.

In a related way, pride can color our re­ac­tions to criticism. It whispers to us that, after all, if we are fine, any suggestion that something about us needs to change can only come be­cause the person making the suggestion dislikes us. Anger is certainly justified in that case, for how dare someone make such a suggestion?

We can clearly see the pervasiveness of these vices and the care needed to avoid them. To help us in doing that, let us return to St. John Cassian. Against self-esteem, he counsels: The person who wants to engage fully in spirit­ual combat and to win the crown of right­eous­ness must try by every means to overcome this beast that assumes such varied forms. He should always keep in mind the words of Da­vid: “The Lord has scattered the bones of those who please men” (Ps. 53:5). He should not do any­­thing with a view to being praised by other peo­ple, but should seek God's reward only, al­ways rejecting the thoughts of self-praise that enter his heart and always regarding himself as nothing before God. In this way he will be freed, with God's help, from the demon of self-esteem (Philokalia v.1 p.92).

With regard to pride, the saint counsels:

We should feel fear and guard our hearts with ex­treme care from the deadly spirit of pride. When we have attained some degree of holi­ness we should always repeat to ourselves the words of the apostle: 'Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me' (1 Cor. 15:10), as well as what was said by the Lord: 'Without Me you can do nothing' (Jn. 15:5) [...] The thief who re­ceiv­ed the kingdom of heaven, though not as the reward of virtue, is a true witness to the fact that salvation is ours through the grace and mercy of God. All of your holy fathers knew this and all with one accord teach that per­fec­tion in holiness can be achieved only through humility. Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentle­ness, and the shedding of all possessions. (Philo­kalia v.1. p.94)

Let us pay attention to our thoughts and the state of our hearts and listen to the counsels of St. John, that we may be free of self-esteem and pride, gain humility, and become perfect as our Father is perfect

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter